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Scottie Pippen: In the red

An analysis of the Chicago Bulls’ historic ROI from Pippen’s prime.

Source: https://www.nba.com/history/legends/profiles/scottie-pippen

ESPN’s docu-series, The Last Dance, recounts Michael Jordan’s (and the Chicago Bulls’) history-making 97–98 season, during which they won their historic 6th NBA title in 8 years.

Episode II spotlighted the drama surrounding Scottie Pippen’s salary negotiations with the Bulls’ front office. For most, the principal takeaway from the episode was how glaringly underpaid Scottie was throughout his time in a Bulls uniform.

Scottie’s Money in 2020

First, let’s take a look at Scottie’s career earnings in 2020 dollars. I exclude Scottie’s 2003–04 year from this analysis, in which he only played in 23 games for the Bulls.

Pippen represented the Bulls 7 times as an NBA All-Star, and lifted every one of their 6 trophies. Stars indicate an all-star season for Scottie. Larry O’Brien trophies atop his earnings bar signify a year the bulls won it all.

By many analysts’ accounts of the 97–98 season, Scottie was the second best player in the NBA (MJ first, of course). However, in that same season, Scottie earned $4.4 million (in 2020 dollars!), meaning he’d be in 220th place in today’s NBA salary ranking, sandwiched between Denver’s Jamal Murray and the Knicks’ Kevin Knox. Wow.

Even at the peak of his career earnings, he never earned an annual salary anywhere near today’s max contracts. He was ‘underpaid’ (as a ratio of $ / Stats) for his productivity for two reasons:

1) He was paid little (numerator). In 1991, early in his career, he secured an $18 million extension on his contract that would carry him through the 97–98 season, during which his salary ranked 122nd in the NBA.

2) He performed big (denominator). Bill Simmons ranks Scottie as the 24th best player of all time. Stats and argument here.

122nd place pay (in his prime) for 24th all-time play. Rough.

Bull Market: A look at the ratios

This ratio of performance over pay got me thinking about how to draw out some simple graphs comparing the two I wanted to take a stab at quantifying that underpayment by sharing a few ratios:

  • Salary Dollar Earned / Point Scored
  • Salary Dollar Earned / Assist
  • Salary Dollar Earned / Steal
  • Salary Dollar Earned / Rebound (offensive & defensive)
  • Salary Dollar Earned / Sum of Points, Assists, Steals & Total Rebounds

Essentially, I wanted to see how much Scottie was ultimately paid for the key stats he generated over his career. Note: all I did was take his annual salary and divide it over the sum of a given stats category. Here’s a breakdown:

Grab this table and more in my full dataset on qri (https://qri.cloud/rico/pippen_careerpayandstats)
The Chicago Bulls got the best of Scottie Pippen (at the negotiating table and on the court), as Scottie got the best of the Rockets & Blazers.

Scottie’s stats dipped as his pay rocketed…pun intended. One way to tell the story: The Rockets (and Blazers), ultimately paid for his past performance. The other: The Bulls got the deal of the century. Telling which story is the right one requires more analysis to compare Scottie’s pay and stats against league averages and medians (something that may come in a future post).

Putting the two together, here’s a simple line graph for that ratio of Salary $ / Sum of (points + assists + steals + rebounds).

I think you get the point.

Building the dataset

Like any data project, building the dataset took a couple steps, resulting in new versions as the dataset evolved over time. A first step required grabbing his career stats, then a second step to add salary data, a third to adjust for inflation, and finally a fourth to build the ratios.

I used Qri Desktop (“query” — free, open-source dataset versioning software) to track my work and publish versions of the dataset at different stopping points. This would allow you and others to audit my work, or take what I’ve done and build on it. All of the versions, source info, metadata etc. are bound together by qri. Just hit export and you get everything.

Grab the latest Scottie Pippen Pay dataset here.

Stats don’t tell the whole story

None of these stats on their own tell the full story of Scottie’s contributions to those Bulls teams, nor do they collectively explain how an NBA team works in concert to score points, defend, and win. It’s also impossible to ignore the fact Scottie was playing with one of the greatest scorers of all time. So, great stats will always be spread across any great team.

Nevertheless, at the very least it’s a small, simple window into an important disparity that helps tell the story of this time in Pippen’s history, the team’s history, and NBA history. It also sets up a common debate among sports fans about paying players for past performance. After the Bulls’ glory days, Scottie inked two monster deals with the Houston Rockets and Chicago Bulls (again), for which he earned far more for his individual contributions. Worth a dance.

Scotty celebrates another NBA title.

Further Reading on Scottie & The Last Dance

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Rico Gardaphe

Rico Gardaphe

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Head of Business Development for Qri — free and open source dataset versioning software. Former strategy consultant and Obama White House staffer.