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“YOU CAN'T GUARD A CHAIR” Was Toni Kukoč a defensive liability coming into the NBA?

Michael-Jordan-Toni-Kukoc

In the recently published Zach Lowe’s detailed article about Toni Kukoč's career path with the Chicago Bulls, the NBA 1995-96 Sixth Man of the Year points out that upon arriving in Chicago, Bulls forward Scottie Pippen poked at his defensive play by saying “You can’t guard a chair.”

One year before, in 1992 Olympics, Kukoč personified GM Jerry Krause for Scottie and Michael, and shutting him down would send a loud message to the Bulls front office. But was the message to Krause that Pippen's 1991 contract is unfair at the same time a subliminal message to Kukoč that he is too skinny and too soft, and as such, should not come to over to the Bulls?

It’s no secret that the Pink Panther was a predominantly offensive player, but let’s rewind a bit

While in Europe, Kukoč excelled and then dominated by exclusively playing the point forward position for all of his respective teams, three-time European club champion Jugoplastika (later POP 84) and 1993 European club championship runner-up Benetton Treviso, as well as Yugoslavian and Croatian NTs. During that time, from 1987 since 1993, while performing on an international stage Kukoč had the chance to guard many prominent past and future NBA players, many of whom were already stars.

For instance, in the 1987 World Junior Championship in Bormio (Italy), Kukoč not only became the global shooting legend by hitting 11-12 three-pointers but also displayed smothering defense in the match-ups with all of his US counterparts, future NBA stars - Lionel Simmons, Larry Johnson, and Stacey Augmon.

In the years preceding 1992 Barcelona Olympics Kukoč appeared in the total of six McDonald’s Open tournament games, and more than hold his own in the direct match-ups with NBA All-Star forwards Celtics’ Larry Bird (1988), Nuggets’ Alex English (1989) and Knicks’ Kiki Vandeweghe (1990). In the 1990 tournament, Kukoč completely dominated by averaging 20.5ppg, 8.0rpg, and 14.5apg, and made journalists in Barcelona joke about renaming the tournament from ‘McDonald’s Open’ to ‘Kukoc Open’!

But it all didn’t matter - with Kukoč, fans, and media in awe the Knicks ‘destroyer’, superstar center Patrick Ewing was named the tournament MVP.

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From Split, Kukoč went on to Italian powerhouse Benetton Treviso in the summer of 1991, to test his abilities on the international stage. While starring in the Italian Lega A, alongside sharp-shooting Vinnie Del Negro, Kukoč faced numerous past and future NBA players and always held his own. It’s important to point out that the vast majority of these players were previously selected in the NBA draft.

During the summer of 1990, Kukoč led the Yugoslavian NT to two gold medals - in the 1990 World Championship in Argentina and 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle. While completely dominating both encounters with the Team USA, the 6’11’’ point forward didn’t have to waste too much energy in the match-ups with the NCAA and future NBA stars - Christian Laettner, Billy Owens, and Chris Gatling.

In the 1992 Barcelona Olympics tournament, in a game of great importance for the Croatian NT, Kukoč played on equal terms with the 1991 and 1992 NBA Sixth Man of the Year - German forward Detlef Schrempf. Both players scored 25 points, but Croatian NT prevailed, winning the game by 99-78. So, from all of the above mentioned, it’s clear that Kukoč was a complete player by 1993.

In Chicago, Kukoč added much-needed bulk to ‘wrestle’ much stronger NBA power forwards. But, by doing that, he lost some of his previous quickness, agility, and explosiveness. It wasn’t the player the world had seen before - it was a new but in many ways different Kukoč. Not necessarily better.

Even if Pippen’s remark before the 1993-94 NBA season was made in some specific training session moment, it’s worth mentioning that during that season Kukoč played 24.1 minutes per game (6th on a team) and averaged only 1.6 personal fouls per game (11th on a team), which is a huge discrepancy.

The bottom line is if Kukoc was such a bad defensive player, and coach Phil Jackson let him play so much, it should have made the Bulls much more vulnerable on defense, which they should have reflected in their W-L record. And the 1993-94 Bulls had 55-27 record and finished second in the NBA Central Division.

For all of us in Europe, the Kukoč we watched with our own eyes will forever stay the real Toni. The Bull we later saw on our TV sets, in the sleepless midnight hours, was a stronger but a relatively paler copy of a great player who would have dominated the NBA, if given a chance, on some other team.

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