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The Last Dance

The Last Dance: Was Scottie Pippen right or wrong in refusing to go back into Game 3 of 1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals?

There's no doubt that Scottie Pippen is one of the best players in NBA history. He's a Hall of Famer with six championships to his name and many looked to him as the best perimeter defender the game has ever seen.

But in 1994, when the spotlight was on Pippen, he had a misstep that many remember as his biggest mistake.

As with any debate, there are two sides to the argument. Having trouble deciding on one, I've asked my colleagues at NBA.com to help approach a verdict on one of the most controversial moments in Pippen's great career.

Without further ado, here's the case.

The case

In the 1994 playoffs, the Chicago Bulls found themselves down 2-0 to the New York Knicks. In a must-win game, the Bulls had the ball with the score tied at 102.

Phil Jackson called timeout to draw up an inbounds play, but he drew it up for rookie Toni Kukoc and not All-Star and go-to player. Upon receiving the news that Kukoc would be the one to take the shot with the game on the line, Pippen, the leader of the team, refused to go back into the game. Jackson replaced Pippen and the Hall of Famer sat on the bench as he watched Kukoc knock down a clutch, buzzer-beating shot to keep the Bulls' realistic hopes alive in their best-of-seven series with the Knicks.

MORE: Complete coverage of "The Last Dance"

The closing arguments

The case for Scottie: After being in Michael Jordan's shadow for the first six years of his career, Pippen was finally the man. The Bulls were his team and he intended to step up and prove that he could carry a franchise much like the other superstars around the league. Pippen had a terrific season, leading the Bulls to a 55-27 record - just two fewer losses than the previous year with MJ in the fold.

He averaged career-highs of 22.0 points and 8.7 rebounds to go along with 5.6 assists while shooting 49.1 percent from the field. He made the All-Star team for the fourth time in his career and won the All-Star MVP. He finished third in league MVP voting that year behind Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson, was named First Team All-NBA for the first time in his career and was once again an All-Defensive First Team member.

Scottie Pippen was no longer Jordan's sidekick. In 1993-94, he had arrived.

#pippen mvp

Even if you remove the fact that Pippen probably should've been the one to get the last look based on the proverbial pecking order alone, he was also flat out balling.

At the time, Pippen had a team-high 25 points, seven rebounds and four assists while shooting 50 percent from the field. Kukoc - who Jackson drew the play up for - was 1-for-5 from the field with just six points. To make matters worse, Kukoc was just 3-of-6 from the free-throw line, so had he gotten fouled there's no guarantee he would've been able to knock down the freebies.

All of it made Jackson's decision to not go to Pippen with the game hanging in the balance strange on the surface. If it was a year before, would he even dream about not going to Jordan in that situation? Pippen had spent all year living up to the expectations and this should've been his moment.

The case against Scottie: There's no denying that Pippen was the man on the Bulls that season. He was the leader and the team's best player with MJ now retired.

And there's no doubt that Pippen had it going on and was the reason why Chicago was even in the game that late in Game 3. And if Phil Jackson was in a similar situation with Jordan still on the roster, there's no doubt he goes to MJ for the final look.

But with Jordan now retired this was a different Bulls team. It was no longer Jordan and the Jordanaires. And while Pippen was the face of the team, he spent all year leading the team the way he wanted to - making it more about the team and not all about him. If Scottie wanted to average 25-27 points per game he could've, but that wasn't his style. He opted to get everyone involved.

Horace Grant, Steve Kerr and B.J. Armstrong each averaged career-highs in points per game that season, marks that none of them would eclipse afterwards. Kukoc finally arrived in Chicago and looked comfortable in his rookie season, earning a spot on the All-Rookie Second Team. The Bulls were always going to reach greater heights with Jordan, but without him and with Scottie at the helm, Chicago was a more balanced team.

Which makes Pippen refusing to go in the game a head-scratcher.

Pippen had spent all year building the importance of winning as a team and unselfishness so that they could thrive in pressure situations in the playoffs, but at the first sign of adversity, all that went out the window and he became the one thing that would keep the Bulls from being their best - selfish.

It wasn't like Jackson was drawing up a play for Bill Cartwright or Pete Myers, he was drawing up a play for Kukoc, who had already hit three game-winning shots that season. And Jackson was going back to a play that had already worked for them earlier in the year.

When Pippen decided to sit out, he was telling his team that it wasn't about just getting the win, but rather getting the win with him being the reason.

There's an argument to be made that this moment essentially ended the Bulls season. Even though they ended up pushing the Knicks to a seventh and deciding game, they weren't going to truly recover from the way Pippen acted when their backs were against the wall.

MORE: What if the Bulls traded Pippen in 1994?

"I never thought about trying to win MVP," Pippen said in 2014 of his lone Bulls season without Jordan. "I never thought about trying to do things as an individual.

"That's just not how I played the game and it wasn't in my pedigree. I couldn't have made myself play that way. It never crossed my mind to try and lead the league in scoring. I viewed that as sort of selfish goal and while I did have personal goals, they were to make the All-Defense team or be Defensive Player of the Year. I, of course, wanted to be one of the top players in the game, but I wanted to do it within my natural style of play. So I learned to let the game flow to me and stayed away from putting pressure on myself or rushing aspects of my game."

If it was truly about the team, and winning would be more important than individual accolades, then Scottie failed miserably to show it at that moment.

The Jury

Alex Novick (@ANov_SN): This will be a twisted answer, because objectively, Scottie was wrong. It's not an argument - no decent teammate does that under any circumstances, especially on that stage.

That said, I'm siding with Pippen.

I'm going with Pippen because in many minds this moment clouds the brilliance of a career that was predominantly unselfish, and it shouldn't. You have to think Pippen would take back that momentary overreaction if he could, especially considering the impact it had.

And on top of that, as Carlan explained, he had a right to be pissed off. In a superstar-driven league, you're taking the ball away from the man who had finally earned that mantle, and you're giving it to a rookie who had made fewer shots in the whole series than Pippen had made in that game alone?

You can imagine the frustration flooding back into Pippen's brain, stored up from six prior years of conceding the spotlight. And you can bet there was one overriding thought: "Phil would never do this to Mike."

So 26 years later, let's cut Scottie some slack so we can focus on the dominant force he truly was. I'm siding with him because we're all human.

Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): Look, I get that Kukoc wasn't having a great game at the time and that he was a rookie, but there's an argument to be made that he was Chicago's best performer in the clutch that season. Maybe not in terms of overall production - I'm guessing Pippen led the team in total points scored in the clutch in 1993-94 - but we do know that Kukoc was the only player in the league to make multiple game-winning buzzer-beaters that season and that he had two other game-winners.

So beyond the fact that Pippen didn't display the best leadership at that moment by taking himself out of the game - I understand why he reacted the way he did, but still - Jackson had a legitimate reason to put his faith in Kukoc. For that reason and all of the reasons Carlan outlined, I'm siding with Jackson and Kukoc.

Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): Let's revisit a different Bulls game.

Game 4 of the 2015 Conference Semifinals. Tie game. Cavaliers coach David Blatt draws up an in-bounds play in a must-win game. He doesn't draw it up for LeBron James. What does LeBron do? He overrules the coach and essentially says "I'm taking this shot."

Blatt should have drawn it up for James, just as Jackson should have drawn it up for Pippen. The difference is that James seized the opportunity to course correct and take matters into his own hands instead of removing himself entirely from the game. Moving past the part where Phil Jackson isn't David Blatt, if Pippen was truly the player he believed himself to be in that moment, he should have forcefully done something about it.

And besides... what if Kucoc missed? It was a tie game and there's an entire overtime period to follow. By removing himself from the game, Pippen essentially removed himself from a potential OT period while staring down the barrel of a 3-0 hole.

Jackson was wrong for calling that play for Kukoc and had he missed, it would have been a bad look. Had the Bulls lost that game, the tense moments afterwards would have been an all-time fly-on-the-wall moment for whatever words surely would have followed.

But regardless, Pippen was flat out wrong. Even if Jackson was wrong or misguided, simply quitting in the moment is unacceptable for anyone, let alone given his role on that team. I'm siding with Jackson and Kukoc, and let the record show that Pippen's decision in that moment also speaks volumes about his overall arc.

Not everyone has what it takes to be Batman.

The Verdict: 2-1 in favour of Jackson/Kukoc

The views expressed here do not reflect those of the NBA or its clubs.

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