We all know the name Michael Jordan. Some players spent their entire careers living in the NBA legend’s shadow. Scottie Pippen and Kawhi Leonard are two athletes who fit that description. As Jordan’s right-hand man during the Bull’s golden era, Pippen is often considered in the context of MJ’s greatness.
Leonard, on the other hand, is mid-career and chasing Jordan’s all-time playoff scoring record amongst a cavalcade of other impressive stats. But maybe we shouldn’t compare them to his Airness. Maybe it’s better to pit them against each other and see who comes out on top.
A tale of two NBA careers
Pippen played for most of his career on the Bulls, second fiddle to Jordan during the team’s historic double three-peat. What most people forget is that Pippen wasn’t just some random teammate. His stats were almost as impressive as Jordan’s were.
Pippen played for 12 seasons, averaging a solid 16 points, six rebounds, and five assists per game. We all know about his six NBA championship rings and his Olympic appearance. They are the stuff of legends. People forget that Pippen was the first-ever Bull to score 100 three-pointers in a season, that he played in 200 playoff games, or that he and Jordan routinely matched each other for 30 points or more per game during their playoff appearances.
Leonard is a different, but equally impressive story. He is one of the few NBA stars to win a championship, and be named championship MVP, on two different teams, the Spurs in 2014 and the Raptors in 2019. While he’s only played seven seasons, his overall averages are on par with Pippen’s any day.
Leonard averages just shy of 19 points, six rebounds, and three assists per game, putting him squarely in the realm of the older, retired superstar. While he might not have as many all-star and defensive player of the year accolades as Pippen, he’s rapidly catching up, not to mention his phenomenal performance in 2019’s playoffs with multiple 40 point games.
Comparing two styles
Aside from the difference between their time in the league, both men have had a similar career trajectory. Both are right-handed small forwards with similar overall stats. Both hit the boards consistently every night; and both were/are big defensive players, able to harass the ball handler and create turnovers. The difference between the two, however, comes in the form of assists and shooting percentage.
Pippen was a passer. It was his bread and butter. He guarded against the best perimeter shooters of his day and came out on top. But his true efficacy was in how he fit together with the overall team, feeding Jordan the ball seemingly at will. He might not have been the top scoring option on the ’90s Bulls, but he was certainly the number two man.
Leonard, on the other hand, was Toronto’s number one scoring option. He controlled the tempo of the game, playing the Jordan roll. Leonard is also a better, more consistent shooter than Pippen ever was. He far outstrips Pippen in field goal, three-point, and free-throw percentages.
So who’s better: Scottie Pippen or Kawhi Leonard?
Even though the two have uncanny similarities regarding their overall stats and play style, I’ve got to give the edge to Leonard. Pippen spent the bulk of his career directly in Jordan’s shadow. He was never the Bull’s primary scoring option.
Leonard, on the other hand, has won two championships with two different teams, and each time he was the team leader. His name has been used in the same sentence as Jordan’s on numerous occasions. What’s more, Leonard is only seven seasons into his career, and if his performance so far has showed us anything, it’s that he hasn’t even close to peaked.