With their ninth straight loss to the Spurs at San Antonio on Sunday, January 19, the Milwaukee Bucks continued collapsing as the NBA’s worst team at 7-33. In destroying this once outstanding franchise, their approach to outright tanking this particular season has proven historically not to work. Strangely enough, 2013-14 marks the 20th anniversary of the previously worst Bucks team ever; when GM/Coach Mike Dunleavy’s 1993-94 squad finished 20-62. Milwaukee is currently on pace to go 14-68.
In truth, owner Herb Kohl’s franchise has never truly fully recovered from that season 20 years ago, even though at the time, it allowed them to win the NBA Draft Lottery and take Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson with the first overall pick in 1994. For anyone old enough to have followed the entire existence of the franchise, those 20 wins were thought to be the nadir. Instead, it was but the real beginning of a decline that has turned Milwaukee into a national afterthought at best or an outright joke otherwise.
One only needs to go back to the birth of both the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns for the 1968-69 season to understand the consequences of trying to tank a season. The prize of the 1969 draft was to be dominant center Lew Alcindor of UCLA, who was then officially listed at 7-1 3/8. Each expansion franchise took a very different path to present the NBA product to their fans and there was no draft lottery at the time. In that 14-team NBA however, there was a coin flip between the worst teams in the Eastern and Western Divisions, which was still a hedge against a team simply giving up their season.
Milwaukee had previously had an NBA failure in losing the Hawks franchise to St. Louis by 1955, so the need to establish a competitive, respectable expansion team in the same Milwaukee Arena once used by the Hawks was paramount. For Phoenix, the Suns were their first major league sports team of any kind, so there was a different dynamic. The Bucks had initially also sold some limited public shares in the franchise to create some sort of investment bond in making it work this time.
With former University of Wisconsin Badgers coach John Erickson as their general manager and newly retired point guard Larry Costello as their hard-nosed head coach, the Milwaukee Bucks mixed a few castoff veterans like Guy Rodgers and Wayne Embry with some younger unknowns and forged one of the better expansion records ever at 27-55. They even made an important trade at midseason to bring in point guard Flynn Robinson, “The Electric Eye” as dubbed by radio announcer Eddie Doucette, who brought some scoring firepower excitement to the team.
In contrast, the Phoenix Suns under former center and Head Coach Red Kerr went the youth route, with only two players with as much as four years experience and three-year vets Gail Goodrich and Dick Van Arsdale as their star scoring threats. If they did not tank the season on purpose, the result was still a satanic 16-66 finish, with an eye on Lew Alcindor. Such failure was not rewarded in this case.
The fates of the two franchises were telling in their first decade: By winning that historic coin flip for Lew Alcindor, the Milwaukee Bucks went on to add Oscar Robertson to a young nucleus and won the 1971 NBA title in dominating fashion by their third season, in the midst of running off a string of five straight seasons of 56 or more victories. They also lost the 1974 NBA Finals in a seventh game to Boston. Milwaukee had six winning seasons in its first decade, as Alcindor became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his trade request was honored by 1975.
From that 1969 coin flip, the Phoenix Suns ended up with 6-10 Florida center Neal Walk, who went onto a respectable NBA career and later unfortunate health issues. He was no Alcindor, however, and although the Suns played in one of the greatest NBA Finals ever in 1976, they only had four winning records in their first decade and still have never won an NBA title into their 46th season.
For Bucks fans in Milwaukee and Wisconsin having to endure the current ongoing debacle, the specter of 1994 should be instructive. Even though they had come off their worst season ever then, the Bucks overall had still been one of the best winning percentage franchises in league history to that point. In drafting Glenn Robinson and adding pieces around him at that time, four more losing seasons were suffered before a brief turn of the corner under George Karl. The franchise has listed about ever since, despite “winning” another overall Number 1 pick in big man Andrew Bogut in 2005.
Bogut was since dealt and Kohl’s franchise has been through a handful of coaches in the last decade, trying to simply reach the bottom of Eastern Conference playoff qualifications. Kohl has owned the franchise since 1985, but it is finally sinking in with the frustrated fandom that remains after the last 20 years that he has been generally clueless about how to assemble a contending product. It is telling that the Phoenix franchise, despite its own roller coaster ups and downs in the last 30 years, actually now has a better overall won-loss franchise history record than Milwaukee.
It is also telling about Herb Kohl, who is currently trying to advocate building a new arena for his least financially valuable team to stay in Milwaukee, that before his ownership, when there was no salary cap and they filled the smallest arena in the NBA, the Bucks were hugely successful on the floor. Since the salary cap arrived in 1984 and the Bradley Center was the new arena to save the Bucks by 1988, the franchise has turned into an NBA Siberia. Bucks fans hoping to “win” the draft lottery might ponder all this.