There is no doubt that Kawhi Leonard and Scottie Pippen are two of the greatest small forwards to have ever lived. While LeBron James and Larry Bird have a large gap from the rest of the NBA’s greatest small forwards, the other places on the all-time list are up for grabs. Two guys that enter the immediate conversation are Kawhi Leonard and Scottie Pippen.
Leonard is the soft-spoken and dominant 2-way superstar who has 2 NBA titles to his name, while Scottie Pippen is known as Michael Jordan’s sidekick who captured a whopping 6 NBA championships. But which small forward is the greater player? It is time to decide.
Scoring – Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard is known as a defensive stopper, but he is without a doubt a Hall of Fame-level scorer. He never rushes on offense and picks his spot exceptionally well. Leonard’s large hands make it easy for him to use a soft touch around the rim and his moves on the block are sublime. Leonard averages 18.8 PPG for his career on 38.2% shooting from three and 85.5% from the free-throw line.
Pippen is known as a defensive stopper as well and his playmaking was his greatest attribute on offense. But Pippen was a very good scorer and could get buckets when he drove to the rack and even from mid-range. Playing with Jordan meant he was placed in a secondary role, but he still averaged 16.1 PPG on 32.6% shooting from three and 70.4% from the free-throw line.
Overall, Leonard is a better shooter and scorer who can carry offenses on his own. He takes the advantage because Pippen’s scoring wasn’t on the level of the 2-time Finals MVP.
Athleticism – Scottie Pippen
Leonard is very athletic thanks to his large frame and massive hands. Leonard is a powerful player who can bully defenders in the post, grab rebounds, and snatch the ball with his abnormally large hands. Leonard can also throw it down with force when he gets ahead of steam.
But Scottie Pippen was a special athlete. He had supreme leaping ability and had the speed to move across the court in a few dribbles. Pippen’s vertical was special and he has a historical highlight reel of posters including the one over Knicks legend Patrick Ewing. Pippen’s athleticism helped him guard 4 positions which gives him the edge over Leonard.
Defense – Even
This one is too close to call. Kawhi Leonard has been one of the game’s best defensive stoppers over the past decade and his defense is one of the reasons why he has won 2 NBA titles with 2 different teams. Leonard has made 6 All-Defensive Teams over his career and also captured the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Scottie Pippen is widely regarded as the greatest defensive small forward of all time because it was his lockdown defense alongside Michael Jordan that led the Chicago Bulls to 6 NBA rings. Pippen made 10 All-Defensive Teams over his career although he never won the Defensive Player of the Year. Still, Pippen’s 6 rings are a testament to his defensive greatness which evens it up with Kawhi.
Clutch – Kawhi Leonard
The difference in this category comes down to Kawhi Leonard’s track record of making big plays as the leader of an NBA franchise. Leonard is a better shooter and scorer than Pippen, and he took the burden of the Toronto Raptors franchise on his shoulders to win them their first NBA title. Leonard’s Game 7 game-winning shot against the Philadelphia 76ers is one of the greatest clutch shots in NBA history, and Leonard is absolutely deadly in critical moments on both ends of the floor.
Playing alongside Michael Jordan meant that Scottie Pippen hardly had to make decisions in the clutch. Jordan had the most responsibility of any NBA superstars to come through in the clutch and he often did. Pippen was still a great player in critical moments because he could get key stops on defense when it mattered, but he couldn’t score like Leonard which gives Kawhi the advantage.
Leader – Even
Kawhi Leonard has the evidence of being the best player on 2 championship teams. But Leonard has always had great leaders on those teams, even if Leonard was the most talented star. With the San Antonio Spurs, Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich were the undisputed leaders of the team. With the Raptors, Kyle Lowry and even Marc Gasol took the leadership role while Leonard took over games. Kawhi’s complicated personality means he isn’t the best leader at times.
Scottie Pippen proved he is a superstar talent when he carried the Chicago Bulls when Michael Jordan retired, but he never really had much success. Pippen could be sensitive at times and as evidenced by the documentary “The Last Dance”, he had a moment of sulking when the final shot wasn’t drawn up for him. Pippen was an all-time great leader but he wasn’t a better leader than Kawhi Leonard which makes this even.
Basketball IQ – Even
When it comes to basketball IQ, Kawhi Leonard and Scottie Pippen are two of the best in their positions. Possibly after LeBron James and Larry Bird, they might be at the top.
Kawhi Leonard plays at his own pace, picking apart defenses and playing lockdown defense on the other end. Leonard never rushes into plays and hardly ever takes bad shots. He is unselfish, plays hard, and does anything to win. Similarly, Scottie Pippen has an excellent all-around game and is one of the smartest players of all time. Pippen knew how to defend certain players and could get his teammates great looks on offense. Overall, this category is too close to call so this one is even.
Impact – Even
Kawhi Leonard’s impact is clear when looking at his track record. Kawhi is a lockdown defender, a capable isolation scorer, and does what it takes to win games. Leonard never rushes in his play and he makes teams championship contenders everywhere he goes. Similarly, Scottie Pippen impacts the game on both ends of the floor and did what he should have to win 6 NBA rings. Overall, this category is also even.
1 on 1 Game – Kawhi Leonard
In 1 on 1 situations, the edge goes to Kawhi Leonard. Kawhi is a great scorer because he has an excellent back to the basket game, can shoot the three, and can finish around the rim. Leonard also has an excellent mid-range game and is efficient from the free-throw line.
Scottie Pippen is also a capable scorer although he prospers more with his playmaking. Much like LeBron James, Pippen prefers to set up his teammates than score on his own. Overall, Leonard is a better scorer than Pippen and can play lockdown defense like Pippen. Therefore it is fair to give the edge to Kawhi Leonard as the better one on one performer.
Career – Even
This one is the hardest to gauge. Kawhi Leonard has 2 NBA titles compared to Pippen’s 6 rings, but Leonard has 2 Finals MVPs to Pippen’s none. Leonard has the case for being the better player on his championship teams which is a massive plus, but it is not possible to ignore Pippen’s impact on the Chicago Bulls Dynasty.
As great as Michael Jordan was, he and the Bulls would not have 6 rings without Scottie Pippen. Leonard might have better individual statistics and accolades when it is all said and done, Pippen’s 6 rings makes this one even.
Kawhi Leonard vs. Scottie Pippen 3-1
Kawhi Leonard edges Scottie Pippen as the overall better player. Pippen’s 6 rings is a massive advantage but he played alongside the single greatest basketball player who ever lived.
Kawhi Leonard also played with Tim Duncan but he won the Finals MVP with the Spurs and also with the Toronto Raptors. Leonard is a better scorer, can play lockdown defense like Pippen, and has proven he can be the best player on a championship team.