Posted: Tuesday September 19, 2006 2:02AM; Updated: Tuesday September 19, 2006 11:05AM
Toni Kukoc enjoyed the most productive stretch of his career when he averaged 19.7 points in 17 games with Atlanta in 2001.
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Jordan and his massive strike zone were still down in the minor leagues for the next season, but a starting power forward slot opened up for Kukoc, and he averaged just under 16 points and a combined 10 rebounds and assists in 31.7 minutes per game. Yet his defense remained porous, and Kukoc was still acclimating to the NBA lifestyle -- which meant altering his pregame routine of eating seven-course meals including salad, pasta, steak and watered-down glasses of wine. Chicago trainer Chip Schaefer later told author David Halberstam that Kukoc's meals ventured into the territory of 4,000 calories, though the Bulls were later able to steer him in a healthier direction.
More distressing was Chicago's play, with a recently unretired Jordan, in the conference semifinals against Orlando in 1995. Jackson had chosen to double-team Shaquille O'Neal at all costs, which meant the entire defense had to recover in time to check shooters Anfernee Hardaway, Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott, leaving Horace Grant open for elbow-extended 18-footers. It was a shot Grant was entirely capable of making, but it was also a low-percentage try, and much more preferable to an O'Neal throwdown or open three-pointer. Still, Grant nailed his fair share, and the sight of Kukoc struggling to rotate toward the open ex-Bull was enough for Chicago to trade for the defensive-minded Dennis Rodman in the upcoming offseason.
Kukoc was not happy with his banishment to the bench, but though his per-game statistics dipped, his overall efficiency improved, netting him the 1995-96 Sixth Man Award. To Kukoc it was a dubious honor, made worse during that year's playoffs when a back injury robbed him of a chance to showcase his considerable talents on a larger stage.
Though the Bulls won the championship that year and the next, a nagging foot injury also hampered Kukoc's 1997 playoff run. By 1998, however, he was healthy -- and his clutch performance in a Game 7 win over the Indiana Pacers vaulted Chicago into the Finals.
From there, Kukoc's star dimmed a bit. He enjoyed the best statistical year of his career in 1999 (19 points, seven boards, five assists), but it was during the truncated lockout season, and on a Bulls team -- sans Jackson, Jordan, Pippen and Rodman -- that won just 13 games. He offered more of the same the next season but was sent to Philadelphia in a three-team deal that netted Chicago a lottery pick.
Stuck on the bench again, Kukoc struggled on a team dominated by defense and Allen Iverson, and was shipped to Atlanta before the Sixers made their Finals run. There Kukoc enjoyed his finest NBA stretch to close out the 2000-01 season, running an effortless pick-and-roll with Jason Terry for an also-ran Hawks team, but injuries and step-slow teammates hindered his efforts during the next season.
This was to become a theme. Though injuries often hindered his touch from the outside and his ability to drive, Kukoc boasted a basketball IQ that was often greater than the sum of the four teammates on the floor with him. His expression vacillated between bemusement and frustration as the cutters never cut, the give-and-gos never went and ball movement was quashed in the face of one-on-one play. Kukoc's final great season was for a Bucks team that underachieved horribly in 2002-03, leading to the trade of its best player (Ray Allen) and the dismissal of coach George Karl.
Even with all the impediments, Kukoc was a joy to watch. He was a loping, lengthy player who seemed able to orchestrate with the best of them, yet chose to pick his spots among NBA types who never seemed on the same page. When Kukoc did force the action, his play stood out -- always going left, always with a pained expression on his face, always in control, a mix of elegance and function.
It probably ends here, which seems natural; Kukoc doesn't seem interested in the game as much if the circumstances (a Midwest locale, especially) aren't ideal, but it was interesting while it lasted.
Kukoc proved to a generation that international-style play could thrive within NBA confines, an achievement that will someday outshine the three championship rings he earned. For international NBA imports, he is due myriad thanks. And to Stateside NBA observers, he is due just as many plaudits for turning everyone on to an entirely different style of play.