The Milwaukee Bucks claimed their one and only championship in 1971, but their successes that season stretched beyond that marquee feat.
Every Milwaukee Bucks fan knows that the 1970-71 season and the team that produced it were special.
Of course, it helps that the only championship banner hanging from the rafters acts as a reminder of that team’s greatest achievement, but it still doesn’t necessarily tell the full story of just how dominant the 1970-71 Bucks were.
Having won 56 games in the previous season, in just their second year in existence, the Bucks were already one of the NBA’s better teams. Acquiring Oscar Robertson undoubtedly transformed the team’s ceiling and immediate goals, but there were other key elements to Milwaukee’s colossal improvement.
More than anything, the Bucks started to find their feet as a franchise, and had their young stars grow into themselves as players.
After compiling rookie averages of 28.8 points, 14.5 rebounds, and a 51.8 field goal percentage, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) improved across the board in 1970-71 with marks of 31.7 points, 16.0 rebounds, and a 57.7 field goal percentage. The biggest difference in that regard was most likely maturity.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Jack Olsen prior to the 1971 playoffs, Abdul-Jabbar was asked about whether he had a professional attitude, responding:
“I do now. I didn’t last year. I mean, I had to find one last year. Through experience. Now I’ve got it. Now I think I’m a pro.”
With coach Larry Costello known as a coach in the mold of a hardline drill sergeant, there was certainly an element of the Bucks having to get used to and grow into his approach over time, and that fell into place in 1971 as Abdul-Jabbar and Bob Dandridge really hit their stride in their second seasons.
The result was a Bucks team that won at a historic rate. As Ti Windisch laid out back in 2016 in one of our History Month pieces on the 1970-71 regular season:
“The Bucks dominated on a near-nightly basis. Milwaukee finished 66-16, and went on multiple lengthy winning streaks. That Bucks team won nine games in a row three times, eight games in a row three times, seven games in a row three times and six games in a row six times.”
Of course, the Bucks’ most sustained spell of wins in that regular season campaign remains a franchise record, and one of the greatest win streaks in the history of the NBA.
Having already put together a 16-game win streak at the start of the season, the Bucks came back with an even better effort when they won 20 consecutive games between February 6 and March 8, 1971.
To this day, it stands as the fifth longest winning streak in NBA history, and it could very realistically have gone even longer with just the slightest bit of luck, considering its end came in an overtime loss to the Chicago Bulls on what was the second night of a back-to-back.
Across the course of the regular season, the difference in quality between the Bucks and their opponents was frequently telling. The season finished with the Bucks ranked first in both points and assists per game, field goal percentage, offensive rating, and defensive rating. On average, Milwaukee outscored their opponents by 12.2 points per game.
In reality, the only team who were even somewhat close to the Bucks were the 52-win New York Knicks, a team who Milwaukee may have been lucky to miss in the postseason. In five regular season meetings with the Knicks, the Bucks lost four games against New York in 1970-71, accounting for 25 percent of their total losses.
In the Division Finals in the 1969-70 season, the Bucks also won just just one of five games against the Knicks, leading to their elimination. Having gone just 2-4 against the Knicks in that regular season too, it was well established that the Knicks were a team that seemed to have the Bucks’ number.
In the matchups between the two teams at that time, the more experienced Willis Reed confronted Abdul-Jabbar with a physical style of play which seemed to continually yield positive results, while the Knicks’ outside shooting forced the Bucks away from what was their usual gameplan. In the media, the narrative was well-established and oft-discussed.
That sense was perfectly captured in the aforementioned interview Abdul-Jabbar gave to Sports Illustrated, where the Bucks’ big man was remarkably candid about the myriad of problems the Knicks caused him and his teammates:
“Their forwards are the most difficult in the league for our forwards. They usually have [Dave] DeBusschere on Greg Smith or DeBusschere on Bob Dandridge and Bradley on Greg Smith. DeBusschere can overpower Dandridge on offense and defense, and it usually ends up that DeBusschere’s the one that cost us the game. He puts ’em in from the outside, and he drives on us.
“See, I can’t go out on Willis. I’m needed around the basket, because when I’m away from the basket New York’s got Walt Frazier coming in on the boards, and DeBusschere and Bradley, or sometimes Dave Stallworth. So if I leave the boards, that gives New York a definite advantage on us. But if I don’t leave the boards, Willis makes that shot from the foul line, and if I go out and play him and make him miss, he passes off to DeBusschere or Bradley for one of those open 20-footers that they never seem to miss.”
All of that can leave little doubt that there would have been no sweeter way for the Bucks to clinch a title than in getting the better of the Knicks, but that opportunity was taken away from them when the Baltimore Bullets bested the Knicks in seven games in the Conference Finals.
Considering the Bucks’ history against the Knicks, that was almost certainly for the best.
Instead, after gentleman’s sweeps of both the San Francisco Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers in the first two rounds, the Bucks faced the Bullets in The Finals, and saved the best until last.
Although Wes Unseld did as well as anyone could at that time when it came to slowing Abdul-Jabbar down even just a little, Dandridge and Robertson were able to step up for the Bucks to ensure there was no real contest between two teams who finished the regular season 24 games apart in terms of record.
The Bucks completed a sweep of the Bullets, only once failing to win by double digits, and holding true to their regular season average margin of victory of 12.2 points.
Milwaukee’s best efforts came from behind the play of Abdul-Jabbar, Robertson and Dandridge, but the Bucks’ depth beyond that was equally essential. A supporting cast made up of Jon McGlocklin, Greg Smith, Lucius Allen, Bob Boozer and Dick Cunningham meant not only was this one of the most talented Bucks’ rosters ever, but one of the most well-rounded too.
With the 50-year anniversary of this team not too far away, not only should the greatness of the Bucks’ championship win and dominant Finals performance be remembered, but so should an all-time great regular season, and one of the NBA’s most impressive winning streaks.
Throughout the franchise’s history there have been other great teams, but there hasn’t been one as dominant as the 1970-71 team, and there may well never be another like them again.