The 3 biggest “What Ifs” in Milwaukee Bucks’ franchise history

MILWAUKEE, WI - APRIL 02 (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WI - APRIL 02 (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images) /
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Julius Erving
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – AUGUST 07 (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images) /

What if Dr. J came to the Milwaukee Bucks?

Undoubtedly, one of the most monumental “what if” scenarios within the annals of the franchise’s history revolves around the Milwaukee Bucks’ loss of the opportunity to acquire the legendary forward Julius Erving in 1972, a move that could have instantaneously redefined an entire era. To the uninitiated, the Bucks had initially chosen Erving as the 12th pick in the 1972 NBA Draft.

At that point, Erving had already established himself as a standout in the ABA, showcasing his prowess with the Virginia Squires the previous year. In a surprising turn, just before the draft, Erving inked an illicit contract with the Atlanta Hawks. This strategic move came about as Erving realized that his agent, Steve Arnold, hadn’t prioritized his financial interests, considering his dual compensation from the ABA and the Squires during the contract negotiation.

The ensuing transition to the NBA was fraught with legal turmoil involving the Bucks, Hawks, and ABA. Despite Erving’s intention to play for the Hawks during the 1972-73 season, the dubious nature of the deal left the Bucks’ General Manager, Wayne Embry, deeply perturbed. Embry explicitly contended, “As far as the by-laws of the National Basketball Association go, the rights to Julius Erving belong to the Milwaukee Bucks—it’s as clear cut as that.”

With the Bucks holding the trump card of Erving’s draft rights, the specter loomed large that they could ascend to even greater dominance, surpassing the already formidable lineup of Abdul-Jabbar, Dandridge, and Robertson. This sentiment was echoed by Dick Motta, the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, who bluntly remarked that if Erving joined the Bucks, the league would become “the most boring” due to their overwhelming strength.

As the Hawks encountered fines for Erving’s participation in exhibition games, the NBA intervened and declared that Erving belonged to the Bucks. The Hawks, however, resisted, initiating an antitrust lawsuit against the league. The federal court ultimately ruled that Erving was obligated to honor his contract with the Squires and continue competing in the ABA. The resolution saw the Bucks eventually receive compensation in the form of draft picks and $100,000 from the Hawks.

Embry provided insight into this ordeal in a conversation with The Athletic’s Eric Nehm in February 2019 (Subscription required), including their pursuit of Erving post the ABA-NBA merger. Embry acknowledged that although the situation was distressing, it was a risk worth considering. The notion was that with Erving on board, the Bucks could have potentially replicated the championship-laden trajectory of the Boston Celtics in the ’50s and ’60s.

Embry shared that Erving’s decision not to join Milwaukee was partly influenced by their already formidable roster, anchored by Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. A subsequent effort to sign Erving after the ABA folded unraveled the illicit nature of Atlanta’s signing, resulting in cash compensation and draft picks for the Bucks.

Imagining the dynamic quartet of Abdul-Jabbar, Dandridge, Erving, and Robertson on the same court underscores the transformative potential that this assembly could have unleashed. The presence of Erving might have prolonged a period of Bucks’ prosperity, conceivably altering the trajectory of trading Abdul-Jabbar, contrasting with the swift dissolution that followed their 1974 NBA Finals appearance.

In the sports world, some moments can completely change a team’s path. The Milwaukee Bucks have faced such moments where they could have taken a different direction. They make us wonder “what if” certain things happened. Whether it’s missing out on a star like Julius Erving, almost getting Dirk Nowitzki, or the near chance of having Stephen Curry, these situations show how luck and decisions shape a team’s story.

While we can only guess what might have been, these thoughts show us how unexpected moments leave a big impact on the Milwaukee Bucks’ history, both on and off the court.

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