Former Chicago Bulls forward Toni Kukoc made a bold proclamation during a recent interview with Bally Sports. He suggested the mid-’90s Bulls could have won an NBA title while Michael Jordan was in retirement.
Jordan helped lead the Bulls to three consecutive NBA titles from 1991 to 1993 before shockingly announcing his retirement just before the 1993-94 NBA season. His Airness had been the leading man in basketball for years, but the Bulls had to soldier on without one of the most eminent stars in sports.
Well, it turns out Chicago still had its share of success. Kukoc still believes the Jordan-less Bulls could and perhaps should have won an NBA title.
Toni Kukoc and the Chicago Bulls kept winning even after Michael Jordan retired
Jordan’s retirement just as easily could have caused the Bulls to spiral. Chicago was being deprived of the game’s top scorer and one of its best perimeter defenders, not to mention the most ruthless competitor in basketball. Yet the Bulls still thrived during the 1993-94 campaign.
Kukoc was in his rookie season after long being coveted by then-Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, giving the team some playmaking and scoring off the bench. Power forward Horace Grant and point guard B.J. Armstrong were All-Stars, while Scottie Pippen had an MVP-caliber season.
Chicago rolled to 50 wins and swept past the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the NBA playoffs. That first-round sweep pitted the Bulls against their bitter adversaries: the New York Knicks.
It was a back-and-forth series and included Kukoc’s spectacular buzzer-beater in Game 3 that became more famous for Pippen’s refusal to enter the game in the final seconds. The Bulls would push the Knicks to Game 7 but ultimately fell short. New York would go on to lose to the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals.
Chicago would begin the 1994-95 season without Jordan, though MJ would return in March. That team found a rhythm even with Jordan still in baseball shape, getting back to the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Bulls would once again come up short, however, this time against a young Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, and the Orlando Magic.
Kukoc believes Bulls could have beaten championship Rockets teams without Jordan
Did the 1993-94 Bulls really have what it took to win an NBA title? Kukoc certainly thinks so.
The recently elected Hall of Famer told Bally Sports’ Brandon “Scoop B” Robinson (about 18 minutes into the interview) that the Bulls would have beaten the Rockets had the two teams squared off in the NBA Finals. Kukoc’s reasoning stems from Chicago sweeping Houston during the regular season.
Kukoc did offer some qualifiers. He called former Rockets big man Hakeem Olajuwon the best center in NBA history and suggested he would have been a matchup nightmare.
However, Kukoc suggested the Bulls were still well-rounded enough to beat Houston. He called the 1993-94 Bulls the “most team-playing” squad he was part of, noting everyone on the roster ran head coach Phil Jackson’s triangle offense to perfection. He also referenced the “phantom foul” on Pippen in Game 5 that might have ultimately cost Chicago a chance to advance.
Could the Bulls really have beaten the Rockets?
Interestingly, former Rockets guard and current TNT analyst Kenny Smith maintains Houston would have beaten the mid-’90s Bulls teams even if Michael Jordan hadn’t retired.
It’s likely Smith believes Chicago wouldn’t have stood a chance against those Rockets teams without Jordan, despite Kukoc’s assertions. He’d probably be right.
Olajuwon would have been a total handful for the Bulls to deal with in the paint. For all their dominance in the 1990s, the Bulls dynasty never boasted an elite center. Olajuwon’s two-way brilliance could have made the difference, especially because the Rockets also had guys like Smith and Mario Elie to space the floor. Vernon Maxwell could have made things tough on Chicago’s guards, with Robert Horry likely shadowing Pippen and Kukoc.
Fans could look at Kukoc’s assessment of the regular season as a reason for Chicago’s hypothetical success against those championship Rockets teams. However, the playoffs are and always have been a different animal.