Victors are determined decisively on the court, but one great joy of fandom outside the lines has no clear winner. We love to weigh the merits of our favorite players against each other, and yet a taproom full of basketball fans can never unanimously agree on the GOAT. In this series, we attempt to settle scores of NBA undercard debates — or at least give you fodder for your next “Who is better?” argument.
THE MATCHUP: Walt Frazier vs. Scottie Pippen
Pippen made his first All-Star team in the 1989-90 season and was the second-best player on a Chicago Bulls team that had won six of the NBA’s last eight titles in 1998, when preseason foot surgery likely cost him his final All-Star bid. He was coming into his own as a second-year player on a team that pushed the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons to six games in the 1989 Eastern Conference finals, and he produced into his mid-30s for the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers, but that window from 1989-98 is his prime.
In that nine-year span, Pippen averaged 19.6 points (54.4 true shooting percentage), 7.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 3.3 combined blocks and steals in 37.9 minutes per game, serving as the second fiddle for a team that won fewer than 55 games just once. He appeared on both the All-NBA and All-Defensive rosters each season from 1991-98, including a three-year stretch as a First Team selection for both. Those nine years featured six top-11 finishes in the Most Valuable Player voting, including a pair of top-five rankings.
The Bulls won the six rings, reached seven conference finals and never lost in the first round in those nine seasons. The two second-round losses in Pippen’s prime came in his only seasons playing without Michael Jordan full time. In 151 playoff games from 1990-98, Pippen averaged 19.2 points (52.5 true shooting percentage), 7.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 3.1 combined blocks and steals in 40.5 minutes a night.
Jordan’s status as the GOAT casts an immeasurable shadow over his career, but note that Pippen was the best player on a team that won 55 games and nearly made the conference finals sans Jordan in 1994. He finished third in the MVP race that year behind Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson, averaging career highs of 22 points (54.4 TS%), 8.7 rebounds and 3.7 blocks/steals with 5.6 assists in 38.3 minutes a game.
Walt Frazier made his leap as a second-year player in 1968-69, when he averaged a 21-7-9 for his New York Knicks in the playoffs, pushing Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell’s final title team to six games in the Eastern Conference finals. Signs of his steep decline began in 1976-77, when the Knicks finished sub-.500 and dealt Frazier to the Cleveland Cavaliers, for whom he played just 66 games over his final three seasons.
From 1968-77, Frazier averaged 20.4 points (54.6 true shooting percentage), 6.5 assists and 6.3 rebounds in 40 minutes per game, often as Willis Reed’s costar on teams that won 48-plus games in six of those nine seasons. Keep in mind the NBA did not adopt the 3-point line until Frazier’s career was essentially over, and the league did not record steals and blocks as statistics until the 1973-74 campaign. It is a widely held opinion that Frazier would rank among the NBA’s all-time steals leaders if his entire career was recorded.
From 1969-75, Frazier was both an All-NBA and All-Defensive selection, appearing on both First Teams in four of those six seasons. (Again, the league did not add an All-NBA Third Team until well after Frazier’s retirement.) He placed in the top 11 in MVP voting on four occasions, peaking with a fourth-place finish in the 1969-70 campaign, when he received fewer votes than Reed, Jerry West and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
In 89 playoff games between 1969 and 1975, Frazier averaged 21.2 points (55.6 true shooting percentage), 7.2 rebounds and 6.4 assists in 43.1 minutes a night. The Knicks played in six straight conference finals, reaching three Finals and winning the franchise’s only two titles in 1970 and 1973. Frazier won just a single playoff game over his last three seasons in New York, missing the postseason entirely in the final two.
Frazier’s 1971-72 campaign could be likened to Pippen’s first year without Jordan, since Reed played in only 11 games that season. Frazier averaged a career-high 23.2 points (57.6 TS%) with 6.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists in 40.6 minutes a night for a team that won 48 games and reached the Finals. He received one first-place MVP vote, finishing 11th in the race — between teammates Dave DeBusschere and Jerry Lucas.
The numbers are strikingly similar, but given Pippen’s impact as a 6-foot-8 defensive weapon, the advanced statistics in his favor (PER, BPM and VORP) and his team success, you kind of have to go with his nine-year run, regardless of how much he benefited from Jordan or was overshadowed by his legendary teammate.
Advantage: Pippen (ever so slightly)
While we could peg any of Frazier’s six seasons from 1969-75 as the point guard’s peak, the 1969-70 campaign — only his third in the league — statistically marked his most efficient scoring and playmaking year. He averaged 20.9 points (57.5 true shooting percentage), 8.2 assists and six rebounds in 39.5 minutes per game, leading the Knicks to a 60-22 record and the East’s No. 1 seed alongside Reed (the 1970 MVP).
Statistically speaking, the 1970 playoffs saw the lowest scoring average of Frazier’s prime, but he saved his best for last. Frazier averaged 16-8-8 on 53.1 true shooting in those 19 playoff games, elevating those numbers to an 18-8-10 on 59.9 true shooting opposite Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain in the Finals.
Game 7 is known to most as The Willis Reed Game, as the center heroically returned from a leg injury two games earlier to convert his first two shot attempts, turning Madison Square Garden into the Thunderdome. He finished with four points and three rebounds in 27 minutes that decades later overshadow one of the great Game 7 performances in NBA history. Frazier scored 36 points on 17 shots that night, adding 19 assists and seven rebounds while doing most of his defensive work against West over 44 minutes.
The Knicks won the team’s first title, 113-99. Frazier could have easily been named Finals MVP, but Reed won the award for his work as the best player in the series through five games, a Wilt Chamberlain stopper (slower?) and an inspirational figure in Game 7. (Much of the same could be said about their 1973 title run.)
Pippen’s apex is harder to pin down. Statistically, he was at his best in the Jordan-less 1993-94 season, and his 1991-92 campaign from start to finish may have been more complete production-wise, but how do you argue against 1995-96? Pippen was First Team All-NBA and All-Defensive First Team for the 72-win Bulls, finishing fifth in the MVP race behind Jordan, Robinson, Penny Hardaway and Olajuwon. As an under-appreciated force behind the 1990s Bulls, it is only right to consider that dynasty’s peak as Pippen’s, too.
He averaged 19.4 points (55.1 true shooting percentage), 6.4 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2.4 combined blocks and steals in 36.7 minutes per game for a team that generated the highest net rating in NBA history.
Over 18 playoff games in 1996, Pippen averaged a 17-9-6 on 47.3 true shooting with 3.5 blocks/steals, almost identical to what he produced in the Finals en route to the fourth of six championships in eight seasons. At no point did Pippen challenge Jordan for a Finals MVP. He was the ultimate supporting actor.
Pippen played in a whopping 35 Finals games, averaging 19 points (50.1 true shooting percentage), 8.3 rebounds, 5.9 assists and three combined blocks/steals on Chicago’s way to a 6-0 Finals record. He had shaky shooting performances in big moments, especially from distance, but he was always a defensive beast.
The Bulls famously never played a Game 7 in the Finals, but Pippen played in four of them in his prime, including a pair of Eastern Conference finals. He averaged 14 points (on troubling 36/8/58 shooting splits), 10.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.8 combined blocks and steals. His two points on 1-for-10 shooting over 42 minutes in the 1990 ECF Game 7 loss is an eye-opening box score and a testament to Detroit’s defense.
Pippen has a serious blemish in this department. With the Bulls trailing the the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals 2-0 and 1.8 seconds left in a tied Game 3, coach Phil Jackson drew up a play for Toni Kukoc. An angry Pippen opted to sit out the play rather than inbound the ball. Kukoc made the shot, but one of the lasting memories of that series was a salty Pippen on the bench (as well as his monster dunk over Patrick Ewing and a controversial call against him that essentially delivered Game 5 of the series to New York).
To be fair, it is kind of hard to have many clutch moments when your teammate is Michael freaking Jordan. Pippen’s steal to seal the 1997 title is his closest thing to The Moment. But his best chance to define his legacy alone was filled with more questionable takeaways than not.
Frazier played in 17 games over his three Finals appearances, averaging 18.9 points (57.7 true shooting percentage), 8.2 assists and 7.5 rebounds and winning the two titles. Few players showed up like Frazier.
Including his epic Game 7 effort against the Lakers in the 1970 Finals — the biggest game of his career — Frazier played in six advance-or-go-home games in his prime, including two conference finals. He averaged 22 points (60.9 true shooting percentage), nine rebounds and 7.2 assists, finishing with a 4-2 record.
In the end, Frazier enjoyed one of the great clutch moments in NBA history, and Pippen one of the least.
• Frazier: Two-time NBA champion; six-time All-NBA selection (4x First Team, 2x Second Team); seven-time All-Star (1975 All-Star Game MVP); seven-time All-Defensive First Team selection
• Pippen: Six-time NBA champion; seven-time All-NBA selection (3x First Team, 2x Second Team); seven-time All-Star (1994 All-Star Game MVP); 10-time All-Defensive selection (8x First Team); 1995 steals leader; two-time Olympic gold medalist
They are virtually even in nearly every department but for Pippen’s four extra rings and two gold medals. It sure does help to have Jordan as your teammate, but there is no arguing with a trophy case. Easiest pick.
For the culture
Pippen has been given more respect in retirement than he got in his playing career. His regular presence on ESPN’s “The Jump” and the props Jordan has paid to him over the years, especially in his Hall of Fame speech and “The Last Dance” documentary, has reinforced how rare a talent he was. You could not have sculpted a better sidekick for Jordan — one of the greatest defenders in the game’s history and a versatile wing who could do everything on a basketball court — but fair or not he will forever be Jordan’s sidekick.
Pippen was largely nondescript during his playing career, save for his physical attributes. Even his selection to the “Dream Team” was overshadowed by bigger names and personalities on the roster. He has a number of pop culture highlights, including a Notorious B.I.G. shoutout in “Microphone Murderer” and a “Simpsons” appearance poking fun at his C-list celebrity. He also appeared alongside Gary Coleman and Ron Jeremy in a 2009 movie called “Midgets vs. Mascots,” which is an unfortunate credit to have on one’s iMDb page.
Meanwhile, Walt Frazier has an extremely cool nickname (Clyde) and an even cooler persona. The dude has an autobiography called “Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool.” He drove a Rolls-Royce to games. His suits are famous for their unique style, and his movement on the court was every bit as smooth. He has been the voice of Knicks basketball for three decades, complete with a catalogue of Clyde-isms.
Frazier is arguably the greatest player in Knicks history. If not, he is the greatest to have delivered a pair of championships to the city, the last two the franchise has seen. That makes him a legend in New York, and when you are a legend in New York, you are an icon. He was a fixture on the city’s party scene as a player, and Clyde Frazier’s Wine and Dine restaurant on the West Side ensures he will be for some time to come.
Pippen is forever a member of the Bulls dynasty and the Dream Team. Frazier is just the coolest.
THE DAGGER: Walt Frazier had the better career.
Previously on “Whose NBA career is better?”:
• Dwyane Wade vs. Dirk Nowitzki
• Carmelo Anthony vs. Vince Carter
• Kobe Bryant vs. Tim Duncan
• Chris Paul vs. Isiah Thomas
• Pau Gasol vs. Manu Ginobili
• Patrick Ewing vs. David Robinson
• Shaquille O’Neal vs. Hakeem Olajuwon
• Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson
• Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell
• Jason Kidd vs. Steve Nash
• Ray Allen vs. Reggie Miller
• Charles Barkley vs. Karl Malone
• Grant Hill vs. Tracy McGrady
• Dwight Howard vs. Rajon Rondo
• Gary Payton vs. John Stockton
• Kevin Garnett vs. Moses Malone
• Kevin McHale vs. James Worthy
If you have an idea for a matchup you would like to see in this series, let us know.
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