The National Basketball Association (NBA) is one of the most popular leagues in the entire world. It now has both fans and athletes around the globe, but at one point, it was in the same room as its death bed. In the mid 70’s, the NBA merged with the high-flying and exciting ABA to bring greats like Julius Erving, George Gervin, Artis Gilmore and Dan Issel to a greater stage. Despite the influx of players, the league fell on hard times in the latter part of the decade because of poor marketing, a bad TV deal and player drug use. Those problems led to diminished attendance and TV ratings, plus an overall bad taste in the mouth of the fans. Some of the Finals games in the late 70’s to early 80’s were even tape delayed to the wee hours of the morning but things started to change in the summer of 1979.
During that summer before the ’79-’80 season the Celtics were about to bring in Larry Bird, whom they had drafted a year earlier, and the Lakers had the #1 pick in the NBA draft. Sure, the Lakers had a moderately successful team with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but still managed to acquire the top pick from a trade years earlier when they sent Gail Goodrich to the New Orleans Jazz. Of course, the Lakers picked the flamboyant 6’9″ point guard by the name of Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Four picks later the Bucks drafted a 6’3 guard from Arkansas named Sidney Moncrief.
Moncrief’s Early Years and Rise of the Bucks
Before landing at Arkansas in the summer of ’75, Sidney grew up in Little Rock (home of the Little Rock Nine) in the midst of the civil rights movements in the 60’s. Growing up in that hostile environment, he learned about protecting himself and about being tough. He once told Sports Illustrated in an interview that “In that environment, you were always on the defensive, because you never wanted to show that you could be dominated”. Sidney used that mindset with him to Arkansas where he became one of the best players in the entire country. In his senior season (’78-’79) he nearly averaged a double-double with 22.0 PPG and 9.6 RPG while also leading the Razorbacks to the third round of the NCAA tournament, where they lost to Bird’s Indiana State team. His play impressed future Hall of Fame coach Don Nelson enough that he wanted Moncrief to join the young and talented duo of Junior Bridgeman and Marques Johnson.
Before Moncrief took his spot as the starting shooting guard in Milwaukee, he had to prove to coach Nelson that he was better than Brian Winters, who was the starter at that time. Michael Jordan once said the following in an interview with Cigar Aficinado magazine when asked the question “Who was the best shooter you’ve ever seen.” “Best Shooter. Oh boy. That’s a great question. Pure shooter? I would say Brian Winters. He had the most beautiful stroke of all the people whom I can think of.” Winters was moved to Milwaukee as part of the trade that sent Abdul Jabbar to the Lakers. After the trade, Winters instantly became a huge contributor to the Bucks offense by scoring 18.6 PPG and joining fellow Bucks player Bob Dandridge in the 1976 All-Star game.
From that season until Moncrief’s rookie season (’79-’80), Brian averaged around 19 PPG on around 48% shooting. The two-time All-Star seemed to have control on the starting spot but that became more uncertain with the addition of Moncrief. At least for the first season, Moncrief came off of the bench as the sixth man of the team and averaged around 20.2 minutes per game. Sidney didn’t score much during the season but really shined against Dennis Johnson and the Seattle Supersonics in a first-round matchup. In that series, Moncrief averaged 12.4 PPG during the series and also gained precious experience guarding Johnson who was one of the most efficient and physical guards in the league at that time. Despite the Bucks eventually losing the series in seven games, this game proved that both Moncrief and the Bucks could compete against the best teams in the league.
Even though the Bucks looked like they could be a contending team after challenging the stacked Supersonics, they still made a clever move in the offseason when they traded former first-round pick George Johnson for forward Mickey Johnson to bolster a front-court that already featured future Hall of Famer Bob Lanier. Lanier was added in a mid-season trade in the previous season with Detroit and immediately gave the Bucks the front court helped they needed. I say that because they were still in the recovery process after drafting center Kent Benson with the #1 pick in the ’77 draft over future All-Stars Otis Birdsong and Jack Sikma who would eventually play for the Bucks around 9 years later.
With the addition of Mickey Johnson, the Bucks were one of the deeper teams in the NBA going into the ’80-’81 season despite the fact that Magic, Bird and Dr.J were in the process of taking over the basketball world. While the addition of Mickey helped patch up the front-court, the team still had a solid group of players that consisted of Winters, Marques Johnson, Brian Winters, Bridgeman and Moncrief. Speaking of Sidney, this was the season where Don Nelson finally gave Moncrief the opportunity as the starting man by sending Winters to the bench to be the top reserve shooter. Moncrief and the rest of the Bucks roster reached their high expectations during the regular season and then some.
The team finished the season with a 60-22 record which was the third best in the NBA behind the Celtics and 76ers. Speaking of the 76ers, the Bucks faced them in the Eastern Conference Semifinals after having a first-round bye for winning Central Division. This was a few years before Philadelphia drafted Barkley in the 84′ draft but they still featured solid players like Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins, Bobby Jones and Julius Erving, who won the NBA MVP in that year.
The series between these two teams became an instant classic that came down to the final moments of seventh and final game. Philadelphia won that game, 99-98.
Despite losing that heartbreaking series, Moncrief had a great series on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Moncrief was extremely solid by averaging 14.0 PPG and 6.7 RPG. Like most of his career though, where he really shined was on defense where he guarded a rookie by the name of Andrew Toney who was on his way to becoming an All-Star player. Toney didn’t look like an All-Star player at all. He averaged 13.8 PPG on 42% shooting — 8% lower then his career average.
Rivalry With the 76ers
The Bucks faced a similar fate for the next two seasons (’81-’82 and ’82-’83) with playoff defeats against the 76ers. Now the said “rivalry” with these two teams wasn’t at the level of the Lakers/Celtics but it’s an overlooked piece of NBA history when you look back at the 1980s. For example, take their match-up in 1982. The two teams were basically the same teams that matched up in the year but the one thing that changed was how Sidney Moncrief improved during the season. He showed flashes the previous year but the ’81-’82 regular season was where he shined both offensively and defensively. Offensively, Moncrief had nearly 20 points and 7 rebounds per game on 52% shooting. His defensive game remained superb with 1.7 steals and he was awarded with selections to the NBA All-Star game, All-NBA 2nd team and the All-Defensive 2nd team.
Despite the accolades, Sidney and the Bucks were still dethroned yet again by the Sixers in six games. This series appeared to be over after rather quickly because Philadelphia gained control of the series after winning the first two games thanks to Dr.J scoring a combined 58 points in the first two games. The Bucks came back in Game 3 thanks to a combined effort from Mickey/Marques Johnson (17 and 21 points), Bob Lanier (12 points and 9 boards) and Moncrief (20 points) who all helped lead the Bucks to a 92-91 victory.
The two teams traded victories in Games 4 and 5 until the Sixers ended the series with a 102-90 defeat at the hands of future NBA coach Maurice Cheeks who had 26 points and 6 assists in the victory. The 76ers would go on to the Finals only to be defeated by the Magic-and-Kareem-led Lakers in 6 games.
For two straight seasons, Philadelphia was on the edge of glory but they needed one more piece. That piece arrived in the summer of 1982 before the start of the season when they acquired Moses Malone, the reigning NBA MVP. While Caldwell Jones was a solid player with Philly, the addition of Malone gave the 76ers an inside threat they really didn’t have since they were the Philadelphia Warriors with Wilt Chamberlain in the mid-60’s.
The addition of Malone with Dr.J, Toney, and Cheeks made the 76ers an unstoppable force in the ’82-’83 season. They easily glided their way to a fantastic 65-17 record and the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Just having Moses Malone and Julius Erving together was enough to carry them to a great record but they also had Andrew Toney who improved dramatically since he faced off against Moncrief as a rookie. That season Toney averaged nearly 20 PPG while shooting around 50% from the field.
Meanwhile in Milwaukee, the great duo of Moncrief and Marques Johnson kept toiling. They were both All-Star players who averaged more than 20 PPG. Marques Johnson was a five-time NBA All-Star during the 1980s but now is kind of a forgotten man when you look back at some of the better players in that period. During his seven-year stint in Milwaukee, Marques averaged 21 PPG on 53% shooting with 7.3 RPG which stacks up well with some of the best forwards of that era.
While Johnson flew under the radar, the more popular Sidney Moncrief had a standout season in ’82-’83. His numbers were fantastic (22.5 PPG on 54% shooting with 5.8 RPG) but his shining non-postseason moment of the season was when was awarded the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award. Moncrief was now known as the best defensive player in the world, but he had to put that behind him as he was looking at leading the Bucks to playoff glory. Before the Bucks could get their revenge against Philadelphia, they’d have to face Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and the Boston Celtics.
By this time Boston was already one of the top teams in the league because of their amount of talent and the fact that they just won the NBA Finals three years prior but were still that one player away from really becoming a dynasty. The series between these two teams ended before it even started after the Bucks blew out Boston in game 1 by the score of 116-95 behind the play of Moncrief (22 points), Lanier (21 points and 10 rebounds) and Marques Johnson (17 points and 5 assists). The next three games between them were closer, but the Bucks eventually swept the Celtics
Sweeping the Celtics meant that the Bucks would once again meet the 76ers in the playoffs but this time in the Eastern Conference Finals where they would fight for the opportunity to face the Lakers. Just like in the Boston series, a team quickly took the series under control but this time it was the 76ers. Game 1 was a highly competitive game between these two teams that ended with the 76ers just barely squeaking out a 111-109 victory in OT. Philly would wind up winning the series in 5 games simply because of the overall depth of that team including Moses Malone and Dr.J who both averaged more than 20 PPG in the series.
One of the main reasons why the Bucks lost is because of the inconsistent shooting of Sidney Moncrief. Despite averaging around 15 PPG, Sidney only shot 36% from the field which is pretty awful when you look at the fact that he shot 52% from the field during the regular season.
The Bucks went into the summer of 1983 looking to beef up their team after losing the likes of Brian Winters and veteran point guard Phil Ford to free agency. Milwaukee tried to fill both of those roles with adding veteran forward/guard Mike Dunleavy and future Hall of Fame guard Tiny Archibald. Archibald was at the end of a storied career after being so successful with the Kansas City-Omaha Royals and Boston. The Bucks were an excellent team before the addition of Tiny but they really didn’t have a player that can step in and lead the likes of Moncrief, Lanier, Marques Johnson and center Alton Lister.
Milwaukee had a solid ’83-’84 regular season finishing with a 50-32 record which was enough to yet again win the Central division but was somewhat disappointing because the team finished 18th out of the 23 NBA teams in offensive PPG at 105.7 but they were still the top defensive teams in the game. Again the main reason why the team was the best defensively is because of the play of Sidney Moncrief who once again won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award. Sid was a solid offensive player with 19.4 PPG on 49% shooting with 6.2 RPG and 4.2 APG but was the vocal and on-court defensive leader for the team.
Sidney and the Bucks opened up the ’84 playoffs by facing a Hawks team in the first round that featured the young “Human Highlight Reel” known as Dominique Wilkins. Yes, the Hawks had great veteran players like forward Dan Roundfield and guards Johnny Davis and Eddie Johnson but Wilkins was still the featured superstar on the team.
Roundfield and Wilkins were superb in this series for Atlanta by helping them win two games in the middle of the series but it still wasn’t enough to overtake both Johnson and Moncrief who both averaged more than 20 PPG on nearly 60% shooting from the field which is a remarkable thing when you look at the fact they did this in an entire playoff series.
The team moved into the second round of the playoffs to take on the New Jersey Nets. Now the Nets as a team weren’t a sexy team like the Hawks but they featured some talented players like Otis Birdsong, Darryl Dawkins and Buck Williams. While Dawkins was more of a powerhouse, Otis was a pure scorer who regularly shot around 50% from the field every season. While those two athletes were more of the scoring threats of the team, Buck Williams was the bruising power forward. Williams regularly averaged a double-double every game not only because of his scoring ability but also by his mastery on the boards both defensively and offensively.
While Birdsong was the lead scorer of New Jersey during the regular season, “Chocolate Thunder” was the man who put the team on his back during the opening game of the series. Dawkins put up 32 points against the Bucks but the stat that sticks out the most to me is the fact that he had 18 free throw attempts. The Nets won that game by a slim margin of 106-100 which would kind of be a preview to how competitive the rest of the series would be.
Besides Game 5 of the series which Milwaukee won 94-82, none of the games in this series were decided by a margin more than seven points. Heck, the final game in the series (game 6) was decided by just a single point thanks to some clutch defense by Moncrief and Marques Johnson. Speaking of Moncrief, he averaged around 20 PPG during the series and played solid defense against Otis Birdsong, who was an All-Star during that season.
The Bucks went to the Eastern Conference Finals where they once again met up with the Boston Celtics. This was the year when the Celtics added Dennis Johnson so they were much stronger than the team the Bucks swept a year prior. The newly rebuilt Celtics easily took care of Moncrief and the Bucks in five games as the likes of Bird, McHale, Parish and Johnson were too much for even a team like the Bucks to handle.
Start of a New Era
The summer of ’84 was a turning point for both the Bucks and the Central Division that they played in. The Pistons were building around a young point guard named Isiah Thomas and the Bulls drafted a 6’6″ shooting guard from North Carolina named Jordan.
While those two teams were trying to find their image in the league, the Bucks had a bit of an overhaul after the retirements of Brian Winters and Bob Lanier in recent seasons. While those two losses impacted the team, the big move that just changed the entire team was a trade that sent Marques Johnson, Harvey Catchings, and Junior Bridgeman to the Clippers for Terry Cummings, Craig Hodges and Ricky Pierce.
All three of these players brought a different skill that would help the team going forward. Both Hodges and Pierce were young sharpshooters in the same mold as Brian Winters while Cummings was a different talent at the power forward position. Sure, Terry was a solid offensive player who had the ability to shoot a mid-range jumper and the overall tenacity to get the free throw line, but he made his keeps on defense and on the boards. The 6’9″ Cummings was the definition of a workhouse because he just outworked the opposition whether it was grabbing an offensive or defensive rebound or being a tenacious defender.
The reconstructed ’84-’85 Bucks were once again a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference because of how stacked they were both offensively and defensively. Of course both Moncrief and Cummings were the leaders of the team but this is the year where the 6’5 Paul Pressey would have a career year as an offensive player with 16.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG and 6.8 APG. Pressey would take the role as the main distributor which would really help out Sidney Moncrief.
Moncrief helped lead the team to a terrific 59-23 record which was the team’s best record since their title runs in the early 70’s. Moncrief himself had another terrific season with 20.9 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 5.0 APG, 1.5 SPG and he was named to the 1st team All-Defensive and 2nd team All-NBA squads.
Sidney and the Bucks met the MJ and the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs even though the Bulls finished with a 38-44 record. Despite Jordan’s best effort (29.8 PPG, 2.8 SPG, and 8.3 APG), the Bulls still lost the series in four games. Besides Jordan, the Bulls were not a good team at all but they would definitely get revenge on the Bucks throughout the late 80’s and the 90’s (sad Bucks fan over here even though I grew up in the 2000’s.)
Milwaukee met a familiar foe when they faced off against the 76ers in the semifinals. The team had faces like Dr. J, Moses, Toney and Cheeks. But Philly also had a new weapon: loud-mouthed 6’6 rookie forward Charles Barkley. Barkley is now known as the face of the NBA on TNT coverage (apologies to Ernie Johnson who was born in Milwaukee) but he was one of the most tenacious players on the court. Barkley had a relatively quiet rookie season (to his career standards) with 14 PPG and 8.6 RPG but he was one of the many reasons why the 76ers swept the Bucks.
That ’84-’85 season was the tipping point of great professional basketball in the state of Wisconsin. Moncrief was in his prime of his career after being an All-Star for five consecutive seasons. 24-year-old Terry Cummings was still improving as a player, putting fear in the heart of the rest of the Eastern Conference as they entered the ’85-’86 season.
Milwaukee entered the new season as basically the same team that were defeated in the summer by the 76ers but with a brand new focus as they once again won the Central Divison and the top seed in the Eastern Conference with a 57-25 record. It was deja-vu once again for once Moncrief as he was named to the 1st team All-Defensive and 2nd team All-NBA squads. This would be Sidney’s final year where he was awarded such accolades but you can say that he went out with a bang by once again averaging 20 PPG, 5 APG, 4.6 RPG and 1.4 SPG.
The Bucks quickly took out Mike Gminski, Buck Williams, Otis Birdsong and the rest of the New Jersey Nets in three straight games behind the performance of Terry Cummings, who averaged more than 22 PPG in the series.
The finale of the great 80’s rivalry between Philly and Milwaukee came to a heated conclusion in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. This is the best possible series you could have asked from between these two teams as it was even from Philly’s Game 1 victory all the way to Game 7 when Milwaukee won by a single point. Moncrief was sidelined for the series after suffering an injury to his left heel but the Bucks went on as “wounded warriors” to quote what Jack MaCallum said in an 1986 issue of Sports Illustrated, “This series was the furthest thing from a methodical defensive showcase as there wasn’t a single game where either Milwaukee or Philly put up less than 100 points in a game.”
You take a look back at the series and you can see some spectacular numbers. For Philly, their “Big 3″ of Barkley (27.6 PPG and 14.7 RPG), Maurice Cheeks (20.7 PPG, 8.3 APG) and Dr. J (17.6 PPG) would have been enough to defeat most teams in the league at that time besides the Bucks. Cummings (23.6 PPG, 10 RPG) and Pressey (15.9 PPG and 9.6 APG) were the leaders on that Bucks team that people really gave up on after Moncrief went down with an injury.
In that same ’86 issue I previously talked about, McCallum went on to say “the Milwaukee Bucks, a team of loyal wooden soldiers who should soon fall on their swords in the conference finals against the Boston Celtics.” That quote by the legendary basketball writer was basically the opinion that everybody around the NBA had about the Bucks as they were going into their Eastern Conference Finals matchup against the Celtics.
The Bucks were just a wounded team facing a Celtics team that was arguably one of the greatest basketball teams to ever step on an NBA court. The Celtics were well on their way to a trip to, and an eventual victory in, the NBA finals and they easily swept the Bucks in four games even though Moncrief returned for Milwaukee.
Demise and End of an Era
The ’86-’87 season would be the last truly great season of the Bucks during this era because it was Don Nelson’s final one with the team. I know I haven’t said a single word about Nelson through out this entire piece which is disturbing because he was probably more important to the Bucks success than anyone else including Moncrief. The reason why I say that is because he not only was the Bucks coach through out most of the decade, he was also an innovator with the “point forward”.
I briefly mentioned the fact that Paul Pressey sort of took the role as the point guard as the team which was an brainstorm of Nelson’s. Using the 6’5 Pressey in that distributor role allowed Nelson to use guards like Moncrief, Pierce or Hodges without having to worry about who would run the offense. Since all three of those guards were solid offensive threats, the tactic allowed Nelson to put a defensive center like Alton Lister on the team to match up with opposing bigs like Moses Malone.
Nelson’s system allowed the Bucks to overpower opponents with their strength and size which sounds strange to the younger NBA fans who only remember Nelson as the coach of those fast-paced Warriors teams of the mid ’00’s.
Going back to the ’86-’87 season, it was a strange season for Milwaukee because they added a great former All-Star center in Jack Sikma. But it turned bittersweet season after losing Moncrief at the start of the season. Sure the Bucks had a solid regular season (finished 50-32) but losing a veteran like Moncrief just took away that on-court leadership that the Bucks had for most of the decade.
I’m not trying to say that they were a bad team because they were a solid team with probably one of the better frontcourts in that era with Sikma and Cummings. That duo with Ricky Pierce (19.5 PPG) and even John Lucas (17.5 PPG and 6.7 APG) who the Bucks signed in the middle of the season ended up making a huge impact on the team. That team actually defeated their “bitter rival’ 76ers in the first round behind the defensive play of Sikma but were yet again defeated by the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in a tough seven-game series.
That series against Boston could be known as “Milwaukee’s Last Stand” because that was basically the end of an era. Nelson would leave the team after being their for ten years to take a job the next year with a Golden State Warriors team on the cusp of their Run TMC greatness with Chris Mullin, Mitch Richmond, and Tim Hardaway.
The frontcourt of Sikma and Cummings would lead the team to two more playoff appearances while under new head coach Del Harris. The team slowly started to move down into the doldrums of the Central Division as Isiah’s Pistons and MJ’s Bulls ascended not only the division but the NBA as a whole.
The core of those great teams would slowly start to split apart in the summer of ’89 when the team would trade Cummings to the Spurs for Greg Anderson, Alvin Robertson and a second-round pick. In that same summer, Sidney Moncrief was waived by the Bucks after coach/GM Del Harris. Harris worried about Moncrief’s age (32) and his nagging injuries, which limited him to a bench role with the Bucks.
Both the Bucks and Sidney Moncrief were some of the hidden treasures of that “golden era” of basketball in the 1980’s. Names like Sidney, Marques, Cummings, Pressey and Lanier will always be in my mind as some of the greatest players to ever put on that Bucks jersey even though I never had the opportunity to see them play this great game. Sure, they never won a title or even made it to the NBA Finals but they still played a brand of basketball that was both exciting and revolutionary.
Moncrief is now known to younger Bucks fans like myself as an assistant coach on the current squad but he’s more than that. He’s a figure that’s kind of a mystery because he wasn’t in any big time advertisements (although he did appear in these minor ones) or on the cover of cereal boxes but was just a player that you would go to war with. Sidney will probably never end up in the Hall Of Fame which is sad, but I hope my long and detailed look back at both Moncrief and the rest of the 80’s taught you to perhaps appreciate some great teams.