Thirty years ago tomorrow, the Bucks had one of their finest moments in franchise history. Following a 51-win season and a first-round bye for winning the Midwest Division, Sidney Moncrief and Marques Johnson led Milwaukee into a second-round series against Boston. They swept the Celtics. Larry Bird’s Celtics. 4-0.
Boston was deep. In addition to the Hall of Fame front line of Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale, 1981 Finals MVP Cedric Maxwell was still their starter at power forward. 1978 NCAA champ and #3 overall draft pick Rick Robey backed up Parish. In the middle of the season, the Celtics plucked 18-point-per-game shooter/small forward Scott Wedman from Cleveland via trade.
But for all their depth, they were still quite shallow. In the days of 12-man rosters, the Celtics only had four guards. Danny Ainge could play, but he was a hyperemotional kid on and off the court. Tiny Archibald ran the offense, but by that point in his career, he couldn’t shoot straight or defend anyone. Plus, he was, you know, tiny. Gerald Henderson and Quinn Buckner could defend but had jump shots that would make Marquis Daniels cry. None were superstars.
The Bucks preyed on all of these weaknesses in the playoffs.
Those who forget history, blah, blah, blah.
A bunch (but not all) of the Bucks’ problems this season go back to the same issue. In 2013, teams are allowed 15-man rosters, but the Bucks started the season with four guards and a midseason trade didn’t change that fact. The rest of the personnel consists of an amalgam of centers (Sanders, Udoh, Dalembert, Przybilla) and forwards (Daniels, Dunleavy, Mbah a Moute, Ilyasova, Henson, Harris/Ayon, Gooden) of every possible variety and type — with the notable exception being a low-post scorer.
In a way, the strategy made sense at the start of the season. Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, and Beno Udrih entered the season hunting for their next contracts. Each wanted minutes, and Jennings and Ellis had demonstrated a knack for staying healthy despite logging heavy workloads. In other ways, it made no sense. All three were effectively scoring point guards, and (correctly) none were known for their defense. Plus, what if one of them got hurt? Could they count on Doron Lamb? (Short answer: ‘No’.)
Ilyasova began the season as the power forward, struggled, then struggled even more when he realized that bad games would end with Scott Skiles giving him a quick hook.
Tobias Harris began the season as the starter at small forward, then fell out of the rotation altogether. Part of the reason a middling team could afford to trade a promising draft pick was that he wasn’t being used by the Bucks. He wasn’t being used because the Bucks had too many forwards.
Skiles was fired when, among other things, he couldn’t balance the rotation and keep everyone productive.
Samuel Dalembert initially imploded in December, earned a suspension in February, then dreamt about joining his playoff opposition in April. Bad, bad, then worse.
Gustavo Ayon, who despite being 6’10″ was evidently shorter than this cameraman, also designed to play elsewhere because he couldn’t crack the regular rotation in Milwaukee.
Monta Ellis played far too many minutes in the final week of the regular season precisely at the same moment when he should have been getting extra rest. Why? Because Jennings was hurt and the Bucks only had three other guards.
Then there was the Ish Smith debacle that ruined Game 2. Down two points entering the fourth quarter, the Bucks had a chance to win a road playoff game and tie a playoff series with the defending champions. They needed a guard that they didn’t have.
The Bucks could have figured out a way to add guard depth. They didn’t. They chose not to amnesty Drew Gooden (the one person who handed the overloaded roster with grace), and Joel Przybilla kept the final roster spot occupied despite not being useful in any context involving the playing of basketball. A guard who could have added depth or variety or both was never added to the roster.
The problem is something of a moot point now; the Bucks are one game from their summer fate. With so many personnel decisions to be made — including those involving the few guards they have — the Bucks’ roster next season will be different. If management makes the right choices, it will also be more balanced.