Can Kawhi Leonard Be Better Than Scottie Pippen?
Even after this first retirement (or sabbatical) from basketball, the media and fans alike were always in search: who is the next Michael Jordan? There have been numerous players anointed as the second coming; some very prematurely (Like Harold Miner), and some much more accurately (think LeBron James). But, given the combination of Jordan's generational athleticism, talent, and indomitable will to win, it's hard to imagine that we might truly see a player live up to such a mantle in our lifetimes.
But in a similar vein, an interesting question has recently arisen: what about the next Scottie Pippen? Jordan's teammate on the Chicago Bulls also holds six championship rings, was a member of the 1992 Dream Team, and was named one of the 50 Greatest NBA Players in NBA History.
We haven't been nearly as quick to anoint someone as the next Scottie Pippen. But ironically enough, we might be seeing such a player currently in action in today's NBA: Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs.
Entering his sixth season in the NBA, Leonard has emerged into one of the top 10 players today – and arguably THE best -- two-way players in the NBA.
Like Pippen, the crux of his game is this shutdown defensive skills. With his enormous hands, unusually long arms, and incredible lateral agility for a player standing 6'7, Leonard is simply able to engulf nearly anyone he's trying to defend; sports personality Bill Simmons jokingly refers to Leonard as "the sharktopus," because of the distraction of Leonard's long arms (akin to an octopus) and the intensity at which he plays (akin to a shark). Leonard's defensive play against LeBron James in the 2014 NBA Finals (James' final year with the Miami Heat) was nothing short of extraordinary. No player in James' career, to date, has harassed and defended him the way Leonard did except maybe Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls.
Also similar to Pippen, the biggest knock on Leonard's game when he was coming out of San Diego State University was an underdeveloped offensive game. Both Pippen and Leonard relied on their incredible athleticism and long arms to convert higher percentage shots; both players continued to develop their jump shooting abilities -- especially their three-point shooting ability -- as their careers progressed. Neither player was truly comfortable being "the guy" on offense, sometimes to a fault. Both players were/are perfectly fine with deferring the primary scoring responsibilities to one of their teammates.
When you take a look at the numbers, the similarities become downright eerie. Through their respective first five seasons in the NBA:
Pippen: 21 points per game, 50.6% shooting, 7.7 rebounds per game, 1.9 steals per game, 1.1 blocks per game
Leonard: 20.9 points per game, 50.9% shooting, 6.8 rebounds per game, 1.8 steals per game, 0.9 blocks per game.
The biggest difference, at least in terms of statistics, comes in the form of assists. Pippen paints a picture of him being much more of a facilitator within the Bulls offense, averaging 7 assists per game. By comparison, Leonard only averaged 2.5 assists per game through his first five seasons, even despite him playing in a Spurs offense built on fluid ball movement.
In general, it still feels like Leonard is an outstanding player and one of the 10 best in the league today, but Pippen was an extraordinary and transcendent player.
The fact that Chuck Daly, head coach of the legendary Dream Team, once stated that Michael Jordan was the best player in the NBA, but Scottie Pippen was the best player on the Dream Team, should speak volumes. Or, how about the fact that, in 1994-1995, in his first year without Jordan, Pippen became only the second player in history to lead his team in every major statistical category: points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks? Only Dave Cowens, Kevin Garnett, and LeBron James have ever accomplished that.
Even from a purely immeasurable, "doing-what-it-takes-to-win" standpoint, Pippen had that little extra edge over Leonard. Leonard is painfully quiet on the court (and off it), preferring to let his play do the talking for him. But Pippen? His comment in the 1997 NBA Finals, telling future Hall of Famer Karl Malone that "the mailman doesn't deliver on Sundays," led to Malone missing two critical free throws in the closing seconds of the game, allowing the Bulls to take Game One of said series.
Leonard may be the closest thing we'll see to Pippen in quite some time, but he's still not the same caliber of player so prodigiously gifted to play the game of basketball. As Pippens' biography on the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame's website states, he could run the court like a point guard, attack the boards like a power forward, and swish the nets like a shooting guard. Oh, and there's also the fact that Leonard needs about five more championship rings before he catches up to Pippen.
We may never see another player "like Mike," and it's really hard to imagine that we'll see another player truly "like Scottie," either.