It's been a month and a half since LeBron James took some time out of his busy schedule of battling the Chicago Bulls during the 2015 Eastern Conference semifinals to send a smile and a wink over to Bulls legend Scottie Pippen:
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In an interview with Chris Haynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group, Pippen said that the player comparisons that have followed James from St. Vincent-St. Mary through every night of his first-ballot Hall of Fame career — chiefly the scoring dominance of Michael Jordan and the playmaking brilliance of Magic Johnson — and the attendant debates over which legend James most resembles have tended to leave out one all-timer near and dear to Pippen's heart:
"I was LeBron James before LeBron James," Bulls great Scottie Pippen told Northeast Ohio Media Group. "It's not even close." [...]
Playing alongside Jordan, arguably the greatest player to ever play the game, in many ways, took away from Pippen's greatness and often excludes him from the James discussion — even though Pippen and Jordan led the Bulls to six NBA titles.
"I'm no slouch, but when comparing LeBron's game, I'm usually left out," he said. [...]
"They want to compare him to the greatest whether it be Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson, but he's more closer to myself," Pippen said. "It's natural for folks to say that, but if you look at how he plays the game and how I played the game, you'll see more similarities with us."
On one hand, you might consider this a bit of rose-colored-glasses revisionist history, a case of the 49-year-old Pippen bigging himself up in a comparison that, in terms of statistical and individual production, tilts heavily toward LeBron. But dismissing the comparison gives short shrift to Pippen, one of the most versatile, valuable and excellent perimeter players the game's ever seen.
Only four players in NBA history have averaged at least 16 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals per game over the course of a full career: Jordan, Pippen, Clyde Drexler and Rick Barry. During his peak in Chicago — from the 1989-90 season that saw him make the first of seven All-Star appearances through the 1997-98 season, when he was limited to 44 games by foot surgery but played an integral role in finishing off the Bulls' second three-peat — Pippen averaged 20 points, seven rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block in 38 minutes per game.
He did all that while playing historically elite perimeter defense — six All-Defensive First Team berths and two Second Team nods in that span; 10 total All-Defensive selections in his career, along with seven All-NBA picks — and acting as arguably Chicago's best offensive facilitator, playmaker and passer. He wasn't quite as explosive as he used to be when he moved on to Portland, but he ostensibly served as the point forward on the 1999-2000 Trail Blazer team that gave the eventual-champion Shaq-and-Kobe Los Angeles Lakers their stiffest test.
That brief overview doesn't quite do it justice — do yourself a favor and check out Chicagoan and Bulls-watcher Kelly Dwyer's expansive and excellent column on Pippen from his 2010 enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame — but it offers the broad strokes. The size of a prototype small forward with a power-forward-size wingspan ... the handle and playmaking gift of an elite point man ... the vision and think-three-steps-ahead foresight of a coach on the floor ... and, when the mood struck, the willingness, determination and ability to attack the rim and bring the thunder like a top-flight off guard.
Pippen was one of the 50 greatest NBA players of all time (at that time), a playmaker for himself and others, and a wing capable of disrupting your entire offense with his athleticism and smarts. LeBron's on another level in terms of generating his own offense (though he he hasn't been as consistently excellent a defender as Pippen was) and maybe you don't quite like the phrasing of "LeBron before LeBron," but given the sheer number of boxes Pippen could tick off, the comparison's a lot closer than you might think.
For what it's worth, James himself sees it, as he noted earlier this season after passing Pippen for first place among forwards on the NBA's all-time assist list. From The Associated Press:
James had 11 assists in Cleveland's 102-93 victory over the Detroit Pistons. In the process, he moved past Scottie Pippen for first place on the NBA career list for forwards. James now has 6,142 assists, seven more than Pippen.
"That means a tremendous amount to me," James said. "It means a lot more than passing Allen Iverson on the scoring list in the last game, because I have always taken so much pride in my passing game. To me, the greatest rush has always been helping my teammates succeed, not succeeding myself."
James wears No. 23 in Michael Jordan's honor, but breaking Pippen's record was special in another sense.
"When I grew up, I loved Michael, but when you are a kid, you don't think you can grow up and be Michael Jordan," he said. "I patterned a lot of my game after Scottie Pippen, because he was the kind of star I thought I could be. So that's a great feeling to break a record he owns."
Though he's typically tended to leave his own on-court exploits out of it, Pippen is no stranger to making outsized statements when it comes to LeBron and MJ.
Back in 2011, he said that while Michael "is probably the greatest scorer to ever play the game," James "may be the greatest player to ever play the game" when all's said and done, because "not only can he score at will, but he keeps everybody involved" and "he's also doing it on the defensive end, which really makes him a complete package." Pippen walked that back in the spring of 2012, saying that what he meant was that James' numbers would be better by the end of his career "only because he's going to get in more years than Michael Jordan."
The following May, though, Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning said that Pippen offered a more pro-LeBron perspective on the purely theoretical head-to-head matchup:
"You know, Scottie Pippen and I were just at Michael's 50th birthday party, hanging out for a week, and we were talking. I'm going to tell you what Scottie said," Mourning started. "I'm going to tell you what Scottie said."
What did Scottie say!?!?
"Scottie said that LeBron would've kicked MJ's ass," Mourning said.
"I said, 'Scottie, you're right,' but, because LeBron is my size," Mourning said. "He weighs 265, so when he's playing point guard, it's like a freight train coming. I couldn't imagine doing the things he's doing at my size."
Last October, Pippen reset his position during a Chicago radio interview:
HAUGH: Scottie, have you taken any grief since you talked last spring about the fact you might take LeBron over Michael? Did Michael give you any good-natured grief?
PIPPEN: No. Not at all. Did I ever say I would take LeBron over Michael? Where are you guys getting it from?
HAUGH: OK, what did you say then? You made a comparison to LeBron James and Michael and the perception was that you would take LeBron over Michael. What’s the reality?
PIPPEN: No, I did not say I would take LeBron over Michael. The reality is you need to go back and figure out what I said.
After going back over it all, maybe we all do ... Pip included. Or we could just leave well enough alone and stick with Scottie's insertion of himself in the LeBron conversation (LeBronversation)? I mean, if the comparison's good enough for the King, maybe it ought to be good enough for us, too.
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