The Chicago Bulls' core fell apart after Michael Jordan left in 1998. Scottie Pippen took his talents to the Houston Rockets, and Dennis Rodman eventually landed a role with the Los Angeles Lakers. Their best player from the bench Toni Kukoc, stuck around for a while. However, after the Bulls' horrendous 13-37 finish during the lockdown-shortened season in 1999, Kukoc left for the Philadelphia 76ers.
A looming championship in Philly
With a scorching Allen Iverson as the face of the team, the Sixers gave a 31-year-old Kukoc a glimmer of hope. Philly was a consistent playoff contender team and was viewed by many as potential future champions. Apparently, Kukoc saw the same thing.
"In Philly I thought I played well," Kukoc told NBA.com in 2017. "We had a really good team and I honestly thought we were going to win a championship that year. I had a stretch when George Lynch got hurt I averaged like 25, 7 and 7, something like that, had triple doubles consecutive against good teams, Indiana and Boston and somebody else."
The Sixers were on the right track until one injury derailed the team. Then-starting center Theo Ratliff got injured, and former Sixers coach Larry Brown scrambled for a quick and effective replacement. And Kukoc still remembers how things went downhill for Philly.
"Theo got hurt in January and Larry Brown thought they needed to bring a center to the playoffs and Theo and I got traded [to Atlanta]," Kukoc recalled. "Then they [Philadelphia] lost the 10-game advantage, ended up second behind the Lakers, lost home court advantage, went to Los Angeles and won the first game but lost four straight. I really thought we had a chance. That team had a chance to win a championship."
Philly was Kukoc's last chance
In Atlanta, Kukoc finished the 2000-01 season with flying colors, averaging 19.7 points, 6.2 assists, and 5.7 rebounds per game. However, the Hawks were far from a playoff contender team at the time.
In 2002, Kukoc was shipped to the Milwaukee Bucks. He found a new lease on life alongside a pair of younger backcourts, Desmond Mason and Michael Redd. In his first season with the Bucks, "The Croatian Sensation" consistently performed off the bench, logging 11.6 points in the regular season and 14.8 points in the playoffs. However, Milwaukee never managed to get past the first round for three consecutive seasons. In 2006, Kukoc finally called it quits.
In retrospect, it's safe to say Kukoc's short stint with the Sixers was truly unfathomed "what if" in the NBA. What if an early 30s Kukoc who still got something left in his tank was the piece Iverson needed to beat the Lakers in 2001? I guess we'll never know what could have happened.