The Chicago Bulls wouldn’t have their six total championships without Michael Jordan. Of course, other great players helped the Bulls win their six titles in the 1990s, but Jordan was the leader and one of the greatest scorers in NBA history.
However, just because he was the team’s best player doesn’t mean he was his fellow Bulls’ favorite teammate. In fact, three-time champ Toni Kukoc recently revealed that Scottie Pippen was as important to Chicago’s success as Jordan was — and he didn’t stop there.
Toni Kukoc had success on the Bulls with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen
Toni Kukoc’s relationship with Bulls teammates Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen didn’t get off to the best of starts. He was just another reminder to them for the disdain they had for general manager Jerry Krause, which led to the two picking on Kukoc when the 1992 Dream Team faced Croatia during the Olympics.
Kukoc eventually put his European career behind him in 1993 and joined the Bulls, who drafted him in 1990. But MJ wasn’t on the team then, as he had retired to launch a baseball career.
Kukoc still had success in his rookie year, though, averaging 10.9 points with Pippen before scoring 15.7 points per game in 1994-95. However, after Jordan returned to basketball near the end of the 1994-95 season, Croatia’s superstar became a key role player on one of the most dominant teams in NBA history.
The 6-foot-11 forward averaged 13.2 points between 1995-96 through 1997-98, and he helped Chicago win its second three-peat of the decade.
Jordan and Pippen both left the Bulls after that 1997-98 campaign, and while they both played a role in his success, one now seems to come up more in conversations about Kukoc’s favorite teammate in Chicago: Pippen.
Scottie Pippen was ‘probably’ his favorite Bulls teammate over Michael Jordan
Kukoc recently entered the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and while looking back on his NBA career, he had high praise for Pippen. In fact, NBA writer Sam Smith, who did a piece on Kukoc’s admiration for Pippen, said Scottie is “probably” even Kukoc’s favorite Bulls teammate, and his NBA.com headline also reflected that potential reality: Toni Kukoc’s Favorite Bulls Teammate? Scottie Pippen.
“I always say Michael probably was the best player,” Kukoc said, per NBA.com. “Scottie, to me, was as important as Michael. Because of that idea that Scottie was taking care of the whole team and was guarding people. He would bring the ball up and would find the right people and then for Michael it was, ‘OK, take us home.'”
Jordan was the team’s dominant scorer during those years and throughout most of his career. He led the NBA in scoring every full season Kukoc played with him, averaging 29.6 points to go with 6.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists.
But Pippen impacted the game in different areas, as he recorded 19.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game during those three seasons. Being able to do a little bit of everything is likely why Kukoc admired him, as he similarly filled the stat sheet for his international teams. Kukoc averaged 16.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 7.0 assists during the 1996 Olympics. He also posted 18.8 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 5.3 assists without Pippen and Jordan in 1998-99.
“I really felt that first year Michael wasn’t there, I felt we (with Pippen) are playing somewhat similar,” Kukoc said, per NBA.com. “I felt free playing with Scottie. I know what I am thinking, how to pass the ball, similar to what he was thinking about the game and everything. For me I was comfortable right away to play with Scottie because I knew he was going to see me every time when I was open; he’s going to give me the ball, he’ll get it back.”
Toni Kukoc’s admission shuts down a possible misconception
What’s ironic about Kukoc’s praise of Pippen as a Bulls teammate is the fact that Pippen overshadowed one of the biggest plays of his career
You likely remember when Bulls head coach Phil Jackson gave Kukoc, not Pippen, the last shot in Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals against the New York Knicks. Kukoc made the shot to help the Bulls win, but Scottie chose not to enter the game, which was all anyone could ever talk about afterward, and it has been the main conversation whenever that game has been brought up ever since.
It would be reasonable to assume that Kukoc has some sort of resentment toward Pippen. He made that moment about himself, not the team. But that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Pippen may have taken the spotlight off him in 1994, but it’s Scottie, not Michael, who’s now drawing the bulk of Kukoc’s praise.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference