We’re Bucked Presents: The Milwaukee Bucks’ 1980s FAIL Squad

The Milwaukee Bucks won 52.2 games per year, on average, in the 1980s. They made the playoffs in each of the ten years, including seven straight division titles to start the decade.  Thus, picking players for the All-FAIL team of the the 80s, using starters, posed a unusually difficult challenge.  Sidney Moncrief manned the shooting guard position for the entire decade, and the small forward job went to the tandem of Marques Johnson and Paul Pressey. As a result, the team chosen below doesn’t really have a SG or a SF — which is an added bonus, because it virtually ensures that if these five guys started an NBA game together, they would lose.  Badly.  Despite their cumulative ugliness, however, these players did find ways to contribute separately to successful teams.

So without further ado, here’s the worst of a good lot:

Center: Randy Breuer, 1985-86.  8.4 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.4 BPG, 48% FG, 71% FT. 

Breuer was a 7’3″ center whose body posture on the court made him play more like a 6’10 tweener.  He ran the court with a pained, laboring gait and rebounded poorly for a man with his reach.  Imagine a shorter version of Shawn Bradley; watching Randy Breuer play never brought anyone joy.

Nevertheless, Randy did block shots and he started at center for a team that won 57 games and fought its way into the Eastern Conference Finals.  Not many people can say that. The Bucks, though, needed him to play big against the greatest frontcourt in history: the ’86 Celtics (Bird, McHale, Parish, Walton).  His stat line (avg.) for the final two games: 16.5 minutes, 0.5 points, 1.0 rebound. Boston swept.

Power Forward: Alton Lister, 1983-84. 7.6 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.7 BPG, 50% FG, 63% FT. 

In Bob Lanier’s final season, Alton Lister was the team’s starting power forward — his first year as a starter in the NBA.  But he didn’t like it.  He pouted.  He insisted that he would rather be a backup center than a starting power forward.  For the month or so after Christmas, Alton got his wish.  Nellie benched him and went to rookie Randy Breuer instead.  That experiment ended quickly (see above). Lister got his job back and Breuer ended up playing fewer minutes than he had originally.

Despite his weaknesses — free throws, scoring, rebounding, blending in on offense — Liston did make an impact on the defensive end.  He finished 10th in the league in blocked shots and his presence influenced many more, which was no small matter considering that the aging Lanier couldn’t help Lister much in this area.  Statistically, in an NBA season filled with great offense, he led the league in defensive rating (according to BasketballReference.com), as opponents only scored 99 points per 100 possessions with Lister on the court.

That’s right, the worst starting power forward for the Bucks in the decade led the league in the defensive efficiency stat.  (Did I mention yet that the Bucks were good in the 80s and this list was extremely difficult to make? Let’s move on.)

Power Forward: Paul Mokeski, 1984-85.  All-Star, 6.3 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.3 SPG, 48% FG, 70% FT. 

The premise for this whole “worst team” article was to pick bad starters.  Choosing Mokeski violates the rule entirely.  First of all, Alton was a power forward and choosing Mokeski adds another one.  Second, Mokeski wasn’t a bad starter; rather, he was a so-so sixth man.  As Bill Simmons aptly describes him in his Book of Basketball,

Poor Mokeski was extraordinarily unathletic and ran like he had two prosthetic legs; if that weren’t enough, he tried to bring back the curly-perm/wispy-mustache combo that should have died in the eraly eighties.  Throw in male pattern baldness and a disapperaring chin and Mokeski looked like a Jersey cop who should have been standing in a donut line.  So you can only imagine how bizarre it was that he had a semieffective game — physical defender, decent banger, relaible 18-footer, never did anything he couldn’t do — and averaged 20 minutes for a 59-win Bucks team in 1985.

Sorry/congratulations, Paul.  That does sum it up well, doesn’t it?

Guard: Nate ‘Tiny’ Archibald, 1983-84.  7.4 PPG, 3.5 APG, 1.7 RPG, 0.7 SPG 49% FG, 63% FT. 

Guard: Mike Dunleavy, 1984-85.  8.9 PPG, 4.5 APG, 1.6 RPG, 0.8 SPG, 47% FG, 86% FT. 

Tiny Archibald and Mike Dunleavy get lumped together in the list for identical failures in successive years: getting bit by the injury bug and leaving the Bucks shorthanded.  Despite their successes elsewhere, both arrived in Milwaukee at the tail-end of their careers and by then, neither had much to contribute — and that little bit shrunk after both players injured themselves.

First off, Tiny Archibald was NOT a bad player.  He led the NBA in both points and assists in 1973 (a feat that remains unmatched to this day) and he’s a member of both the Basketball Hall of Fame and the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players.  In fact, during lockout-imposed free time, Brandon Jennings should spend a day or two shuttered in a room with nothing but video clips of Archibald (pre-1982, please). He could well afford to see what it means to be a speedy, diminutive, left-handed point guard running a successful offense.  Tiny’s inclusion on this list is decidedly not an indictment of the rest of his career.

But the Bucks should have see time running out for Nate.  In the prior , Milwaukee swept the Celtics out of the playoffs, in large part because the Celtics had no perimeter players who could both defend on one end and make a jump shot on the other.  35-year-old Tiny could barely manage to do either.  A few months later, the Bucks plucked him off waivers from the Celtics. He made the team and they had to honor his $300,000 contract — a sizable one at the time.

It ended poorly.  Archibald only stayed healthy for 46 games.  Paul Pressey took the role for a stretch in January. The Bucks tried other options to build up depth at the point; first Charlie Criss (ironically, a man tinier than Tiny), then Lorenzo Romar.  With Tiny hobbled, other teams went at them with ball-hawking zeal.

In addition to Archibald, the Bucks have tried Lorenzo Romar at point guard.  With people like that running the offense, most teams put a full court press on, forcing numerous turnovers. When Moncrief was forced to bring up the ball, he usually wore out late in the game.  (Dan Hafner, LA Times, March 19, 1984)

Desperate for guard help, the Bucks signed Dunleavy in March.  While he contributed during the stretch run to the playoffs, he laid an egg the next season.  Dunleavy’s three-point range was a weapon, especially since the skill was rarer in these early years after the shot was implemented.  But years of a bad back limited his athleticism, too, and the next year he reprised Archibald’s role, playing only 18 games.  Eventually, the limited choices at guard (other than Sidney) forced Don Nelson’s hand.  Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, leading 3 games to 2, Nelson gave up on the mishmash.  Dunleavy shot 0/6 in limited minutes and Tiny missed the game entirely.  But Nellie had a plan in reserve.  He had Marques dribble up the court, initiate the offense, and then move without the ball to create a mismatch in isolation:

The Bucks held off the Nets by resurrecting an offensive strategy that Coach Don Nelson said went unused for about three years. 

The offense, which Don Nelson decided to implement while at practice Thursday, was designed to spread out the players and create movement of the ball.  The Bucks used it through most of the second half, with (Marques) Johnson the primary ballhandler. 

It is a role Johnson, a 6-foot-7 forward, is not accustomed to.  But he enjoyed it.

“I handled the ball more and felt I could create things,” he said.  (Bob Sansevere, AP wire story, May 11, 1984)

Viva la Nellieball. After a loss to the eventual champion Celtics in five games, the Bucks traded Marques, Tiny retired, and Dunleavy returned for one last injury-riddled year.  But the motion offense was back, and a path for Paul Pressey’s future role as point forward was paved.

With the exception of never getting to play for a title, the 80s were kind to the Bucks:  even a setback like running out of point guards turned into a positive.

K L Chouinard is co-editor of We’re Bucked.  Follow him on Twitter here.

Previous articles in this series:

1980s All-Stars

1970s Duds

1970s All-Stars

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Tags: Alton Lister Mike Dunleavy Sr. Nate Archibald Paul Mokeski Randy Breuer Tiny Archibald

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