If “The Last Dance” — ESPN’s 10-part documentary chronicling the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls — has reminded us of anything, it’s how under-appreciated Scottie Pippen was back then and even today. Dennis Rodman says Pippen was “the best player in the world” during the two years Michael Jordan left to play baseball, and while that might be a stretch, you might not realize that in 1994 Pippen was first-team All-NBA and All-Defense and finished third in MVP voting.
Pippen was a great, great player. One of the best perimeter defenders we’ve ever seen and a jack-of-all-trades offensive weapon that in many ways pioneered the idea of a point-forward, 6-foot-8 leading the break with athleticism as powerful as it was poetic. Together, Jordan and Pippen formed a new kind of dynamic duo in that they were both perimeter players, a departure from the inside-out likes of Magic and Kareem, Bird and McHale, and eventually Kobe and Shaq.
No perimeter duo has been able to replicate Jordan and Pippen, for myriad reasons. Start with the six titles. No duo has come close, and given the shift to such frequent player movement, no duo probably ever will. You could argue that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were equally talented, but they merged at the height of their powers rather than evolving together. Indeed, Jordan and Pippen enduring the growing pains before the glory is part of their romance.
In this way, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are the closest thing we’ve seen to a Jordan-Pippen duo. To be clear, Curry is not on Jordan’s level, despite whatever advanced metric you can find to suggest otherwise, and Thompson is not Pippen’s equal. But Curry has arguably been the best player in the world at times of his prime, a two-time MVP and one of just a handful of true game-changers over the course of NBA history, while Thompson is a lock to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer as the sidekick who has, to this point, spent his entire career in the shadow of an all-time great.
Curry and Kevin Durant, of course, were the most talented Warriors duo, perhaps on par with Jordan and Pippen, but like LeBron and Wade, they were an arranged, short-lived marriage. The Bulls had more high-profile playoff losses preceding their first title in 1991, falling in two straight conference finals to the Detroit Pistons, but Curry and Thompson lost a pair of playoff series together as well, to the Spurs in 2013 and the Clippers in 2014.
Then what happened? The Bulls hired Phil Jackson as coach, who instituted a more inclusive, movement-oriented offensive system that took the ball, to some degree, out of the best player’s hands while empowering the supporting cast, and two years later the Bulls won the first of their six titles.
The same thing happened with the Warriors, who in 2014 replaced Mark Jackson and his traditional, iso-heavy philosophies with Steve Kerr, who played on those Bulls teams and was clearly influenced by Jackson’s more egalitarian model. Warriors fans had a hard time adjusting to, and accepting, the ball not being in Curry’s hands as often, but it worked. The Warriors won the first of their three titles in Kerr’s first season at the helm.
All told, both duos — Jordan and Pippen, and Curry and Thompson — won their first championship in their fourth year together. Like Jordan, with his 63 points vs. the Celtics and iconic game-winning shot over Craig Ehlo, Curry rose to superstar status with huge playoff performances, notably torching the Nuggets in a 2013 first-round upset before hanging 44 points on the Spurs in Game 1 of their second-round loss. Like Pippen, Thompson doesn’t get the credit he deserves.
Jordan and Pippen won 72 games in 1995-96.
Curry and Thompson won 73 in 2015-16.
Had the Warriors, like the Bulls, finished that record-breaking season with a championship, rather than squandering a 3-1 lead in the Finals and ultimately losing to the Cavs, the idea of trying to put Curry and Thompson on the same level as Jordan and Pippen would surely be more palatable for the folks who consider any type of Jordan comparison, whether individual or as part of a duo, blasphemous.
But the Warriors didn’t win, and if anything defines the difference between Michael Jordan and other great players, it’s the thin line between winning and losing. Any way you slice it, Curry and Thompson are not Jordan and Pippen, and they likely never will be. Jordan was better than Curry; Pippen was better than Thompson. On paper, Curry and Thompson only won one championship before Durant showed up, and we can feel pretty safe in assuming they never would’ve matched Jordan and Pippen’s six titles.
But in terms of the way history will remember Curry and Thompson, drafted and groomed and inextricably linked rather than two separate stars who collided for a brief explosion, a perimeter duo that had to prove to a stubborn basketball community that skill could indeed beat size, the championship timeline of star and co-star rising together before finally getting over the hump … it all lines up. Curry and Thompson are the closest duo we’ve seen to Jordan and Pippen. Let the arguments commence.