Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The 45 Most Important Players to the Chicago Bulls Dynasty - #6 Toni Kukoc

Toni Kukoc
Toni Kukoc, aka The Croatian Sensation, aka The Waiter, aka Euro-Magic, aka The Pink Panther, aka Spider of Split, aka Kuki, aka Alien (these are all nicknames listed of his basketball reference page), was drafted in the second round of the 1990 NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls. He was the obsession of Jerry Krause as Krause was positive that he would change the game. As much as Krause tried to bring him on board, they could not come to contract terms for the 1990-91 season. They also couldn't come to terms for 1991-92.

But in 1992, things did get interesting as the Olympics were held in Barcelona, Spain that year. The United States would bring professional players since they were unable to win the gold with amateurs in 1988. Hence, The Dream Team was born. Kukoc would represent Croatia, along with Drazen Petrovic and Dino Radja. But future teammates, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, were a tad tired of hearing about how great Kukoc was, so they made it their mission to destroy him. In pool play, Team USA would play Croatia, and they would hold Kukoc to just four points while he committed seven turnovers in the game. Jordan and Pippen would combine for 13 steals in the game. Seriously, watch this video that highlights Kukoc. The whole thing is good, but they get to the Dream Team Stuff around 3:55 of the video, and it is amazing.

They set out to destroy him, and destroy him they did. Kukoc would fare better in the second game with 16 points and nine assists, but Team USA still won by a comfortable 32-point margin.

Kukoc would finally join the team after the Bulls had won their third straight title in 1993. He would be counted on to replace a chunk of the production left behind when Michael Jordan retired. That rookie year, he came off the bench in all but eight games, but he still made an impact. Although he didn't light it up scoring, he was an offensive guru as he could grab rebounds or dish out assists. At 6'10", he was a rare find in the NBA back in those days. Of course, what will most be remembered from that season was his game winning shot of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Knicks.

Although it was a huge shot, what will always be remembered more is that Scottie Pippen sat out the final play since he was not going to be taking that final shot.

During the championship years, the Bulls were at their best when he was coming off the bench as he was the ideal sixth man, winning that award in 1995-96. Considering the time that he was forced to play with bench units, there was no better opportunity for him to display his wide array of skills. He not only provided scoring but helped the frontcourt with rebounding and especially the backcourt with his ball handling and assists. With that, you're not going to find many box scores that jump out at you, but you are going to see a whole lot of 15 point, 7 rebound, five assist games sprinkled in throughout the playoffs. With Jordan and Pippen on the team, it was never going to be his job to take over. He was the ultimate puzzle piece, filling in wherever needed at excelling in any role.

After the championship years, Kukoc stayed on the Bulls for a short time after the rebuild before being traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. He would also go on to play for the Atlanta Hawks and the Milwaukee Bucks before retiring after the 2006 season.

Toni Kukoc is one of the most fascinating players in NBA history. He was a unicorn before anyone knew unicorns existed. He did it all on a basketball court and helped change the game in that tall guys must play on the inside. His versatility ensured that he could have played in any era, and it's pretty clear that guys like Giannis and Ben Simmons are the evolution of Toni Kukoc. The numbers Kukoc put up in a box score could never add up to the impact he had on the game of basketball.

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