Milwaukee Bucks: 49 years in 49 days – 1987-88 season

BOSTON - 1988: (Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images)
BOSTON - 1988: (Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images) /

With a new head coach at the helm, the Milwaukee Bucks fell off in the 1987-88 NBA season.

The season: 1987-88

The record: 42-40

The postseason: 2-3, lost in first round

The story:

Most things about the Milwaukee Bucks’ decade thus far in the 1980s had been inconsistent. The star of the team rotated from Marques Johnson to Sidney Moncrief to (kind of) Terry Cummings, and the Bucks went through a bevy of role players in that time.

One constant, however, had been Don Nelson‘s presence running the team. Nellie took over halfway through a rough season and since then made Milwaukee a constant contender who just couldn’t get over the hurdles that were the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics.

Until 1987-88, that is. Nelson’s relationship with then-Bucks coach Herb Kohl had soured, and he left the team — and the NBA, for a season — in 1987. Del Harris, a Nellie assistant coach, took over the Bucks.

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His job wasn’t exactly easy at the time. Sidney Moncrief continued to struggle with injuries and played just over 50 games that season. Terry Cummings continued to pour in points, and much of the rest of the core remained as well, although for the second straight year more than 20 Bucks suited up on the season.

Don Nelson was always able to make moves to his advantage and keep the Bucks as a top NBA squad. His replacement was not able to do that in his first season on the job. Milwaukee was a revolutionary defense with Nellie at the helm, with the Bucks routinely being ranked in the top three or so defenses via defensive rating.

In Harris’ first season in charge, Milwaukee was 13th in the NBA, out of 23 total teams. Going from the best of the best to a bottom half defense took its toll on the Bucks, and their win total reflected the change in defensive prowess.

At the time, defense really did win championships. It could be argued that’s still a true saying, but the emergence of the three-pointer has certainly changed things. Regardless, back in the 1980s having a great defense and defending the rim was hugely influential in determining the top teams.

That meant Milwaukee’s defensive slide was a huge detriment, and it showed in the Bucks winning just 42 games in the 1987-88 season. The ’87-88 season was the worst for Milwaukee in nearly a decade, but the Bucks still qualified for postseason play.

Their opponent in the first round was the Atlanta Hawks, led by Dominique Wilkins. The five-game series looked like it might be a sweep after the Bucks lost both of the first two games in Atlanta, but a home-court push helped by some huge T.C. scoring outbursts tied the series up at two games apiece.

Cummings brought it in Game 5 too, posting 28 points in the loss. His teammates did not. Moncrief put up four points. Fellow starters Larry Krystkowiak and Paul Pressey put up five and eight points, respectively.

Next: 49 years in 49 days: 1986-87 season

Without a top-tier defense or enough effective scorers, the Milwaukee Bucks couldn’t find a way to win in Atlanta, drawing an early end to their 1988 postseason run.