In 1992, Detective Comics issued #644, the first part of a Batman story called Electric City. At one point, Batman is killed by The Electrocutioner and Robin steps up to beat him into submission.
Batman was eventually revived by a bolt of electricity and ultimately saved the day, but the brief period without the leading man showed what Robin was capable of.
A year later, Michael Jordan announced his retirement from the NBA. Nobody quite knew what would happen to the Chicago Bulls in his wake, but everyone knew Scottie Pippen would be the team’s new leader.
And for at least one full season, Pippen showed the world what he was capable of.
There were enough holdovers from the previous championship season that meant head coach Phil Jackson could at least rely on veteran savvy. Pippen was still surrounded by Horace Grant, BJ Armstrong, John Paxson, Stacey King and Will Perdue. Though they were arguably not the best pieces to put around Pippen as a leader, the minutes were more fairly distributed and more balanced with Jordan out.
In 1992-93, four Bulls averaged more than 30 minutes per game and no others averaged more than 20. But in the first season without Jordan, more players were empowered, with six averaging more than 24 minutes per game.
This willingness to share the workload wasn’t just a credit to Jackson’s ability as a coach, but it is also a big part of the reason Pippen’s season was so successful in 1993-94 when he finished third in MVP voting. On The Lowe Post podcast, revered journalist (and writer who covered the 1992 Dream Team) Jack McCallum, said: “Scottie put his arm around you, Michael would punch you in the face.”
Despite the blemish of refusing to check into a game against the New York Knicks when Jackson drew up a play for Kukoc at the buzzer during the 1994 playoffs, Pippen is largely seen as a great teammate. The extra spotlight of the 1993-94 regular season showed this clearly.
On Episode 7 of The Last Dance, he said of his teammates: “[It was] great. They had nobody yelling at them. They got up plenty of shots.”
Without Jordan, you would have expected Pippen’s workload to go up dramatically. In fact, he played fewer minutes than the previous season.
He only averaged 1.4 extra shots per game, but his scoring increased from 18.6 ppg in 1992-93 to a team-high 22. Pippen was more efficient than his previous season, a more supportive leader than Jordan and the Bulls finished 1993-94 with just two fewer wins than when they still had the greatest player of all time on their roster.
Pippen noted, “We learned to beat teams by committee and we just learned to play together and share the ball and win together.”
Share the ball they did. That season, the Bulls were seventh in assists, but more impressive was that they were the only team within the top 10 who averaged fewer than 100 ppg. Scoring wasn’t high in those days, but the majority of the league notched more than 100 ppg throughout the season.
Pippen led the team in sharing the ball, though his 5.6 apg was down slightly compared to previous years as the offense was now run by committee. In 1992-93, just five Bulls averaged more than 2.3 assists, but seven reached that number the following year and more players featured in that stat column.
Part of the reason Chicago was able to get away with such limited offensive output was its commitment on the defensive end.
Opponents only managed to score 94.9 ppg against the Bulls that season, which ranked the third-lowest in the league. The only teams that were better at stopping teams were the San Antonio Spurs with David Robinson roaming the paint and the ever-physical and intimidating New York Knicks featuring Patrick Ewing—both of whom also appeared in the top five MVP rankings that year.
While the Bulls’ accolades were more than commendable, and Pippen’s achievements should not go without merit, it would not come in the shape of an MVP award. The league was incredibly competitive in 1993-94: 10 teams finished with more than 50 wins, and only one of them finished above 60 (the Seattle SuperSonics).
It was a very tight race to get a good playoff seed.
While the criteria for the MVP award is not set in stone, it often goes to the best player on a team that has the best record in the league. It’s especially rare for it to go to a representative of a team without at least the first or second-best record in their conference. In the past decade, only one player to lift the trophy sits outside this set of guidelines: Russell Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder finished sixth in the Western Conference.
So you wouldn’t expect a team in 1993-94 to finish with the joint-sixth best record in the league and produced an MVP, regardless of how bunched up those top tier teams were.
Alongside Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon, Pippen appeared in the top five of the MVP race and the Defensive Player Of The Year Award, but each of those other players finished with better team records. For this reason, Pippen wasn’t going to win MVP , even if he had a good narrative.
Pippen had certainly learned a lot from Jordan, and he put it on display in 1993-94.
He was a different type of leader, but it was arguably just as effective. Had General Manager Jerry Krause and coach Jackson known further ahead of time that they would be without Jordan, the team could have been better constructed to suit Pippen’s talent and perhaps gone even further.
But after losing to the Knicks in the playoffs, the team needed change.
Unfortunately, that meant Chicago lost Horace Grant to the Orlando Magic for the 1994-95 season and the roster looked even more unsuitable as a contender. Pippen led the team to 46 of the Bulls’ 47 wins that year, and Jordan returned for 17 games, 13 of them being wins.
It ended during the second round of the playoffs against Grant’s Magic, but Chicago reloaded and came back stronger than ever in 1995-96 when the next three-peat began.
While it was only brief, Pippen showed that he could be the man.
He needed Jordan early in his career, but if there had been no baseball lockout, Pippen might have continued to flourish had the team built around his versatility. We know now that the Bulls didn’t need to: Jordan returned and helped Pippen secure his position as perhaps the greatest number two ever.
But every Robin has a moment, and Pippen made the most of his during that one full season without Jordan as his Batman.
Huw is a TBW staff writer who grew up in Wales and currently lives in England where he coaches a local basketball team. He loves all sorts of basketball: men’s, women’s, wheelchair, international, good and bad. He has bylines with the NBA/WNBA’s UK broadcast rights partner Sky Sports, has featured on Sporting News covering FIBA events and is a Lead Writer with UK-based basketball website and podcast Double Clutch. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @coach_huw where he often posts about how Tim Duncan was the best player of his era.