ESPN’s much-hyped documentary series “The Last Dance” premiered on Sunday night and brought with it plenty of highlights. From the traveling cocaine circus that Michael Jordan walked into when he was drafted in 1984 to the infighting that plagued the team in the later years, there was plenty to talk about in the wake of the first two hours of the series. While the primary focus, as expected, was on Jordan, there was plenty of time for his running mate Scottie Pippen to get some shine as well, and ESPN’s crew did a wonderful job interviewing his family and giving viewers a sense of the circumstances in which Pippen matured into the all-world basketball player we saw during his career.
Considering the series takes a hard look at the 1997-98 season, it had to start with Pippen’s unhappiness with his contract situation. As the documentary details, Pippen held off on necessary surgery until right before the season was set to begin, essentially taking himself out of action for multiple months as a way to protest his lowly contract. The numbers were staggering – he only made $2,775,000 for the 1997-98 season, which placed him No. 122 in the league and No. 6 on his team alone. In his interviews for the series, Pippen frames his low salary as a result of the Bulls’ unwillingness to pay him what he deserved, but how accurate is that assertion?
As it turns out, Chicago could have renegotiated Pippen’s contract in 1995, when the new collective bargaining agreement and higher salary cap kicked in, but by 1997, there was no option for them to do so – he was going to have to wait until he hit free agency the next summer in order to be properly paid. In the end, he did just that, winning a final title with Chicago in 1998 before signing a $70 million deal that took him to Houston (and eventually Portland).
Pippen’s complaints may have started in 1997 (or before that), but his real issue is with himself and his own representation six years earlier. Coming off the fourth year of a six-year contract, he signed a lucrative renegotiation-and-extension with the franchise that kicked in a larger salary in 1991 but stayed relatively flat over the life of the contract. It wasn’t necessarily the annual dollar figures that had Pippen so underpaid, it was the length – in exchange for renegotiating the final two years of his original six-year pact, he signed on for an additional five years, taking him through the end of that fateful 1997-98 season.
In the early years of the deal, his salary was among the top of the league – in 1992-93, his $3.43 million salary ranked No. 8 league-wide, trailing only David Robinson, Jordan, Hot Rod Williams, Vlade Divac, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale. At the time Pippen signed the renegotiation-and-extension, it was a good deal for both player and team – he was being paid like the superstar that he was, but the length of the extension was what really hurt him. As the documentary was happy to point out, his salary fell to $2.78 million in 1997-98 and ranked No. 122 in the league.
Part of the issue with Pippen’s small salary was the salary cap spike that came with the new collective bargaining agreement in 1995. The salary cap spiked from 15.96 million in 1994-95 to 23.00 million in 1995-96, Pippen was left woefully underpaid compared to the market. Compare that spike to the one we saw a few years ago – in 2016-17, the salary cap went from $70 million to $94.14 million, an increase of more than 34 percent. While $15.96 million to $23 million is a smaller jump in raw dollars, it’s percentage increase is greater: just north of 44 percent. Apply that percentage leap to 2016 and we would have had a 2016-17 salary cap of nearly $101 million.
Just like in 2016, the cap spike of 1995 left nearly every team with a monstrous amount of money to spend. Total spending for the league skyrocketed, with more money to follow in ensuing seasons as teams caught up to the new world order. Jordan cashed in the next year, parlaying his full Bird rights in 1996-97 and 1997-98 into consecutive one-year contracts that would total more than two-thirds his lifetime earnings on the court. As previously noted, Pippen did eventually get his due with that $70 million contract he signed with Houston.
However, for players already under contract in 1995, there wasn’t a whole lot of new money coming their way. Pippen would remain underpaid for the entire second three-peat with Chicago, culminating in his unhappiness before the final season. Just like he did in 1991, Pippen could have negotiated a renegotiation with the Bulls, using their newfound cap space in 1995 to increase his pay over the final three years of his current contract to a salary more commensurate with his value to the team.
To the best of my knowledge and with the caveat that salary details aren’t precise, the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls opened the summer with $2,329,500 in room below the $23 million salary cap. Luc Longley was their only incumbent free agent that they were intent on re-signing and they had the No. 20 selection in that June’s draft, which they used on Jason Caffey. Every other player listed was already under contract going into the 1995-96 season:
The Bulls made three major transactions that summer: they traded Will Perdue to San Antonio for Dennis Rodman, they re-signed Longley, and they brought in guard Randy Brown to be the team’s backup point guard.
First up was the trade for Rodman, which had to be done with cap space because Perdue didn’t make enough money to match Rodman’s incoming salary. In those days, matching salaries had to be within 15 percent of each other – salary matching rules wouldn’t become more relaxed until a subsequent CBA. Perdue only made $1.34 million for the 1995-96 season, not nearly enough to match Rodman’s $2.5 million. After the trade, the Bulls were down to $1.17 million in space:
Longley’s new contract actually paid him less than his cap hold, so the team could re-sign him as their next move to open up a bit more space:
At this point, they had $1,254,500 in space remaining, which they could have used to give Pippen a pretty significant raise for that year and the next two. Rather than pulling in $7.95 million over the three years in which the Bulls cemented themselves as perhaps the greatest team in league history, he could have made as much as $13.29 million, though a more likely outcome would have seen Pippen paid $12.70 million, given the “rule” in Chicago that Jordan always had to be the highest-paid player.
Still, even splitting the remaining cap space with Jordan in a way that ensured Jordan was still the highest-paid player on the team, Pippen would have made 60 percent more money over the last three years of his contract, and the only thing it would have cost the Bulls is signing Randy Brown, someone who played rather sparingly in the playoffs during their ensuing three championship runs.
In reality, the Bulls did go with Brown, who took $900,000 out of their available cap space, then filled in the rest with minimum contracts, which they could have signed over the cap after renegotiating Pippen and Jordan, so those contracts for James Edwards and Jack Haley aren’t included in the above calculations.
However, it’s not like the Bulls would have wanted to just give money away for nothing – just like in 1991, Pippen likely would have had to extend his contract in conjunction with the renegotiation. Even a contract with a $4.5 million annual value would be underpaying him and if he had to extend that low pay across more seasons, he likely would have made out worse in the long run. In the end, the $70 million contract he signed with the Rockets was the only large deal of his career – if the Bulls had asked for another two years on an extension, then he wouldn’t have hit free agency until 2000, ahead of his age 35 season. Remember: the Bulls asked for and got five additional years from Pippen in 1991 in exchange for a renegotiated salary for 1991-92 and 1992-93, so three years of renegotiated salaries may well have cost Pippen the rest of his career on an extension. It’s hard to imagine he would have ended up earning enough to still have more than $100 million in career salary had he taken this path.
While Scottie Pippen’s unhappiness with his contract situation, among many other things, led to issues for the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, it ended up working out very well for him – he won his sixth title despite only playing about half the season and still got paid that summer (er, winter, considering the 1998-99 season was stopped by the lockout and he didn’t actually sign that next contract until January 1999). If Pippen has any issue with how his contract situation played out while in Chicago, those issues aren’t with the Bulls – he was the one who signed a lengthy extension and while it looked good in the moment, it ended up vastly underpaying him for the entire second three-peat. On the other hand, perhaps there is no second three-peat if he was properly paid – Jordan would have pushed for more money if Pippen had gotten paid and the Rodman trade would likely have been more difficult to complete. It’s not impossible that Pippen could have been paid and the Bulls still win the second triplet of titles, but it’s not a foregone conclusion and his team-friendly contract absolutely helped them put a team around their two stars to be competitive into the late 90s.