In NBA circles, when the Milwaukee Bucks are discussed—if they are discussed at all—the most frequently used word is could. As in: Marques Johnson could score 30 points a night; or, Bob Lanier's knees could collapse at any moment: or, Sidney Moncrief and Junior Bridgeman could start for any other team in the league. But the facts are that Johnson, phenomenal as he may be, is scoring fewer than 21 points a game. Lanier remains in one piece. Bridgeman is still the sixth man, and had it not been for injuries to starting Guard Brian Winters, Moncrief would be the seventh. But that's the beauty of the Bucks; what is the case, instead of what could be, is precisely why Milwaukee ran off with the Central Division and now has the league's third-best record.
The Bucks were the first NBA team to clinch a division title, which they did way back on March 5, and through last Sunday they held a whopping 15-game lead over Indiana and Chicago, which were tied for second place. Along the way Milwaukee has amassed the second-best road record in the league. After beating the Pistons 104-86 in Detroit and the Nets 125-116 in New Jersey last week, the Bucks had won 25 away games and lost but 15.
In fact, the only remaining could about these Bucks is that they could win the NBA championship, though right now Milwaukee mainly elicits yawns from a public fed a constant diet of Philadelphia, Boston and Los Angeles. Not having a star of the magnitude of Julius Erving, Larry Bird or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Milwaukee is, perforce, the paradigm of team play. This is best exemplified by Johnson. He can score almost at will—his high this season is 40 points—but he clearly chooses to blend his skills with those of his teammates. In addition to leading Milwaukee's balanced scoring, Johnson ranks second on the club in both assists and steals and is the top offensive rebounder.
The other Bucks also perform diverse roles. For example, Quinn Buckner, the team leader in steals, is the designated ball handler and playmaker, but he has developed an accurate jump shot to go with his strong floor game and is having his best season offensively, averaging 13.3 points a game, with a high of 31. Former Pacer Mickey Johnson, a strong rebounder, takes a bigger part in the offense than the man he replaced, Dave Meyers, who abruptly retired for religious reasons after last season.
That seven Milwaukee players are scoring in double figures with only two playing more than 30 minutes a game indicates the Bucks' depth. When Marques Johnson was sidelined for a few days by the flu earlier this month, Bridgeman came in to score 34 points in one game, and Pat Cummings chipped in with 30 in another. "You bring people like Winters and Bridgeman off the bench against a team's second string and they'll destroy it," says Dallas Coach Dick Motta. "The Bucks have such quality, from one through 11, that they could definitely win it all."
Milwaukee's team approach reflects the philosophy of Coach Don Nelson, who spent most of his 14 playing seasons in Boston where he was a member of five championship teams. His Bucks resemble those Celtics, pressuring opponents on offense with a fast-breaking, hurry-up attack and on defense with what is probably the best-disguised 2-3 zone in the league. Nelson came to Milwaukee 16 games into the 1976-77 season. "We were probably the worst team in the league back then," he says, "but Fitz [the Bucks' principal owner James Fitzgerald] had faith in me, and we worked out a five-year plan to get where we wanted to be."
The cornerstone of Nelson's five-year plan, building through the draft, was such a success—producing, among others, Marques Johnson and Moncrief—that by the start of last season it was thought that all Milwaukee needed to make a run at the championship was a dominating center. That shortcoming was remedied right after last season's All-Star break when the Bucks traded Kent Benson and their 1980 first-round draft choice to the Pistons for Lanier. Milwaukee was 29-27 at the time, but with Lanier they went 20-6 for the remainder of the regular season before losing a tense seven-game playoff series to defending champion Seattle. Without Lanier, Detroit won two of its last 28 games.
Milwaukee has continued at that pace in 1980-81 despite what has been a depressing season for Lanier. In October his father was killed by a hit-and-run driver, and recently his wife filed for divorce. On the court Lanier, 32, has endured a broken nose, pain in his shoulders, neck and back, and floating bone chips in his left knee. At least five times this season the knee has locked.
"I guess you could say this hasn't been one of the grandest years of my life," says Lanier. "I've struggled, and there has been a lot of unrest in my mind—right now because of the knee. Some days I can play, some days I can't."
When he does play, Lanier still has his feathery touch from the outside. On the inside he's still 6'10", 250 pounds, which means he takes up a lot of room in the lane.
Nelson has sometimes held Lanier out of entire games to rest the knee. When he's not in the lineup, the Bucks seem to rise to the occasion—witness a 113-103 win over Boston on Feb. 5—but Nelson and everyone else know that a reasonably healthy Lanier is essential if Milwaukee is to seriously challenge for the NBA title. So, with Lanier's knee continuing to give him problems, Nelson has of late tried reducing the strain on it by limiting Lanier's playing time to short spurts. Lanier, however, balks at that treatment, saying he needs more playing time to loosen up the knee, which stiffens during rest periods on the bench. "People have started to dismiss us because they don't think Bob will be able to go full speed in the playoffs," says Nelson, "but I know he'll be tough." Says Lanier, "I haven't had the opportunity to get my game on track this year with all that's gone on, but my teammates have carried me. I'm not where I want to be yet, but if I can get there, I'll be doing the carrying."
Lanier has played in the NBA for 11 seasons but never made it to the championship series. Now he feels he may finally get there. "What makes this year so important to me is that I've had a full season with a good team," he says. "I know the system and I know the players. And, for me, there's no promise that there'll be a next year."
Marques Johnson is optimistic about the playoffs, but he's well aware that Lanier's soundness is crucial to Milwaukee's hopes. "Our strength is our flexibility," he says. "Whatever matchup we meet, we have a lineup to counter it. That Seattle series last year and the experience of taking the Sonics to seven games is our biggest plus. Not having handled that kind of pressure before was our downfall then. What I remember most is the Sonics' saying that it was their experience that helped them win. Now I guess you could say we're an experienced club. But without Bob we're not strong inside, and teams like Philadelphia. Boston and Chicago can take advantage of us on the boards."
Much of the Bucks' flexibility comes from the versatility of Moncrief, a sleek second-year guard from Arkansas, who averaged only about 20 minutes of action as a rookie. This season he got a chance to start when a sore neck, sore legs and other hurts took Winters out of the lineup on Nov. 23. Now Moncrief is second only to Marques Johnson in minutes played, is scoring about 14 points a game and has done such a good all-round job that Nelson, who had planned to start Winters in the playoffs, has apparently changed his mind.
Moncrief, 6'4" and blessed with astonishing leaping ability, often does the unexpected, especially on defense, where he slithers inside to block shots and crash the boards. He's the Bucks' leading back-court rebounder. He's also quite capable of doing a little improvisation on offense. Last month against Dallas, Moncrief was floating to the basket, arms and legs extended, for what appeared to be an easy layup when he was met in mid-flight by the Mavericks' hulking 6'10", 230-pound Scott Lloyd. Undaunted, Moncrief curled up, executed a 180-degree turn, softly bounced the ball off the backboard, gathered it in again and scored, while Lloyd and everyone else on the court tried to fathom just what had happened.
Such spontaneous moves come easily to Moncrief, yet there was a time last season when he tried to harness his creativity. "I always felt that if I tried something like that shot, I'd be pulled out of the game," he says. "Now I know that Nellie isn't like that, so I don't hold back. I'm not as good as I can be yet, but in a couple of years...."
In a couple of years everyone but the Bucks may be wishing that Moncrief had stayed in Little Rock, which was a distinct possibility because he's a retiring sort who insists he didn't even think about playing pro ball until after he was drafted by Milwaukee. "I never had any grand notions about being a pro," he says. "When I was a kid we never saw basketball on television, so there were no Wilts or Clydes or Dr. Js for me to want to grow up and be like. Football was the big thing. When other children were getting bikes and trains and other toys, I was getting little, cheap footballs."
That wasn't quite the case with Bridgeman, Moncriefs best friend on the Bucks. Junior grew up in basketball-crazy Indiana, where the pinnacle of success was being good enough to make the local high school team. At Washington High in East Chicago, Ind., Bridgeman played with future college stars Pete Trgovich of UCLA and Tim Stoddard of North Carolina State, now a relief pitcher with the Baltimore Orioles. In their senior year Washington was undefeated and won the state championship. "Winning that title was such a big thing that none of us wanted to go to college," says Bridgeman. "We didn't see how playing ball there could ever be as good." Nevertheless, Bridgeman went on to Louisville where he made some All-America teams before being drafted by the Lakers in the first round in 1975. He came to Milwaukee that summer as part of the trade for Abdul-Jabbar.
Bridgeman and Philadelphia's Bobby Jones are now recognized as the league's best sixth men, but Bridgeman has the edge on offense. His 16.9 average is second on the club to Marques Johnson's 20.3, and his ability to play both guard and forward causes mismatches with opponents who are either smaller or slower. As a result Bridgeman often winds up at the free-throw line, where his 88.9 shooting percentage is fourth-best in the league.
An aspiring lawyer—he attends the University of Wisconsin-Madison law school in the off-season—Bridgeman got his undergraduate degree in psychology, which has helped him adjust to coming off the bench. "You figure that a player couldn't get this far without a certain amount of ego and pride," he says. "Ninety percent of the players were the main man in college and want to continue to be the star in the pros. I was like that, too, but I've learned that starting isn't as important as doing something with the time you get and contributing to the team."
That's a lesson all the Bucks seem to have learned.