Much was made about the second episode of ESPN’s hit documentary, The Last Dance, particularly with regards to Scottie Pippen and his salary. After the Hall-of-Fame swingman’s rookie contract, which was for four years and worth $2.83 million, expired, Pippen and his agents – Jimmy Sexton (now the biggest college football agent in America) and Kyle Rote – negotiated a new deal with the Chicago Bulls, one that would span seven years and earn Pippen $18 million. The contract was so one-sided that Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf even claims he advised Pippen not to sign it, but once he did, there would be no renegotiating.
And there wasn’t.
So now, in hindsight, we’re left with the question: Was Pippen the most underpaid superstar in recent league history? Let’s look at some of the facts to determine whether that’s true or not.
NEAR-MVP PRODUCTION FOR BOTTOM-DOLLAR PRICES
When Michael Jordan retired for the first time following the Bulls’ 1992-93 championship season, the team’s best player and workhorse immediately became Pippen.
And boy, did he deliver.
That campaign, Pippen averaged 22.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.9 steals over 72 games while shooting 49.1 percent from the floor. According to Box Plus/Minus (BPM), it was the best year of Pippen’s illustrious career, one that helped guide Chicago to a 55-27 regular season and a second-round, seven-game defeat to eventual Eastern Conference champs, the New York Knicks. It also landed Pippen third in that season’s MVP race, behind two of the best centers ever, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson.
So how much did Pippen earn for his astronomical contributions that year?
That’s less than guys like Sam Bowie and Benoit Benjamin earned in 1993-94 and a few thousand dollars more than Rony Seikaly.
No matter how anyone spins it, Pippen deserved to be more than the league’s 24th highest-paid player that season. And the most startling part is… that wasn’t even close to Pippen’s most underpaid campaign.
ALL-NBA APPEARANCES VS. PERCENTAGE OF SALARY CAP PAID
Using a database we created, we were able to look at all of the most underpaid All-NBA seasons posted by various stars using what percentage of the salary cap they earned those years.
In 1996-97, Pippen’s final All-Star campaign and a year he earned 2nd Team All-NBA honors, the six-time NBA champion averaged 20.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.7 assists nightly, and helped the Bulls go 69-13 and breeze to their fifth championship.
And he made an insultingly low $2.25 million for his efforts.
That made him the league’s 128th best-paid player in the league that season, and the No. 5 earner on Chicago’s roster, just behind Luc Longley but at least ahead of Randy Brown. As far as how much of the Bulls’ salary cap Pippen earned that year, the number falls at 9.24 percent, per our research.
Quite the bargain.
Along with 1996-97, there were three other campaigns in which Pippen earned a smaller portion of the salary cap than in 1993-94 (the year he finished third in MVP voting, which many consider the year he was most disproportionately compensated): They were in 1997-98, when he made 3rd Team All-NBA but made just 10.32 percent ($2.775 million) of Chicago’s salary cap, in 1995-96 when he was 1st Team All-NBA, finished fifth in MVP voting and made just 12.72 percent ($2.925 million) of the salary cap, and in 1994-95 when he was 1st Team All-NBA and made 13.94 percent of the salary cap ($2.25 million).
Overall, for his career, Pippen made seven All-NBA teams but was paid roughly an average of 16.16 percent of his teams’ salary caps, the lowest amount for a player with that many All-NBA appearances since 1990-91, according to our numbers.
POOR COMPENSATION DURING GLORY YEARS
Luckily for Pippen, he did get to sign one monster contract during his time in the NBA. It came when the Bulls signed-and-traded him to the Houston Rockets in January of 1999 and was worth five years and $67.2 million. (The Portland Trail Blazers would end up paying most of that, as they traded for Pippen the following offseason.)
And overall, he did earn nearly $110 million for his playing career, a very pretty penny for a player who reached the Association in the late 1980s. But that doesn’t change the fact that Pippen was severely underpaid in the NBA.
Throughout the absolute peak of Pippen’s career, when he was dominating opponents alongside Jordan, wreaking having on the perimeter and playing some of the best defense the NBA has ever seen, he only ranked within the league’s Top-10 salary-wise just once, in 1992-93.
He had two other campaigns in the Top 25, in 1991-92 and 1993-94, but besides that, over the five other seasons where Pippen was one of the best players in the world, he ranked no higher than 91st in the NBA in salary, an absolute travesty for a player of his caliber.
The biggest insult may have been in 1996-97 when Pippen was 128th league-wide in salary while helping push Chicago to one of their best seasons of the dynasty run. For comparison’s sake, the 128th highest-paid player in 2019-20 is Markelle Fultz, who’s averaging 12.1 points and 5.2 assists (with a -1.7 BPM) for the Orlando Magic. Pippen in 1996-97? 20.2 points and 5.7 assists (with a +6.1 BPM).
So even if Pippen’s wife, Larsa Pippen, thinks her husband did all right, salary-wise…
…there’s still no doubt the legendary forward should have made a lot more money during his heyday with the Bulls.
At least Pippen had that massive endorsement money to fall back on. (Just kidding).
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.