According to pundits, the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls would have never won a second three-peat without one player: Toni Kukoc.
Some may agree while others may not but let’s face it, Kukoc will always be one of the most underrated players on that Bulls squad and possibly, in the NBA during the late 90s.
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Toni Kukoc: The Luka Doncic That Never Dominated
If there is one international player people see in Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks, it’s Toni Kukoc.
Like the now Hall of Famer Kukoc, Doncic succeeded in basketball at an early age by leading Real Madrid to the EuroLeague championship in 2018. He also took home the season MVP and Finals MVP plums during that season.
In 2017, he also led Slovenia to its first EuroBasket title at 17.
Three seasons into his NBA career, Luka Doncic is already dominating the NBA.
That’s something that Toni Kukoc didn’t get to do as he was playing behind the shadows of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Had Kukoc been drafted by another team during the 1990 NBA Draft, he would have become what Luka Doncic is now.
Sure, Kukoc is no Luka Doncic, but the former was a winner from the get-go. Remember those buzzer-beaters during his early years? Those are shreds of evidence of Kukoc’s ability to win. And he didn’t get to play alongside His Airness until 1994, and the rest was history.
Sure, Kukoc never averaged above 18 points per game during his stint with the Bulls. But, he always delivered when called upon. Scottie Pippen even got mad at Coach Phil Jackson when Jackson drew up a play for Kukoc instead of for Pippen himself.
Imagine if Kukoc didn’t play for a team that had Scottie Pippen or Michael Jordan during his early years in Chicago, he would have averaged 25 points per game at least.
No Kukoc= No Second Three-Peat
The irony of it: Toni Kukoc, a member of the Croatian team, faced Team USA during the gold medal match of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. That USA squad had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen along with other big names from the NBA.
Croatia lost only twice during that specific Olympics. Both losses came at the hands of Michael Jordan and company. In the preliminary round, Jordan and Pippen made sure to harass a young Kukoc whom then Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause drafted in the 1990 NBA Draft. Sure, Jordan and Pippen succeeded as Kukoc shot two for 11 from the field and had seven turnovers in the 103-70 loss.
Yes, Team USA won the gold medal match but unlike in his first outing against the greatest basketball team assembled in basketball history, Toni Kukoc finished with 16 points, nine rebounds, and five assists.
Why it’s important to mention that match-up?
It’s simple: that first experience against Jordan and Pippen elevated Kukoc to a higher level- a level that earned the respect of the rest of the NBA when international players weren’t that known yet at that time.
But, for any basketball team to dominate for three straight seasons, everyone had a role to embrace and play. Kukoc’s role?
His role was to be that big stretched forward who can shoot the ball and everything in between passing and occasional ball-handling. He did all of those with high efficiency. He wasn’t a consistent 20-point scorer but he was a consistent back-up to Pippen.
Without Toni Kukoc, the Bulls would have never achieved what turned out to be the greatest regular season of all time. The Golden State Warriors surpassed the Bulls’ record but, we all know the saying: it doesn’t mean anything without a ring.
Without Toni Kukoc and the respect he earned from Jordan and company, the Bulls would have never won that second three-peat. And yet, some people tend to undermine Kukoc’s contributions.