Charles Barkley doesn’t like the way things are in the NBA. Everyone who is at least superficially following the game knows that. The game has become too soft, players shoot too much and, generally, play was just much harder and better 30 years ago. But Sir Charles is not the only NBA legend to voice their criticism, just at this past All-Star weekend life-time Pacer Reggie Miller took a similar stance. And, yes, the league has changed quite a lot since their playing days. Especially the three-point shot has turned into almost every offense’s dearest weapon. Today many teams prefer smaller line-ups over traditional ones and in 2015 the Warriors were the first team entirely built to play small to win a title. While there are many critics of the modern game, it is hard to deny that the overall quality is higher than ever before. This development started, in part, due to the international influence the NBA is exposed to, with incredibly skilled players coming over from Europe in the 2000s. We look back to one of the pioneers of today’s game: Toni Kukoč.
Like most players from overseas, the Croatian was an absolute sensation back in Europe. After turning professional at only 17 in his hometown Split, Kukoč had won everything that mattered, including three Euro League titles in a row. The buzz he created in America was moderate, while today’s scouts would likely rave over his potential: In 1990, Toni Kukoč’s game was something almost unheard of in the NBA; standing six-eleven, he could shoot as deadly as anybody and his passing was that of a Point Guard. The possibilities to use this type of players seem unlimited. He declared for the draft and was taken by Chicago with the 29th overall pick. But he didn’t move across the Atlantic just then, but played two more years in his home continent, polishing his legacy as one of the very best players Europe had ever seen.
Good times in Chicago
When Kukoč arrived in the NBA, the Bulls came fresh off a three-peat, but their world had just been turned upside-down by Michael Jordan’s announcement to retire from basketball. After Jordan’s departure Chicago was in need of a wing player, so that’s what the rookie from Croatia, who was originally a Power Forward, played. He came off the bench behind Scotti Pippen and gave the Bulls an incredibly versatile weapon in an age where shooting Bigs were still rare. In his first two seasons the Bulls struggled, but in 1995 the return of Jordan paired with the acquisition of Dennis Rodman made them an even greater powerhouse. They now had a legitimate Big Three, plus arguably the best bench player in the league in Kukoč. Unsurprisingly, they were able to collect another three-peat with Toni thriving in his bench role (He won the Sixth Man of the Year award in 1996). At this big stage admiration for the Croatian’s game was abundant, earning him several nicknames like the ‘Spider of Split’ and ‘Euro-Magic’.
His best season, at least statistically, came in 1999 when he averaged 19p 7r 5a, a stat-line that illustrates his immense versatility. His three-point percentages were often deterred by overuse, but an impressive 44.6 % in 2001 shows what he was capable of from long range. After parting ways with Chicago that season, his career continued in rather unspectacular fashion. He played mostly for Milwaukee until he retired in 2006, aged 37 and after 12 years in the NBA. When we tell the history of basketball, it is often told without mentioning Toni Kukoč. The Spider of Split matters, not only because he was a core part of three of Jordan’s championships, but because his play was years ahead of his time. Looking back from today, his skill set would perfectly fit Steven Kerr’s offense at Golden State and would even add size to it. For most people, Dirk Nowitzki exemplifies the arrival of the superbly skilled Big Man in the NBA. But while Dirk was way more successful and the face of a franchise, Kukoč was there before him, when Charles Barkley and Reggie Miller were still around.