In the last four decades, 10 franchises have averaged 50 wins or more in a decade. While 5 failed to win a title during the decade, only one of them failed to make it to the NBA Finals – the Milwaukee Bucks of the 1980s which averaged 52.2 wins per season but could not get past the Celtics and Sixers.
From Expansion to Champion
The Bucks and the Phoenix Suns both joined the league as expansion teams in 1968-69 season. Despite this, thanks in large part to having Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and Bobby Dandridge they were the NBA’s best regular season team in the 1970’s and reached the finals twice that decade:
- sweeping the Bullets in 1971; and
- and losing to the Celtics in a classic 7-game series in 1974.
Nellie Takes Over
Don Nelson finished his playing career as part of the 1976 Celtic Championship team. He became the Bucks second coach part way through the 1976-77 season.
Under Coach Don Nelson the Bucks won seven consecutive division titles and had seven consecutive 50 win seasons. He would win Coach of the Year in 1983 and 1985.
For the Bucks, their fate may have been sealed when they moved to the Eastern Conference for the 1980-81 season. While they were the first team to ever sweep the Boston Celtics and twice eliminated Dr. J and the Philadephia 76ers, the problem was that each time they defeated one, the other awaited them. The 76ers or Celtics eliminated them 7 times that decade and they had a combined 21-33 playoff record against the two dynasties.
More telling, however, was their 2-12 record in three conference final appearances against their two arch rivals (in each case losing to the eventual NBA champ).
- Sydney Moncrief (G)
All Star 1982-86
Defensive Player of the Year 1983, 1984
- Terry Cummings (F)
Rookie of the Year 1983
All Star 1985-89
- Marques Johnson (F/G)
All Star 1979-81, 1983
- Bob Lanier (C)
All Star 1982
1980: A Classic Farewell to the Western Conference
The Bucks played in a number of classic series during this decade, including their 4-3 semifinal loss to the Seattle Supersonics in their last season in the Western Conference.
From the Bleacher Report:
Since the ABA-NBA merger, this is the only seven-game series in which at least six games finished with a five-point differential, or less. Each of the first two games went to overtime, and Dennis Johnson hit a three-pointer with one second left in the first game. The Milwaukee Bucks would go on to take a 3-2 lead, but lose the final games by a combined five points, blowing a fourth-quarter lead in Game 7. Gus Williams scored 33 points in that final game, including four free throws in the final 16 seconds of the four-point win.
1981-1985: Sixers Curse
The Bucks were eliminated by Philadelphia in 4 of the 5 years.
The Bucks lost to the Sixers in a classic 7 game series. From Bleacher Report:
This series is one of only three times in NBA history that two 60-win teams have squared off in the second round. No team could win back-to-back games during the series, which meant that it all came down to Game 7. Despite 36 points from Marques Johnson and an improbable rally from 16 points down, the Philadelphia 76ers managed to win 99-98 and advance to the next round.
Game 7 is considered one of the NBA’s greatest games.
Again the Bucks were eliminated by Philadelphia in the semifinals, this time 4-2.
Coach Nelson stunned his former team, handed the Celtics its first sweep ever, but then the Sixers dispensed with the Bucks in short order in the Conference Finals 4-1. The Sixers then went on to sweep the Lakers in the finals.
The Bucks returned to the Conference Finals thanks in part to the New Jersey Nets eliminating the defending champ Philadelphia. In the conference finals they faced Boston, but lost once again 4-1.
The Sixer curse returned, this time with Rookie Charles Barkley leading the way.
From Sports Illustrated:
But Barkley has been more than just a force on the boards. He was the Sixers’ spiritual leader throughout the four-game sweep, which ended Sunday with a 121-112 win. Taking into account his play during Philly’s 3-1 dispatching of Washington in the first round, Barkley is merely having the biggest impact of any rookie in the playoffs since 1980, the year of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. H. . . The Sixer sweep was particularly astonishing because the first two wins occurred in Milwaukee, where the Bucks won 88% of their regular-season games, tying the Lakers for the best home record in the league. ( Milwaukee’s 59-23 overall mark was third best.)
1986-87: Avenging the Sixer Curse
In 1986, the Bucks finally broke their Sixer curse beating Philadelphia in a classic 7 game series.
From Bleacher Report:
This series was close throughout but capped off by one of the more memorable Game 7’s in NBA history. Everyone held their breath when Julius Erving launched a 15-footer with no one around him and just two seconds left on the clock, but it clanged off the rim and allowed the Milwaukee Bucks to advance with a 113-112 victory despite a furious Charles Barkley-led rally.
Unfortunately, awaiting the Bucks was one of the best Boston Celtics team in history. Larry Bird was intent on sweep, taking over in Game 4, en route to the Celtics 16th championship.
In 1987, the Bucks beat the Sixers again, sending Dr. J into retirement in the first round.
Once again the Celtics awaited them, but this time the Bucks took the Celtics to 7 games in a classic series.
From Bleacher Report:
The Boston Celtics beat the Milwaukee Bucks by 13 points in Game 1, but a hobble Kevin McHale and a white-hot Sidney Moncrief kept the rest of the serious close with 67 points in Games 5 and 6. Five of the final six games in the series were decided by six points or less and two games went to overtime as the Bucks almost came back from a 3-1 series deficit. In fact, they led by eight points with five minutes remaining in Game 7 before Larry Bird took over with 13 points in the final quarter to help the Celtics advance to the third round of the playoffs.
From Complex’s 50 Best Playoff Series:
He wasn’t a household name and they certainly weren’t America’s team, but Sidney Moncrief and the Bucks were pretty good in their day. They’d prove as much in this dramatic go at the Boston Celtics. After winning handily in the opener, Boston narrowly escaped with a two-point Game 2 victory. However Milwaukee wouldn’t surrender their home court, defeating the Celtics in a Game 3 overtime. But Boston would double down on OT with two in Game 4, which the Celtics won 138-137. The two teams traded haymakers, each winning in the other’s building in Games 5 and 6. Leading by eight with just five minutes remaining in Game 7, the Bucks were foiled by no one other than Larry Bird, who scored 13 4th quarter points to save Boston’s season.
Del Harris Era
Del Harris took over for Nelson with the 1987-88 season, but fared no better as the Bucks were eliminated by Atlanta in the first round. The next season, the Bucks won a rematch with the Hawks only to be swept by the future champion Pistons.
|1988-89||49||33||.598||4||Lost Eastern Conference Semifinals||D. Harris (49-33)|
|1987-88||42||40||.512||4||Lost Eastern Conference First Round||D. Harris (42-40)|
|1986-87||50||32||.610||3||Lost Eastern Conference Semifinals||D. Nelson (50-32)|
|1985-86||57||25||.695||1||Lost Eastern Conference Finals||D. Nelson (57-25)|
|1984-85||59||23||.720||1||Lost Eastern Conference Semifinals||D. Nelson (59-23)|
|1983-84||50||32||.610||1||Lost Eastern Conference Finals||D. Nelson (50-32)|
|1982-83||51||31||.622||1||Lost Eastern Conference Finals||D. Nelson (51-31)|
|1981-82||55||27||.671||1||Lost Eastern Conference Semifinals||D. Nelson (55-27)|
|1980-81||60||22||.732||1||Lost Eastern Conference Semifinals||D. Nelson (60-22)|
|1979-80||49||33||.598||1||Lost Western Conference Semifinals||D. Nelson (49-33)|
|PlayoffRecord||First Round||Semis||Conf Finals||NBA Champ|
New Jersey 0
New Jersey 2
The Core Team (80-86)