When Scottie became MJ's equal
The simple reason the Bad Boys Pistons were the greatest obstacle to the Bulls ... and then suddenly weren't.
A wise man once said that “many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”
One can take this line of thinking too far. It, ahem, doesn’t justify lying to your gifted protege about the true evil identity of his father. But for the most part, the phrase holds up. Any recounting of history depends greatly on the point of view of the narrator. Better to accept that premise and search for insight within it than to unilaterally accept or reject one’s memories.
Obi-Wan Kenobi’s words are worth heeding when watching Michael Jordan’s struggle and eventual breakthrough against the Bad Boys Pistons and their “Jordan Rules” defense. Episode 4 of 10 in ESPN’s The Last Dance documentary series weaves a familiar tale. By insisting on running the Triangle offense instead of his predecessor’s more, let’s say, hierarchical system, Phil Jackson got Jordan to relinquish control to his teammates. That coaching adjustment, combined with Jordan’s insatiable will to win at all costs, motivated the group to toughen up physically and mentally.
In this telling, Scottie Pippen is the physical manifestation of the work the coach and star did. The Triangle allowed Pippen to “be what I wanted to be,” to use Scottie’s words, while Jordan actively making Pippen “my focal point” gave Scottie the confidence to fight back against Detroit’s bullying tactics.
The Pistons’ version of the story is pithier. Thirteen years ago, SI’s Jack McCallum gave Chuck Daly (RIP) the chance to be the narrator. From Daly’s perspective, Pippen grew up on his own:
"It was a nice theory," Daly says of the Jordan Rules, "but eventually Scottie Pippen evolved into Scottie Pippen, one of the best players in the game. And once that happened, we couldn't beat them anymore. Michael simply found other guys when we ganged up on him."
The story we believe is true depends greatly on our own point of view. Only by considering both can we appreciate the simple, yet powerful insight each narrator’s story requires:
The Jordan Rules were the perfect defense to stop the Bulls.
Then Scottie Pippen got too good.
Once that happened, Detroit was toast.
In other words: the Bulls overcoming their biggest rival and Scottie Pippen’s emergence as an NBA star are actually the same story.
Why the Jordan Rules worked
The Jordan Rules weren’t that complicated. There were just two that mattered:
Make anyone but Michael beat us.
Hit Michael as much as possible to wear him down.
The second one is the more famous of the two because of the hard fouls you’ve seen on every highlight video. Those plays, which have been legislated out of today’s game, were last resorts after everything else failed. “Hitting” Michael really meant doing stuff like this off the ball.
Those were the body blows that made an impact later in the game — if not later on the same play. You still see stuff like that in today’s game, even if it’s less obvious. Just watch Stephen Curry run around baseline screens, especially against a LeBron James team.
But there’s a reason hitting MJ is the second rule, not the first. Above all else, the Jordan Rules were about making anyone other than Jordan beat them. The Pistons assumed there were only two types of players on the Bulls: Michael, and Not Jordan. As long as that was the case, they had Chicago where they wanted them.
In practice, that meant playing the most overloaded, barely legal zone defense in NBA history. Five eyes on Jordan at all times. Specific help defenders stationed at the exact lift-off point for Jordan’s acrobatic leaps: the free-throw line extended. NBA people refer to this as the “nail,” because there’s an actual nail drilled into the court at the exact middle of the free-throw line. The Pistons guarded the area around the nail like there was buried treasure beneath it.
The golden rule of the Jordan Rules required some specific tactics. Jordan’s man-to-man defender was instructed to shade him into the help waiting in the middle of the floor. Never allow him to squeeze along the baseline. If they could station help defenders out of bounds, they would have.
Most schemes today actually discourage drives to the middle of the floor because the driver can see more open passing angles than if he goes baseline. But the Pistons wanted MJ to pass, so they were fine with exposing those options.
The Pistons double-teamed immediately when Jordan posted up — hell, often before he posted up.
The double-teamer varied, but the most effective traps involved one of the bigger players coming immediately while a third (and sometimes fourth) man slid to the nail area.
The same logic applied on pick-and-rolls. The big man defender came out for a hard trap, and any other defenders on the opposite side sunk into the middle in advance.
The strategy worked. Jordan was held below his averages because he was thinking score first and pass as a last resort. His dishes were often the wild, leaping, spinning types that look super dope, but are exhausting to pull off and aren’t more effective because the recipients aren’t always ready for them. Jordan’s teammates, relegated to spot-up duty and needing Jordan to create their shots, weren’t good enough to consistently make the Pistons’ pay for disrespecting them. Detroit had its cake and ate it too.
You might say the Pistons’ approach is a historic relic that would fail in 2020. These days, Jordan’s teammates would be standing beyond the three-point line and would get too many open looks for the Pistons to sustain their strategy.
There’s some truth to that, to be sure. It’s a lot easier for the Pistons to set up their five-man zone when the other four Bulls are spaced like this. This compressed floor ensured that Detroit’s Jordan Rules didn’t violate the the letter of the league’s illegal defense laws, even if they did violate their spirit.
But even today, the Bulls would run into the same fundamental issue the Jordan Rules were designed to exploit. If every other player on the court is standing around waiting for Jordan to set them up, they become much easier to defend. The gameplan is simple: help off them, run them aggressively off their spot, and watch them wilt because they can’t do that consistently enough to matter.
Defenses can always work a little harder to close out to these players even if they are standing further away. Just ask Bucks fans who watched Toronto successfully limit Giannis Antetokounmpo and contest Milwaukee’s three-point shooters in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.
The mythical Jordan Rules were thus underpinned by one simple truth. As long as the Bulls played like they had one Michael and 14 Not-Jordans, the Pistons had the edge. Hell, Joe Dumars even admitted it before the 1989-90 season:
"As Michael's supporting cast gets better, this defense is going to be tougher to play," he told SI’s Jack McCallum. "Jordan is the constant. We know what he can do. It's what everybody else does that matters."
That would change in 1991.
Enter the New And Improved Scottie
Pippen averaged just 13 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 3.3 assists in 17 playoff games against the Pistons prior to 1991, and ended just 18.6 percent of his team’s possessions with a shot, drawn foul, or turnover. All of those figures were down from his regular-season averages over that period. (I’m including 1990’s Migraine game, but not Game 6 in 1989, when this happened in the first minute).
The 18.6 usage percentage is the key number there. It puts him squarely in the role player category, along with every other Jordan teammates. To the Pistons, Pippen was simply one of the Bulls’ many Not-Jordans.
(If you’re struggling to figure out what that number means, consider that a lineup that perfectly balances shots would have five players that each ended 20 percent of their team’s possessions. If a player has a usage percentage below 20 percent, they’re not really a primary shot creator on your team. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but it works as a general rule).
And Pippen didn’t do much to convince them otherwise. When he got opportunities to take his man off the dribble or beat a closeout, he didn’t attack with much vigor.
The few pick-and-roll opportunities he got in MJ’s shadow were ugly, and he certainly didn’t get many post-up opportunities.
That’s why he was so often chilling somewhere on the wing or corner, spacing the floor for MJ despite not having a reliable jump shot. As long as Pippen played like any of the Bulls’ other Not-Jordans, the Pistons didn’t have much to worry about. Even if he had some skills, he wasn’t in a position to use them in any meaningful way. He needed the ball and some actual confidence to do that.
By the time the 1991 series rolled around, though, Pippen was stronger, more athletic, and more difficult to stop when driving to the hoop. Offensively, the Bulls weren’t just one Michael and 14 Not-Jordans. They now had a Scottie, too.
After a slow start from the field in Game 1, the matured Scottie torched Detroit to the tune of 22 points, eight rebounds, five assists, and most crucially, a 27.8 percent usage rate. He turned a much-hyped matchup with Dennis Rodman into a rout.
I still think Mark Aguirre is scarred from dealing with shit like this.
With Pippen able to do more, Jordan could do less. I tracked the number of dribbles each took in the series, and Pippen actually pounded the rock more times than Jordan in every game but Game 3. In total, Pippen completed 1,145 dribbles in the series at a rate of nearly 7.4 dribbles per minute. Jordan? Nine hundred and eighty-four dribbles and just 6.15 per minute. Suffice to say, Jordan dribbled a hell of a lot more than Pippen in the previous three series.
By turning the Bulls’ offense from a single-initiator attack to a two-flanked approach, Pippen broke the foundation of the Jordan Rules. That’s why the 1991 series turned into a rout. The Pistons were still the Bad Boys, albeit a slightly older version. They still played the Bulls physically. But the whole theory of the Jordan Rules had suddenly been upended, and thus, they had no shot.
But how did Pippen get from Point A to Point B?
As our old friend Obi-Wan once said, it depends on your point of view.
The Pistons’ perspective seems pretty simple. Pippen was a neophyte when they first met the Bulls, and was beginning his prime by 1991. His emergence was going to happen at some point. Not much to discuss there.
So let’s circle back to the Last Dance narrative that Pippen’s improvement happened due to the combination of Jackson’s egalitarian offense and Jordan’s tough-love leadership. It’s certainly easy to see how Pippen’s more aggressive attacks the hoop in 1991 were emboldened by Jordan pushing him to be more of a killer. Does a stop-and-go move this ruthless happen if Pippen wasn’t under Jordan’s watchful eye? Probably not.
Jackson’s coaching was a major key to unlocking Pippen’s potential, but in a more specific way than simply instituting the Triangle. During the 1990-91 season, Jackson gave Pippen chances to play as more of a point forward, where he occupied the top-of-the-key spot in the offense previously reserved for the John Paxson/Craig Hodges/Sam Vincent/B.J. Armstrong kind of player. Jackson then made the full-time switch once the Pistons series rolled around. To quote Sam Smith’s Jordan Rules:
Jackson had done a little redecorating for this series, building on something he’d used against Philadelphia. The Pistons’ strength had always been their three-guard rotation, and against the Bulls they were always able to run Paxson or Armstrong off the ball or force them to work harder to advance the ball up the court. As a result, Jordan would get the ball without enough time to run an offense, and he would make a one-man rush into the teeth of the defense or throw a return pass to another player with little time remaining.
So Jackson made a switch. He sent Paxson off on the wing, where he was best for his spot-up jumper anyway, and had Pippen carry the ball upcourt more. This removed the pressure from the ball—while also keeping it out of Jordan’s hands—since the Pistons then had to try to contest the ball handler with a forward or leave themselves in a major mismatch against Pippen once the ball got upcourt. It was the culmination of the maturation process Jackson had long planned for Pippen.
That redecorating led to two major on-court changes that swung the series. First of all, it turned Pippen into the grab-and-go, coast-to-coast monster that we see all over the league today. From 1988 to 1990, Detroit was able to control the game’s tempo and force Chicago into a half-court game. As long as Jordan or Paxson brought the ball up, the Pistons had time to set up the Jordan Rules.
But with Pippen now empowered to snag boards, force turnovers, and advance immediately in the open floor, Detroit was constantly put under pressure while retreating, forced to defend before they had a chance to set up.
Even when Pippen didn’t glide straight to the hoop, he drew defenders and found open teammates.
More importantly, putting Pippen at the top of the key solved a specific problem the Bulls’ half-court offense had in previous years: it got Isiah Thomas out of Michael Jordan’s way.
There are many heroes in the Jordan Rules scheme, but Thomas did not get his due for the unique role he played off the ball. (I feel dirty typing that sentence, but it’s true). It’s easy to notice what Dumars and Rodman did, and Laimbeer’s hard fouling made him the obvious avatar for the Jordan Rules. But Thomas’ work as a help defender was just as important. He read Jordan’s intentions like a book, digging down to crowd Jordan’s launch point before he even arrived.
Yet Thomas was fast enough and sufficiently intelligent to play a one-man zone on Jordan and fly back at anyone if Jordan kicked out to them. Even if Thomas didn’t get a steal, he threw off their rhythm. These are the same qualities that make Draymond Green such a defensive genius, except Thomas was a sub- 6’0 guard whose low center of gravity allowed him to dig even further into both Jordan and those shooters.
As long as Thomas’ man was near the top of the key, he could play his critical role mucking up Jordan’s drives. Since the Jordan Rules required that MJ be funneled to the middle, that meant Thomas made a significant impact on every play. The Bulls needed to get rid of him.
Moving Pippen to the point and Paxson down to the corner did exactly that. Suddenly, Thomas couldn’t be that crucial help defender that clogged the middle. That role now fell to players like Rodman (who was so focused on Scottie) and Aguirre (who was terrible at it). They could not do what Thomas could, which allowed the Bulls to actually get real use out of the middle of the floor.
It may seem odd that Pippen, a shaky perimeter marksman, was guarded more closely than a deadeye shooter like Paxson. But by 1991, Pippen could do so much more with the ball if he got it. Paxson, on the other hand, will forever be one of the Not-Jordans. Run him off his shot, and the Pistons could live with it.
Without Thomas at the top of the key to strike that ideal balance between helping on Jordan and recovering on Paxson, the Jordan Rules’ entire shape was compromised.
Does Jackson feel comfortable making that schematic switch if Jordan didn’t toughen Pippen up? Would Pippen have been more effective as a point forward than a traditional wing even if Jordan didn’t also help him mature physically and emotionally? Would all this have happened anyway because Pippen had the talent and just needed more experience? These are interesting theoretical questions that depend greatly on your own point of view.
But the reason the Bulls finally overcame the Pistons in emphatic fashion is quite simple. One player ceased to be Not-Jordan and became Scottie Pippen. When that happened, that legendary defensive credo known as the Jordan Rules was destroyed.