Bulls

Toni Kukoc opens up on 'The Last Dance,' relationship with Jerry Krause

Toni Kukoc opens up on 'The Last Dance,' relationship with Jerry Krause

Toni Kukoc had one prevailing reaction as he watched the first two episodes of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary about the 1997-98 Bulls.

“I’m hoping the other episodes are brighter and more of a celebration of basketball instead of who is guilty or to blame, and why didn’t they win eight championships or 10,” Kukoc said in a phone interview. “The world was so happy when that was happening. So I don’t know what people are mad at.”

Kukoc, who is currently a special advisor to Bulls president Michael Reinsdorf, played a critical role in the Bulls’ second three-peat. His memories of even that final season are primarily fond ones. He laughed when told a scene in an upcoming episode will depict Michael Jordan teasing Bill Wennington for filming everything on his personal camcorder, as Kukoc reads a newspaper on the team bus nearby.

“I cherish the things we did in practice, that we did on the road,” Kukoc said. “That team worked so hard and was committed and devoted. We’re talking about people who won six championships in eight years and we’ve got to find a way to find a dark note?”

During a lengthy phone conversation, Kukoc grew most animated defending Jerry Krause, the late general manager who became a target for Jordan and Scottie Pippen for various reasons, and who endured contentious contract negotiations with Phil Jackson and Jackson’s agent, Todd Musburger.

Krause drafted Kukoc in the second round in 1990 and spent three years wooing the Croatian matchup nightmare to jump to the NBA. Kukoc won Sixth Man of the Year honors in 1996.

“Those three years that he was pursuing me and saying you gotta come, his pitch to me was, ‘You have no idea. We have this incredible coach. We have awesome older players who lead like Pax (John Paxson) and (Bill) Cartwright. We have these amazing athletes like MJ and Scottie who can do anything.’ He had so much joy when he talked about that team,” Kukoc said. “He told me how crazy good it would be with me flying on the break or leading the break with MJ on one side and Scottie on the other. He was never like, ‘Oh, I built this team and I did this.’ He just talked about what a great organization the Bulls were.

“People who weren’t there are assuming and saying, ‘Oh, his ego got in the way. That’s why he destroyed the dynasty.’ Not that they don’t appreciate what he did, but you always put him down? Of course it’s going to affect someone. He’s not here, but I don’t even want to say he can’t defend himself. There’s nothing to defend. He’s the GM of the six-time champs. Name me another five people in the world who did what he did — in any sport.”

In fact, Kukoc said he never knew how frayed the relationship was between Krause and Jackson until he watched the first two episodes.

“Maybe I was ignorant. Maybe I was caught up in my own stuff. You knew there was stuff going around. But when you practice every day and go home to your family and you own business, you don’t pay attention to that stuff that much. Plus, Phil always made this kind of bubble where players were on their own,” Kukoc said. “You knew Michael wasn’t going to be there for the other coach. Scottie wasn’t going to be there. That was the end.

“I was hoping that the minds of people would agree we should come back and defend the title. But now I hear some relationships were to the point of no return. That’s a sad part. But the run was awesome.”

The 1997-98 Bulls went 15-6 in the playoffs and endured their only seven-game series of the second three-peat. Kukoc came up huge in that Eastern Conference finals Game 7 against the Pacers, scoring 21 points to help send them to an NBA Finals rematch against the Jazz.

He acknowledged the difficulty of making three straight runs to a title.

“We were exhausted. We were hurt. There was plenty of plantar fasciitis going around. We were changing shoes. People were battered. It gets harder and harder every year,” he said. “You can’t just walk into the Finals.

“I always say the Utah Jazz and Indiana Pacers probably did the same thing we did — practice like crazy, love each other, devoted everything to winning. And then lost to us. And nobody says things about Indiana and Utah. It’s that close, that fine a line between winning and losing. And you win and 25 years later, you have 10 (TV) episodes about you.”

Here’s Kukoc on principals from the documentary:

On Phil Jackson: “Really smart. Very good teacher. Pays attention to the little details. Does not take people as just players but likes to get into personalities to try to understand how to make them go.”

On Michael Jordan: “The ultimate sports figure. The ultimate competitor. Great person. I consider him my friend. I wouldn’t be that good if I was Michael Jordan. He dealt with so much. And all he cared about was practicing and competing and winning.”

On Scottie Pippen: “He was the ultimate teammate. I loved the way he approached the games — unselfish, ready to sacrifice for the good of the team. He helped me the most.”

On Dennis Rodman: “Same as Scottie. Awesome teammate. Absolutely understood every part of the game. Very high IQ basketball-wise. Sacrificed the offensive part of the game just to give himself for defense and rebounding. Very shy as Dennis Rodman, as himself. But very crazy and fun guy whenever he wanted to be someone else.”

On Ron Harper: “That was my close friend. I loved Harp. We would talk about things on the side. He wasn’t Michael or Dennis or Scottie but he was a veteran of the team who had been through a lot and knew what was going on, understood everything. He’d calm me down when I needed to be calmed down.”

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Luol Deng opens up on 2014 trade from Bulls: ‘I remember I felt betrayed’

Luol Deng opens up on 2014 trade from Bulls: ‘I remember I felt betrayed’

In a recent Instagram Live interview with Carol Tshabalala, Bulls great Luol Deng opened up about his trade from the team to the Cleveland Cavaliers in January 2014.

Deng stressed his gratitude for the 10-year tenure he carved out in Chicago multiple times in the conversation, and the role Tom Thibodeau played in him establishing himself as a do-it-all star in the NBA. But he was clear that he felt betrayed by the way contract negotiations and eventual trade talks played out from the management side, in part because of how much playing for the Bulls, a lifelong dream of his, meant to him in the first place.

“When I got traded, I remember I felt betrayed,” Deng told Tshabalala. “Because the guy who traded me obviously ruined the team — and I don’t mind saying that now, I would never speak about him as a person — but just the decisions that he’s made. Because it changed the whole course of what we were trying to do. When Derrick got hurt, we really felt that we were going to win a championship, but when he broke up the team, you just feel hurt because we became so close as a team. But we had a mission. And that was to wait for Derrick to get healthy and go at it again, but he decided to just break up the team.”

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Deng didn’t directly say who he was referring to over the course of the above comments, but when Tshabalala followed up to ask exactly what happened during his breakup with the Bulls, he recalled Gar Forman leading the contract deliberations that ultimately culminated in him being dealt.

“I gave up a lot of money to stay with the Bulls,” Deng said to Tshabalala, alluding to a past contract (presumably, a six-year, $71 million extension he inked as a 23-year-old in 2008) he said he signed with the team against the wishes of some in his camp, who wanted him to explore more lucrative options elsewhere. “So when they came back again for my next contract, the year before the contract, me and Thibs went in and we talked to Gar Forman, (who) at the time was the GM, and we said, I want to sign right now before the free agency comes up and other people offer money. And at the time, he said — I was 27? 28? — he told me to take another team discount.

“And I remember saying, ‘Why would I take another team discount? Why is there a discount again?’ You know, because this is when I was an All-Star. So he said, ‘We want you to take a team discount.’ So I was like, ‘OK, what’s a team discount?’ and he didn’t discuss anything. And at the time, it didn’t make sense for where I’m at, at the best of my career.”

Deng was eventually traded to the Cavaliers on Jan. 7, 2014, midway through the expiring year of that aforementioned six-year contract. And indeed, he entered the 2013-14 campaign fresh off two consecutive All-Star selections in seasons he combined to average 16 points, 6.4 rebounds and an NBA-leading 39 minutes per game. In 23 games with the Bulls in 2013-14 before the trade, Deng averaged 19 points and 6.9 rebounds per game on a career high 25.1% usage rate.

According to reports at the time, ownership had mandated the Bulls get under the luxury tax line after Rose tore the medial meniscus in his right knee in November 2013, effectively quashing the team’s title hopes for that year. In line with that order, reports indicate that the Bulls offered Deng an extension that averaged a roughly $10 million annual salary over “three or four years,” which Deng declined.

To hear Deng tell it, Thibodeau fiercely advocated for him throughout.

“Thibs was upset, and Thibs kept telling them (the front office), ‘Sign Lu, I need you to sign Lu,’” Deng told Tshabalala. “So when the [2013-14 season] started, I wasn’t signed for the Bulls, and Thibs decided he was going to make them know how important I am for the team, and ran everything through me — and this is why I love Thibs still today...  I was averaging 20 (points per game) at the time when I got traded. When the front office saw that I was averaging 20, obviously now, everybody wanted to pay me more money. So they decided that it was better to trade me before they lose me for nothing.

“So I was called into the office and I was given two days to take $30 million for three years, or else. I decided to go with ‘or else.’”

The Bulls netted Andrew Bynum, who they immediately waived, and three conditional draft picks, which eventually became Jordan Bell (flipped to the Golden State Warriors for cash considerations), Sir’Dominic Pointer and Paul Zipser, in the transaction. Deng finished out the 2013-14 season in Cleveland, then signed a two-year, $20 million contract with the Miami Heat that summer, with a player option on the second year that he eventually exercised. A $72 million payout from the Los Angeles Lakers and a stop with the Minnesota Timberwolves followed before he officially retired in October 2019 after signing a one-day contract with the Bulls.

Deng remains the fourth-leading scorer in Bulls franchise history, top five steals and minutes played, and is one of just five players (along with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Jerry Sloan and Tom Boerwinkle) to begin a 10th season with the team. His legacy was honored in a ceremony attended by many from the Baby Bull and Thibodeau eras during a game against the Detroit Pistons on Nov. 20 at the United Center.

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Bulls mailbag: NBA bubble considerations, draft needs and Jim Boylen talk

Bulls mailbag: NBA bubble considerations, draft needs and Jim Boylen talk

Typically, at this time of year, questions about free agents would flow. Instead, it’s questions about bubbles.

How does the Bulls front office, coaches, players feel about the second bubble idea? And what, if any, impact has this had on the Jim Boylen decision timeline? — @ryanborja, via Twitter

Like most teams that weren't invited to the league's restart in Orlando, Arturas Karnisovas is on record as saying he hopes the league allows some formal group activities. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be a bubble, although Michele Roberts, executive director of the players association, is on record as saying she’d only sign off on group activities if they meet the same safety protocols as those in Orlando. That means daily testing, quarantining for a period of time before playing and a plan to handle any positive tests, among other things.

This stance would seem to rule out teams gathering in their own practice facilities for group activities and perhaps regional scrimmages that would feature, for instance, the Bulls and Pistons or Cavaliers. Some of the eight teams not invited to Orlando prefer this model.

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I actually think the Bulls would have pretty strong representation if a second bubble occurs. They’re a young team and players miss playing. Zach LaVine even traveled to Chicago this week for some workouts at the Advocate Center. It would certainly make for some interesting decisions, though. For instance, Lauri Markkanen is eligible for a contract extension. Would he risk injury for what, essentially, would be glorified summer league scrimmages?

As for Boylen, it’s been reported several times that it’s more likely than not he and his staff would have presided over any possible conclusion to the 2019-20 season. Only Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley know if such activities would qualify, although they certainly would represent an opportunity for Karnisovas to see Boylen in action. That’s a stance Karnisovas also has stated publicly.

If by chance the second bubble materializes in Chicago, can the NBA incentivize these games by having teams play for upcoming draft positions? If they are truly against seeing teams tank for draft position, make these teams play for something. — Kenneth H.

The draft lottery odds are finalized. Your scenario raises this unlikely outcome: Veteran players busting their butts in meaningless games to better their teams’ odds to draft their replacement. That’s not happening.

Will the Chicago Bulls front office be able to travel to Orlando to scout players? — @chisportupdates, via Twitter

The last time I checked on this with the league, I was told no. It’s why this is such an unprecedented and difficult time for these eight teams. It’s such a competitive disadvantage to essentially not be part of the league as it resumes play.

What position do you think they will focus on in the draft? Or do you think they’ll just take best player available? — @tannermartello, via Twitter

For what it’s worth, Karnisovas disputed the notion this is a weak draft. Here’s what he said on June 6:

“I like a lot of players that are in our range. I think we’ve done a lot of work studying. That’s why the excitement is coming from studying those players and interviewing them and looking at the video. So I think we’ll add a good player to our roster next year.”

The biggest needs to me are wing depth and a true point guard. Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison each have displayed an ability to make an impact when healthy, but neither has been able to stay on the floor. And while Coby White displayed growth in terms of his decision-making and ball security, he remains more of a scoring guard to me. Tomas Satoransky is a rotation player for any team in the league, but he’s not going to be here long-term.

A lot obviously will depend on the draft lottery. The Bulls own 7.5 percent odds to win the No. 1 overall pick and a 32 percent chance to move from their current No. 7 slot into the top-four. Let’s say the Bulls get lucky. You’ll learn about how the new management team views the current roster with what they do then.

When talking about the Bulls draft position, I see a lot of mention about the need for a point guard and a true center with the names Killian Hayes, LaMelo Ball and James Wiseman possible targets depending on draft position. However, I feel our biggest need is at small forward where all we have is Otto Porter Jr., whose contract will thankfully be over after next season, and Chandler Hutchinson, who is more frail than my roof during the last storm. We need some wings badly on this team. What are your thoughts on Isaac Okoro and the Deni Avdija kid? — Nick P.

My first thoughts are you need to be a writer with that flourish on Hutchison.

My thoughts on wing depth were addressed in the previous question. As for those specific prospects, Okoro’s athleticism and defensive instincts stand out the most to the scouts I’ve talked to. Both Karnisovas and Eversley said they like players with defensive versatility, a trend in today’s NBA. Okoro projects to be able to guard point guard to power forward. Questions exist about his shooting ability, but he’s also got an improve-at-all-costs mindset.

Avdija is drawing notice for his willingness to make the right play and read screen-and-roll, which is essential in today’s NBA. His shooting has improved, and he’s one of those players who is tall and long enough to play power forward and also slide down to small forward.

RELATED: NBC Sports Chicago NBA Mock Draft 6.0

There’s this thought that Wendell isn’t an NBA center and more of a power forward like the player he gets compared to in Al Horford. Do you see his position moved? Should we wait to see him and Lauri Markkanen play side by side under a more capable NBA head coach? — @jermaine611, via Twitter

At 6-foot-9, Carter may be an undersized center and, yes, he has struggled at times against traditional big men like Joel Embiid and Andre Drummond. But how many of those centers are left in the league? I actually think the skill sets of Markkanen and Carter can mesh very well, particularly in today’s NBA.

Both are high-IQ players and willing, underrated passers. Both possess ball skills, so you could run offense through them or initiate actions with them. Horford has played plenty of center in small-ball lineups over the years. The way I see it, Carter and Markkanen can be interchangeable on offense at times, although Markkanen obviously possesses more shooting range. On defense, Carter can play center. He does own a 7-5 wingspan after all.

I think keeping Jim Boylen would be a big risk, don’t you? Maybe he's not the worst coach in the league, but this is not only about him being good or not. It's about perception, franchise reputation around the league, fan base enthusiasm. It's about the ability to attract good players and stay away from all the internet memes and jokes. And those things matter too. I think there's a lot of excitement right now because of the new management, but some fans are already starting to question if the overhaul was real, if Karnisovas really has full power. Change has to be real, or at least perceived as real.

One more thing: In a normal situation, Boylen could silence the critics winning some games early next season. Now he can't. If they keep him, they're facing months and months of critics. It's a tough decision and maybe Boylen really deserves another chance. But I think they should move on. What's your opinion? Thanks and stay safe. — Michele from Italy

My opinion is this is the best question I’ve received from an endless supply of questions about Boylen’s future. I understand the theory, but it's clear that Karnisovas isn't going to be swayed by public opinion. He's going to go through the evaluation process on Boylen. He does have full autonomy to make the decision. And as he has stated consistently, he’s getting to know Boylen and his staff before making such a critical decision.

All the Bulls have is time. There are no formal group activities occurring right now. Individual players can do voluntary workouts at the Advocate Center with an assistant coach. That’s it.

I understand the sentiment that firing Boylen now would please a certain segment of the fan base. I read and received all the feedback when Karnisovas moved quickly on firing Gar Forman. But Karnisovas also knows Boylen has ownership support. So of course he has to thoroughly go through the evaluation process if he's going to bring a plan for change to that ownership.

This is just a reading of the tea leaves, but I found how Karnisovas opened his end-of-season teleconference with reporters telling: “Our objective is to use this time in innovative ways to create opportunities for our players and coaches to encourage development. I know that you are anxious for me to comment definitively on our future of the Chicago Bulls. I understand that anticipation. That said, I take pride in being deliberate and thoughtful in my decision-making, and take the weight of my decisions seriously. I’m not inclined to make evaluations prematurely to satisfy our excitement to move this team forward.”

Read that last sentence again. Translated: He’s going to use the time he has at his disposal before making a decision on Boylen’s future. He's not going to be swayed by public opinion.

I’ve written this before, but one thing Boylen has struggled with since becoming head coach is trying to be all things to all people rather than just focusing on coaching. Karnisovas and Eversley have talked to Boylen and his staff about just focusing on coaching. They’ll handle all the organizational brush fires that always arise over the course of a season.

I'm taking Karnisovas' public words on the situation at face value. He has said he wants to see Boylen in action and get to know him and his staff before deciding upon his future. He's going through that process now. They spent time together a couple weeks back when Karnisovas first came to Chicago and again when he and Marc Eversley returned this week after the holiday weekend. As previously mentioned in this mailbag, Karnisovas has empowered Boylen since he landed the job. Karnisovas has asked Boylen for input on player development strategy, watched film with him and talked about draft and free agency plans. Boylen planned his normal offseason visits of players, although COVID-19 has impacted those for now.

Also, I’d dispute your point that Boylen wouldn’t silence critics if the Bulls started winning games. Winning cures all. Yes, there’d be some angst and anger over the time between the official announcement of Boylen’s return and the start of next season. And perhaps more importantly, winning consistently is a speculative stretch. But if it happened, people would start talking about Boylen’s care factor and ability to adapt. Stay tuned.

What are the basketball reasons you think would justify keeping Boylen? — Shannon R.

The fact the Bulls were a top-10 defense as a young team before widespread injuries hit. His staff. His ability to take direction and work collaboratively with a front office. LaVine's growth as a decision-maker and scorer. The signs of life when Otto Porter Jr. has played, which has been a mere 29 games due to injuries.

To be clear, I’m answering your question, not advocating for his return for those reasons. But I do think one thing being lost in talk about Boylen being one of the league’s lowest-paid coaches is that he also just hired a new staff. Chris Fleming and Roy Rogers just finished the first season of their three-year deals.

I’m not saying such contracts and considerations are deal breakers in the big picture, particularly for a franchise that prints money. But Karnisovas has a comfort level with Fleming, with whom he worked in Denver. He has also crossed paths with assistant coach Dean Cooper, who was in Houston when Karnisovas arrived there. And don’t forget that Karnisovas picked up the option of assistant coach Nate Loenser.

The decision is a multi-layered one, which is why Karnisovas, as mentioned in the last answer, is using the luxury of time that he has at his disposal to make it. Boylen and his staff are working as if they're going to return, which is how they should approach the situation.

Do you think Joakim Noah plays much for the Clippers? — Matt A.

Their bench is pretty stacked. But he’s a great signing, and I’ll be watching Clippers games to find out. If nothing else, seeing him clap from the bench while LeBron James is at the free-throw line will be entertaining.

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