Tag Archives: Larry Bird

Now we can talk “Best Team Ever” – Durant signing unites MVPs for the 2nd time in NBA history (no, the 1st time did not involve Lebron)

The only available precedent says that Kevin Durant and Steph Curry’s Warriors will win the 2017 title – going away.

When I saw the text that said Kevin Durant had made the big decision and was leaving his OKC Thunder to sign with Golden State — the team he couldn’t beat in the Western Conference Finals — my immediate response was two words: “Not Fair”.  As the week progressed and I read and heard the mountain of spin piling up about Durant’s move, it doesn’t strike me any differently. It’s simply not fair competition for two NBA Most Valuable Players — in the prime of their careers — to join forces on an NBA Finals team.

The last and only time this happened, the impact on the psyche of the league was devastating. Most teams rolled over in submission, with the notable exceptions of one team that became the Super Team’s nemesis and another that put up a good fight in the playoffs but still lost their series 4 games to one. It was the only loss the Super Team suffered in the playoffs.

The team in question is the 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers, who after losing in the 1982 NBA Finals were able to bring together free agent center Moses Malone, the Chairman of the Boards, at age 27 the baddest player in the league and the reigning MVP, and Julius “Dr. J” Erving, who had won the MVP one season prior (1981). Until this week’s uniting of Durant, the 2014 MVP, with Stephen Curry, the reigning MVP for two seasons, the Moses and Dr. J pairing was the only time in NBA history that a team had been able to suit up two concurrent MVPs to lay waste to the rest of the league.

The late Malone (who passed away last fall at age 60) in 1982 was the first reigning MVP to leave his team in free agency; Lebron James in 2010 was the second. Though NBA fandom and the media are wired to talk about Lebron (the Lebron context being where the league lived until Durant signed with the Warriors), the similarities between the Lebron signing and the Durant signing don’t go very far. When Lebron joined the Heat, Dwyane Wade was in his prime, had made 1st team All-Pro for the 2nd year in a row, and had been in the running for 2009 MVP (Lebron won that one, too) — but Wade’s Heat were nothing resembling title contenders until Lebron came along. And there’s the rub. The Warriors were within a Kyrie Irving 3-pointer of winning a 2nd title last month. One shot. And now they have Durant.

Indeed, let’s set aside the analytics and graphs and charts and apples to oranges comparisons and take a look at what happened the first time two concurrent MVPs suited up on the same team.

Moses leads the Sixers to the Promised Land

Moses Malone and Dr. J at the outset of the 1982-83 season.

The Sixers in the early 1980s had in many ways adopted the cool intellectualism and quiet intensity of their star, Dr. J. The ball moved freely on offense, the shot selection was smart, the Philly fast break was a work of art featuring the graceful glide of the Doctor in mid-air, and the Sixers took pride in their plus 50% shooting, which in 1982 was 2nd best in the league behind the run-and-gun Denver Nuggets. If Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins had seemed out of place as the Sixers starting center, it’s because he was. Dawkins was traded to New Jersey in the days before the Sixers signed Malone. Moses was the ultimate fit for the team’s biggest needs: Better inside scoring and rebounding, the boards having been the Sixers trouble spot for years. Moses, one of the most prolific rebounders in NBA history, quickly put an end to that problem. He also had the feet of a ballet dancer, as Bucks radio voice Eddie Doucette described them, and a dump truck-full of quick moves around the basket. Erving wisely and tacitly agreed to allow the natural flow of the offense through Malone, and the Sixers quickly found their new chemistry.

Philly won 9 of their first 10 games, then put together win streaks of 14 and 10 games, powering their way to a 50-7 record and a big lead over Larry Bird‘s Celtics in the Atlantic Division, and an even bigger lead over the Central Division champs, the Bucks. When the Sixers record reached 49-7, coach Billy Cunningham began resting his stars, beginning with All-Star, All-Defensive forward Bobby Jones and 33-year-old Dr. J, who sat out ten games during the season. While taking it easy down the stretch, the Sixers went 16-10 to finish 65-17.

At season’s end, with his team healthy and well-rested, Moses laid down his famous “Fo’ Fo’ Fo'” declaration — meaning the Sixers would sweep all three of their playoff series’ and become the only team in NBA history to romp undefeated through the playoffs. Malone wasn’t bragging when he said it, and his team came oh-so-close to accomplishing Fo’ Fo’ Fo. They went 12-1 in the playoffs, the lone loss coming in the East finals to a Milwaukee Bucks team flying high and pushing the pace after sweeping Bird’s Celtics in the semis (and making it look easy).

The Marques Johnson-led Bucks had put up a terrific fight, losing game 1 in overtime and dropping Game 2 in the final minute.  Every game in the series but Game 5 was close, every minute a bitter contest. The Finals against the “Showtime” Lakers were a different story: Moses dominated Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson in the paint (the Lakers defensive plan relied on Magic dropping down to help on Malone), averaging 26 pts and 18 rebs a game in the series. The Sixers blew the Lakers out in Game 3, the first game played in LA,  and the sweep was on. Fo’ Fi’ Fo’.

Moses won the 1983 MVP, his 3rd in five years, and his 4th rebounding title in 5 years. Moses and Dr. J were named 1st Team All-Pro. Malone, Jones and point guard Maurice Cheeks, one of the great thieves of NBA history (No. 5 all-time steals) were voted 1st Team All-Defense.  Jones won the 6th Man of the Year award. Four Sixers — Moses, the Doctor, Cheeks and shooting guard Andrew Toney — made the 1983 All-Star team. There was no room for Jones, apparently, who had made the All-Star teams of 1981 and ’82.

Did I mention that the Sixers swept the “Showtime” Lakers in the NBA Finals? The Lakers featured four Hall of Famers (Kareem, Magic, Wilkes and McAdoo), all-star guard Norm Nixon and the great defender, Michael Cooper.

Malone shoots over Alton Lister in the 1983 Eastern Conference finals as the Bucks move in to triple-team him.

The 1983 Sixers were declared the best team in history by nearly everyone who saw them play with the exception of Celtics and Lakers fans whose DNA is engineered to deny the glory of others; and, ironically, their coach, who thought his 1967 Sixers team was better and even wrote a book about it (Season of the 76ers,  2002). The Moses – Dr. J – Bobby Jones – Cheeks – Toney five was, for one dominant season, the best five to play together since the days of the battles between Bill Russell‘s Celtics and Wilt Chamberlain‘s Sixers (1966-68).  That homage to the 1960s Glory Days said, the brilliance of the players and the rising fortunes of the league during “the renaissance” of the 1980s — yes, even before Jordan and Barkley — should not be underappreciated. The game had evolved for the better and entered its Golden Age.

The Warriors of today have a lot in common with that Sixer team. No, they don’t have Moses Malone in the prime of his career — but there’s more than enough to suggest that the extreme success of the 1983 Sixers gives NBA fans a pretty good indication of what’s in store for the league in 2016-17. The Warriors, not the champs in Cleveland, are now the team to beat.

The obvious and irresistible parallels

They seem very happy. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Durant and GM Bob Myers. 7/07/2016

Both the 1982 Sixers and the 2016 Warriors made the NBA Finals and lost. In both instances, the losing team was coming off of an intense 7-game struggle in the conference finals, while the winner of the championship series had strolled through their conference playoffs unmolested.

A tired, beat-up Sixers team faced a Lakers team that hadn’t lost a game in the West playoffs and waited an unprecedented 12 days for their opponent (still the record for longest Finals layoff). Like the 2016 Warriors, the 1982 Sixers had barely made it out of their conference playoffs. In the semi-finals they were pushed to six games by a short-handed but star-studded Bucks team. In the conference finals, the Sixers became the first team to win a Game 7 on the parquet floor of Boston Garden.

After beating the Celtics, the 1982 Finals were “anti-climactic”, Dr. J would write in his autobiography years later. In Game 1 the well-rested Lakers played just seven players and stole home court advantage from the Sixers, then ran away with the title in six games. The weary, beaten Sixers were satisfied to have had their revenge in Boston (they lost the 1981 East finals in a Game 7 in the Garden) but knew they had to make a change if Dr. J (and Bobby Jones) were ever going to win the NBA Championship that had eluded him since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976. Doc was running out of time, and there was an even chance the Bucks or Celtics might prevent the Sixers from reaching the Finals again. Enter Moses Malone.

It can’t be said that the 2016 NBA Finals were anti-climactic for the Warriors, but they were battered and bruised after coming back from a 3 to 1 deficit to beat Durant’s OKC Thunder in a 7-game West finals series. Riding on the energy from that series, the Warriors ran out to a 3-1 series lead against Lebron’s Cavs, which meant they had won six of seven games against the Thunder and Cavs.  A great achievement, but they were running on fumes, and it showed in games 5, 6 and 7, especially in the play of Steph Curry. Lebron James played a Finals for the ages, the Cavs swept the last three games and the title was theirs. Enter Kevin Durant.

The 4 All-Pro starting lineup

Kevin Durant isn’t Moses Malone — he’s not a player on quite that transformative Moses level.  But as some of the spin has spun this week — with an eye toward making a case that competition has not been compromised by Durant’s move — KD’s already historic achievements have been somewhat downplayed.

Durant is just the 4th small forward in the 61-year history of the MVP award to win the award. The other three are Dr. J, Larry Bird and Lebron James.

Durant in 2014 swiped the MVP crown Lebron James had worn for four out of five seasons. Steph Curry won the next two MVPs, so today’s Warriors players have held the crown three straight seasons.

Durant’s career impact and efficiency (BIER) numbers, while not as phenomenal as Bird or Lebron’s, are comparable to Dr. J’s NBA stats, and to the numbers put up by Marques Johnson, the sadly under-recognized forward who led the Bucks against the Sixers in the early 1980s. In this top shelf “box score impact” statistical context, the sixth small forward in league history worth mentioning is 1980s scoring machine Adrian Dantley. There are many others with legendary reputations and Hall of Fame recognition, but they didn’t have the statistical impact, or, (in Kawhi Leonard’s case) haven’t yet played long enough.

Kevin Durant after nine seasons in the NBA is simply one of the best small forwards ever to play the game. KD’s already accomplished Hall of Fame-worthy honors and stats. He’s got an MVP award; and he’s going to Golden State at age 27, in the prime of his career. The irresistible parallel here is that Moses Malone was 27 when he signed with the Sixers.

Durant joins Curry, the MVP, and two All-Pro teammates, big forward Draymond Green (2nd Team All-Pro) and shooting guard Klay Thompson (3rd Team). Since the ABA-NBA merger, no team has had three All-Pros in one season, so what Curry, Green and Thompson accomplished last season was unprecedented — and let’s not forget the 73 regular season wins.

Durant was 2nd Team All-Pro last season, behind Lebron James and Kawhi Leonard at forward. Green was the other forward honored on the 2nd Team. Let’s pause there.

3rd Team All-Pro honors didn’t exist until 1989, so for 40 seasons the NBA honored ten guys, which made sense when there were only 8 to 10 teams in the 1950s up through 1967. The NBA merged with the ABA in 1976, so for 31 years (1976-2016), no team has boasted 3 of the first 10 honored All-Pros. The 2016-17 Warriors will be the first.

No, it’s not fair

Lebron, Wade and Chris Bosh were All-Pros in the same year only once – in 2007, when Lebron was in Cleveland, Wade in Miami and Bosh in Toronto. Bosh was never an All-Pro during the Heat’s four-year run.

Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman were never All-Pros in the same season, though they would have been in 1995 had Jordan played the full season. Rodman was still a San Antonio Spur at that point. The 1996 Bulls, the 72-win team, best team ever?  The dilution of the talent due to expansion and the lack of great competition in the mid-1990s makes it impossible to say. Jordan’s Bulls were undoubtedly the NBC Network’s greatest champion.

Both the Celtics and Sixers started four All-Star players during the Bill RussellWilt Chamberlain battles 1966-1968, but because both teams played in the Eastern Conference, neither team ever got four All-Star spots in a season. Combined, there were five players from “The Great Rivalry” voted to the 1967 All-Pro team.

Bird and Magic.

3rd Team All-Pro honors did not yet exist when the 1980s Super Teams battled for supremacy, so the All-Pro teams are a poor measuring stick for the greatness of the Sixers, Lakers and Celtics teams of the Golden Age. It gets messy. No team had three in one year. Only the Sixers and Lakers had two. From 1983-1986, Larry Bird was the only Celtic to be named All-Pro (he won three MVPs in that time, and the Celtics won two titles).  But the Celtics had four All-Stars who were All-Pro at one time or another, and a former MVP – future Hall of Famer (Bill Walton) coming off the bench in 1986. The “Showtime” Lakers had similar talent — four players who made All-Star teams from 1980 through 1985, and a former MVP – future Hall of Famer (Bob McAdoo) coming off the bench.

And now we’re back to the 1983 Sixers and their four All-Stars, plus 1982 All-Star Bobby Jones, the 1983 6th Man of the Year — the team that swept the Showtime Lakers in the Finals. That’s good enough to settle the Best Team Ever debate, especially in light of Moses’ domination of Kareem and Magic in the Finals, and of the entire NBA that season.

Those Super Teams were loaded with talent almost beyond comprehension in today’s NBA — until this week. The Warriors bringing three current All-Pros together is unprecedented. Now add to the mix 3rd Team All-Pro All-Star and Olympian Klay Thompson, and veteran Sixth Man Andre Iguodala — an All-Star in 2012, All-Defensive in 2014 and the 2015 NBA Finals MVP …

As currently constructed, the Warriors are as close as the Super Teams of the 1980s were to the Sixers five-star team. It’s just not fair to the rest of the league; and It’s very small solace for the opposition that, at age 32, Iguodala’s All-Star days seem to be behind him, or that the Warriors had to let go of all four of their big men to sign Durant. They’ve already replaced two of them, and this seems like a good time to point out that Durant is listed at 6’9″ but is taller than that, and rebounds on the defensive end like the average NBA center.

And here’s the kicker: As we look to the Super Teams of the 1980s for proper perspective and precedent for the 2017 Warriors, we find that there is no record of failure in that precedence — all three of the 1980s Super Teams won the championships they set out to win, with the 1983 Sixers being the team most dominant and decorated, but sometimes forgotten in the shadow of the Magic and Bird story.

No record of failure. It wasn’t fair in 1983 when the Sixers signed Moses to win a title with 33-year-old Dr. J. It’s not fair now. Kevin Durant is just 27 years old, and signed on with the Warriors for two years. Steph Curry is 27. Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are 25, and under contract for four and three years respectively. The 1983 Sixers slowed down due to age after winning the title. The 2017 Warriors won’t be slowing down any time soon.

Think about that.  It’s not fair, but enjoy this team while it lasts.

38 or Less: The worst regular season won-lost records by NBA playoff teams of the last 38 years

To mark the Milwaukee Bucks 38-win playoff season, here are the “38-wins-or-less” playoff teams from the 1975 to 2013 seasons, with an important caveat:  I’ve excluded 11 teams that won between 35 and 38 games and made the 1984-1988 playoffs, listing only the two playoff qualifiers from those five seasons who lost so much they deserve mention.  Those five “exempt” seasons were the first years of the 16-team playoff format when, suddenly, only 7 of 23 NBA teams missed the post-season.   Somebody had to lose during the regular season, and some of those losers found themselves in the playoffs.

Some of them were pretty good too, given the strength of the East and scheduling heavily weighted toward conference play — an eighth Eastern Conference seed in 1986 with 35 wins was comparable to a 44-win team a few years later after expansion, not so much to the teams listed below.  (Such dilution realities certainly put a damper on the Bulls 72-win season in 1996.)

The 1975-1983 seasons were more “apples to apples” in terms of today’s playoff format. In 1975 and 1976, ten of 18 teams made the playoffs.  After the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, 12 of 22 made it.  In 1980 the Mavs were added to the league and the conferences properly aligned; the 12 team format remained until the 1983-84 season.

League expansion began in 1988 with the addition of Miami and Charlotte, tolling the beginning of the end of the NBA’s “Golden Age.”  By 1990 there were 27 teams, 16 making the playoffs, and four expansion teams around to beat up on and puff most of the worst playoff records above our 38-44 cut-off.

Note that of the 13 teams on this list, no team other than the 1976 Pistons (led by Bob Lanier) won its first round series.

1. 1986 Chicago Bulls (30-52). Michael Jordan broke his foot in the third game of his second NBA season and missed the next 64. He would come back to have a 63-point game against Larry Bird and the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, not enough to prevent a Celtics sweep. The 1986 Celtics won 67 games, the third championship for the Bird-McHale-Parrish front court and are widely considered one of the top three or four teams in NBA history.

This Bulls team had talent other than Jordan, though great it was not. Half the players ended up in rehab of one form or another, facts reported by writers Sam Smith (The Jordan Rules) and David Halberstam (Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made) among others. Much of this centered around guard Quentin Dailey. Forwards Orlando Woolridge and Sidney Green were also in this group of early Jordan teammates, along with big Dave Corzine at center and Hall of Fame scorer George Gervin in his final season (16.2 ppg).  Charles Oakley and John Paxson are the most notable here due to Oakley’s later success with the Knicks and Paxson’s ability to cling to Jordan’s star for three titles.  In 1986 Oakley was a rookie and Paxson had yet to solidify his future as Jordan’s pal. Stan Albeck was head coach.

The Bulls had the misfortune of playing in an Eastern Conference ruled by three of the top four teams in basketball since 1980 — the Celtics, the Sixers and the Bucks — with the Pistons and Hawks rising up bit by bit each year in hopes of challenging the top.  The “Bad Boys” Pistons in 1986 were still a couple of years away from their baddest phase.

The NBA schedule in those years was more heavily weighted toward conference play than it is now, which made the 1986 Bulls schedule a prolonged nightmare.  They played the Beasts of the East six times each, winning just six of the 30 games.  The Bulls weren’t the only team in the East hammered by the schedule.  A tough, talented, Buck Williams-led New Jersey Nets team could muster only 39 wins and were swept by the Bucks in the first round. Rookie Patrick Ewing’s Knicks lost 59 games.

Throw out the five Beasts of the East and two losses against the “Showtime” Lakers, and the 1986 Bulls won 24 and lost 26 against the rest of the league, not too shabby for a hodgepodge group of guys playing most of the season without Michael Jordan.

2. 1988 San Antonio Spurs (31-51).  The last season of the 23-team league as the expansion to Miami and Charlotte would occur in the summer of ’88.  Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics remained at the top, with the “Bad Boys” Pistons shoving Boston off the pinnacle to reach their first NBA final.  Some of the power balance had shifted East to West with the decline of Philly and the Bucks, along with the rise of the Dallas Mavs, creating the parity between conferences than hadn’t existed since 1980.

In the East, the Bucks played their first year under new coach Del Harris and fell to 42-40. The Pistons and Hawks and Sidney Moncrief’s ailing knees had finally caught up with our Bucks.  Ewing’s Knicks were getting better, and won 38 games.  Jordan’s Bulls had their first 50-win season.

In the West the Stockton-Malone Jazz fell short of the fifty milestone with 47 wins.  Magic and the Lakers won 62 and their fifth championship.

While most of the lower rung playoff teams of this period can’t be labelled “bad” by today’s standards, the 1988 Spurs were bad in any day.  They were swept (3-0) in the first round by the Lakers.

The Spurs best player was defensive demon Alvin Robertson, who would be traded to Milwaukee in 1989 for All-Pro (3rd Team) forward Terry Cummings.  Robertson’s teammate on the Spurs, Frank Brickowski, would join him in Milwaukee in 1990, traded for Paul Pressey.  Why all the trades with the Spurs?  By 1990 the Spurs had center David Robinson and were trying to get to the top with help from Bucks playoff veterans, while the Bucks and owner Herb Kohl, encouraged by the pending retirement of Sidney Moncrief, opted to go a cheaper route and would slide into their long rebuild in the 1990s.

3. 1995 Boston Celtics (35-47).  The Celtics were sort of rebuilding (or beginning to) after the Larry Bird era. Kevin McHale had retired in 1993. All-Star shooting guard Reggie Lewis collapsed and died of heart failure that summer (1993), and the Celtics in 1995 were still staggering under allegations that he might have been saved, had the team (and those close to Lewis) not been so eager to dismiss evidence that Lewis was at risk, to the point of avoiding tests for cocaine use (Money Players, “Puff Policy,” 1997, by Armen Keteyian and other journalists).  In an effort to fill the void left by Lewis’ death, the Celtics signed 35-year-old Dominique Wilkins, not flying as high as he did with the Hawks in the 1980s but scoring 17.8 ppg to lead the team.  Coached by Chris Ford. Dumped out of the playoffs (3-1) by Shaq’s Orlando Magic, who would go on to be swept in the Finals by Hakeem Olajawon’s Rockets.

4. 2004 Boston Celtics (36-46).    All that losing in the mid-1990s brought draft picks and an effort to build a contender around the would-be duo of Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce, who instead became symbols of post-Jordan NBA mediocrity.  The 2003-04 season found the Celtics tearing down again and trading Walker, one of the least scrupulous shot hogs in the game.  That left Pierce, listed as a shooting guard then, and boy did he ever.  Pierce shot nearly 19 times a game – and missed 11  – shooting less than 30% from three-point-land and averaging 23 ppg. The Celtics fired coach Jim O’Brien after 46 games and assistant John Carroll mopped up.

These were rather dark days for the NBA. The pace was at an all-time low.  Average and below average shooters bricked away at will and somehow made all-star teams. Ball movement was often non-existent, a trend that continued for years.  Assists would reach an all-time low in 2006.  Kobe and Shaq bickered in LA and guys like Walker, Pierce, Allen Houston and the Bucks’ Michael Redd gunned poorly selected shots out of isolation offenses, winning big contracts if not playoff success.  Orlando Magic star Tracy McGrady was the best of this lot, yet all of it was ugly basketball.

The 2004 Celtics were a bad team in an Eastern Conference that had deteriorated rapidly in the early-aughts.  The 4th seeded Miami Heat won just 42 regular season games.  But hey – former Buck Vin Baker was on this Celtics team for a few weeks in 2003. Kendrick Perkins was a rookie.  The Celtics were swept in Round 1 by 38-year-old Reggie Miller’s second-to-last Pacers team, about seven months before the “Malice at the Palace” in Detroit.  Dark days indeed.

5. 1997 Los Angeles Clippers (36-46).  Loy Vaught (who? – I can’t even find a picture of him) led this team in scoring at 14.9 ppg.  Forwards Bo Outlaw and Eric Piatkowski led a halfway decent bench crew.  Coached by Bill Fitch, somehow still in the league.  The Western Conference was none too balanced in those days, as the Clippers were one of three teams from the west to make the playoffs with a losing record.  The T-Wolves (40-42) in Kevin Garnett’s second year and the post-Charles Barkley Suns (also 40-42) were the others.  The Clippers were swept out of the first round by the Stockton-Malone Jazz, fated to go on to lose their first of two NBA Finals to Jordan and the Bulls.

6. 1976 Detroit Pistons (36-46).  This might be getting a bit far back — the league that existed prior to the merger with the ABA — but 1975 and 1976 get our deepest historical look because the 1971-74 playoff format allowed less than half the league to qualify (8 of 17 teams, so no real losers).  This changed in 1975, with the addition of the New Orleans Jazz and the short-lived 10 of 18 format. In the 1975 and 1976 seasons, a total of four teams with losing records made the playoffs.  Another quirk was the regular season schedule, heavily weighted toward division play instead of conference play.  Midwest Division teams the Bucks, Pistons, Bulls and Kansas City Kings played each other seven times in the season, 36 games against the nine teams in the Eastern conference and 25 games against the Pacific Division. This is as equalized as the NBA schedule has ever been.  To further emphasize the importance of division play, the top two teams in each division received a playoff bid, with a 5th seed going to the team in the conference with the next best record. So a team in the Pacific division with a better record than either of the Midwest Division leaders could miss the playoffs entirely.  This happened to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers in 1976. The playoff teams with the two worst records, regardless of division standings, would then face off in a wild card mini-series, best two out of three. A pretty good system if you think divisions should matter, a belief the current NBA schedule makers clearly do not hold.

Bob Lanier’s Pistons won 40 games in the 1975 season and 36 in 1976, making them the model of mid-70s NBA mediocrity. But “mediocrity” in the mid-1970s when you had a Hall of Fame center meant that you were pretty competitive when the center was healthy.  Lanier missed 18 games in 1976 and the Pistons lost 12 of those.

Detroit in 1975 had also traded star veteran guard Dave Bing (another Hall of Famer) to the Bullets for young point guard Kevin Porter (who would lead the NBA in assists for the Pistons a few years later) but Porter was lost to injury 19 games into the season and the Pistons struggled.  Coach Ray Scott was fired and replaced by Herb Brown, and Brown found 20-year-old point guard Eric Money on his bench to fill in for Porter.  Led by Lanier, power forward Curtis Rowe and Money, the Pistons won 10 of their last 13 games and nearly caught the Bucks (38-44) atop the Midwest Division. As the playoff teams with the worst records in the West, the Bucks and Pistons squared off in a first round mini-series.

The Bucks were in their first season after “The Trade” of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and were young, hungry and very nearly a match for Lanier and the Pistons.  Lanier and Rowe dominated the Bucks inside (a familiar story for the ever-power-forward-challenged Bucks) while the Bucks guards, led by All-Star Brian Winters, bombed away from the outside (remember, no three point line yet in the NBA) and came within a shot of winning the series. Detroit won it in Milwaukee in game three, to what would become typical Bucks heart-stopping and heart-breaking effect.

The 1976 Pistons really have no business being on this list, but the 1976 Bucks do (see No. 11 below) so I included both. The Pistons went on to lose (4-2) in the second round to Rick Barry’s Golden State Warriors, the defending champs.  Lanier averaged 26.1 ppg and 12.7 rebounds in nine playoff games, Hall of Fame numbers from a highly skilled center who was perhaps the strongest big man in the league for many years. Power forward Rowe added an average of 15 pts and 8 boards on the Pistons run.

7. 2011 Indiana Pacers (37-45).  Another Jim O’Brien team, this one led by Danny Granger in the role of Paul Pierce, and playing the same ugly style of 2004.  This time coach O’Brien lasted to game 44 amid a lot of grumbling from GM Larry Bird that he was refusing to play his younger players, Tyler Hansbrough and rookie Paul George among them. Replacement coach Frank Vogel did more than mop up O’Brien’s mess, as the Pacers went 20-18 the rest of the way, edging out the injury-riddled Bucks (35-47) for the final spot in the East.

The Pacers were simply not a very good team until the arrival of David West and George Hill for the 2012 season, with Vogel as the coach. Dismissed in five games by Derrick Rose and the Bulls in Round 1 of the 2011 playoffs. Only made the playoffs because of the injury epidemic in Milwaukee.

8. 1979 New Jersey Nets (37-45).  From the land of the final season before the 3-point line was drawn on NBA courts comes the 1979 Nets, coached by Kevin Loughery and featuring the unstoppable mid-range post-up game of Bernard King.  King was young, in his second season, and top scoring honors went to guard John Williamson (22.2 ppg), a Net from the ABA days of Dr. J and one of the better long-range shooters of the time.

King and Williamson didn’t have much help beyond assorted journeymen like big man George Johnson (not to be confused with the George Johnson who played for the Bucks in 1978-79), the above mentioned Eric Money, acquired from Detroit, and aging zen power forward future Jordan-Shaq coach Phil Jackson in his 15th and almost-final playing season.  Jackson just didn’t want to quit (he finally would in 1980).  One has the impression that the guys on this 1979 Nets team partied down quite a bit (though not King, who was known for heavy drinking alone), and their record seems to reflects this.

Personalities noted, the Nets were a fast, fun team that locked down on defense (3rd in the league) and pushed the pace to 110 possessions a game, about 12 more than the Golden State Warriors of today. Unfortunately the Nets were the worst shooting team in the league and turned it over more than every team but Chicago. They would trade Money and guard Al Skinner to Philly in February for future shot-blocking Buck Harvey Catchings and former ABA star Ralph Simpson.

The Julius Erving-led Sixers swept the Nets out of the 1979 playoffs, 2-0, and the Nets began a full-scale rebuild. King’s knee problems began the following season, after he was traded in preseason to Utah along with rookie point guard Jim Boylan (yes, the same Jim Boylan who was Al McGuire’s favorite point guard, Scott Skiles’ favorite assistant, coach of the Bulls and Bucks and now an assistant with the Cavs) and John Gianelli for big man Rich Kelley. Gianelli had come over from the Bucks in a post-season trade for Catchings, along with a first round draft pick that would become Calvin Natt in 1979.

Confused?  Me too, especially about why Don Nelson traded that draft pick.  The Bucks had received the Pacers 1979 pick as compensation for the free agent signing of future Hall of Famer Alex English in 1978. The Pacers had a lousy season, so it turned out to be the No. 8 pick in the draft that gave the NBA Magic Johnson, Bill Cartwright, Sidney Moncrief, Vinnie Johnson, Bill Laimbeer, Mark Eaton, Natt and a few other notables).

Boylan would never play an NBA game.  Kelley would never develop into more than a journeyman center.  The Nets would slide to the bottom of the East, but with draft picks obtained by trading young Natt to Portland for Maurice Lucas (Lucas was the power forward Nellie and the Bucks should have targeted), they would draft Mike Gminksi (1980) and Bernard King’s brother Albert (1981).  Natt would become an All-Star in Denver of all places after being traded by Portland, along with Fat Lever and others, for Kiki Vandeweghe.  English would make the Hall of Fame in recognition of a long career scoring a mountain of points for run-and-gun coach Doug Moe in Denver. Bernard King would recover from knee trouble and alcoholism to star for the Golden State Warriors and New York Knicks and eventually join English in the Hall (2013).

Catchings would be the goat in the Bucks 7-game, one point, playoff loss to Philly in 1981 (3-16 shooting, 24 fouls and 7 turnovers in 109 mins, leading to jokes that he had never left his old team, the 76ers). Yet Harvey would continue play on 13 years in the NBA and block 1226 shots, which is quite a few of those.

9.  2008 Atlanta Hawks (37-45).  The first playoff appearance for the young Al Horford-Josh Smith Hawks (featuring Joe Johnson), and it was a good one, with the Hawks pushing the “Big Three” Celtics (the 2008 champs) to seven games in the first round. Horford was 21-years-old and Smith 22, and the Hawks were on the rise, something that can’t be said about nearly all of the teams on this list, 1986 Bulls excepted. The Hawks became one of ESPN’s “it” teams.

“It” was not to be.  Although some remarkable good health eventually resulted in a 53 win season in 2010, playoff success eluded the Hawks.  After beating the Celtics three times in the 2008, they couldn’t win a playoff game against anybody but the Andrew-Bogut-less 2010 Bucks, who were in the process of bum-rushing the Hawks out of the playoffs until game six when they forgot how to shoot.  The Hawks made it to the second round in 2011, were out in the first again in 2012, let Johnson go to Brooklyn rather than overpay him like the Nets did, and now 2013 is the end of the line for Smith (and Zaza Pachulia too) as the team looks to build a better roster around Horford.  Back in 2008, the future didn’t look anywhere near as dim as it would be for Atlanta.

10. 1980 Portland Trailblazers (38-44).   This was the season after the Blazers parted bitter ways with the center Bill Walton and his fractured feet and let him sign with the Clippers of San Diego, Walton’s hometown. The Clippers compensated the Blazers with players (Kermit Washington the most compelling) and two first round picks.  Walton sued the Trailblazers for medical malpractice. By the 1980 mid-season the Blazers had broken off other key pieces of their 1977 championship roster. Power forward Maurice Lucas, the star of the 1977 finals, was traded to New Jersey, along with two first round draft picks, for rookie forward  Calvin Natt, who became the Blazers leading scorer.  Natt was drafted with the first round pick the Bucks had sent to New Jersey along with John Gianelli in the Harvey Catchings trade.

Point guard Lionel Hollins (now coach of the Grizzlies Nets himself) was traded to Philadelphia, where he joined Maurice Cheeks in the Sixers backcourt and helped spark the Sixers run to the 1980 Finals (where they lost to the Lakers, featuring Magic Johnson’s sensational game six at center and everywhere else on the court for injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

The Blazers were left with an interesting mix of rookies and journeyman veterans, including a redemptive Washington (notorious for throwing the punch that almost killed the Rockets’ Rudy Tomjanovich in 1977) who played 80 games. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam would follow the team for the entire season and prologue, and publish The Breaks of the Game (1981), still considered the masterwork of pro basketball journalism, biography and history.

One of the more interesting characters was rookie forward Abdul Jeelani, a recent convert to Islam who grew up in Racine (as Gary Cole) and played college ball at UW-Parkside.  That’s right, Parkside in Kenosha, Wis., an NAIA school at the time. A long-armed 6’8″, Jeelani was precisely the type of productive, scoring bigger forward who would be a natural for an NBA roster today, earning a salary of $8 million a year or more.  But things were different in the mid-1970s. The available NBA jobs were fewer (rosters were cut to 11 players in 1977) and the money sweeter in Europe.  Jeelani had failed to make NBA rosters twice, gone on to play in Europe, and was back for a third try at age 25.  Despite the trimmed down roster, he made the team, and after a solid season in Portland with some high scoring flashes, Jeelani — much to the surprise of the Blazers, who wanted to keep him — was picked up by the Dallas Mavericks in the expansion draft.

After Dallas, expansion was halted for eight years as the NBA went to work with what it had in the new decade: 23 teams in a meaner, leaner league filled with often brilliant players, all searching for an audience in a slow economy. Attendance had fallen and TV ratings were very low; there were problems attracting advertisers, problems with national network (CBS) priorities and presentation; and a number of franchises found themselves struggling under the financial strain of the new order — free agency. But Bird and Magic had arrived, and the game itself was undergoing a creative renaissance sourced in teamwork and great passing, with a series of strong drafts growing the talent each season.  The 200-some players holding down NBA jobs coming out of the late 1970s would cut the diamond that Michael Jordan and the Dream Team marketed to the world.

Jeelani would be one of the 200 for only one season in Dallas, where he was one of only four players to remain on the team from training camp to the end of the season.  He scored the first bucket in Mavericks history, and got used to hearing chants of “Abdul” from the home fans. Gary Cole from Racine, Wis., had changed his religion and his name; encountered rejection; traveled the world; and returned to try again in the league that rejected him, making the cut during its lean recessionary times. And as a young follower of Islam, he became a fan favorite in Tom Landry and Roger Staubach’s good ol’ boy christian conservative Dallas.  That’s one heckuva story.  The only problem was Jeelani’s salary of $57,000, which was far easier to double in Europe than in the NBA. In Europe Jeelani was a star; in the NBA, he was a mid-level player who usually came off the bench, and economic times were still tough in 1981.   He would move on to play in Italy and Spain for the better part of the next decade.

The 1979 Blazers bowed out in the first round (2-1) to the Dennis Johnson-Gus Williams-Paul Silas-Jack Sikma Seattle Supersonics, the eventual champs.

11. 1976 Milwaukee Bucks (38-44).  First season after the Kareem trade, the young Bucks were led by All-Star forward Bobby Dandridge, great-shooting Brian Winters and center Elmore Smith, the latter two acquired in “The Trade” along with Junior Bridgeman and power forward David Meyers.  The Bucks, coached by Larry Costello, won the 1976 Midwest Division without Kareem, largely owing this to the Pistons early season injury troubles (see above). Kareem’s Lakers actually failed to make the playoffs despite having a better record (40-42) than both the Pistons and the Bucks.  In the divisional playoff format of 1976, the Lakers had to catch Phoenix to win the fifth and final seed in the West but lost four of six to the Suns in the regular season and fell two games short.

Not a good year for Kareem or the Midwest Division, obviously, but the playoffs redeemed Lanier’s Pistons.  Against Detroit in the first round, the Bucks opted to bomb away from the outside and, thanks to some phenomenal shooting, managed to steal game one and then leave fans hyperventilating in Games 2 and 3 with three point losses in each. Winters, a 1976 and 1978 All-Star, shot 63%, averaging 27.3 points per game in the series — without the aid of the 3-pointer.  Dandridge netted 22 per game on 49% shooting and guard Gary Brokaw shot 62.2% for 21 ppg. Improbably, given those shooting percentages, it wasn’t quite enough.

This was Costello’s last full season as Bucks coach. Don Nelson, who was busy helping the Celtics win the 1976 title in his final season as a player, joined Costello’s staff for the 1976-77 season, and the head coaching job fell in Nellie’s lap early on.  The Bucks kept the core of Winters, Bridgeman and Meyers, let Dandridge go to the Bullets in free agency (received cash compensation), and launched full-on into the “Green and Growing” rebuilding plan. Nellie and GM Wayne Embry traded Brokaw and Elmore Smith to Cleveland for Rowland Garrett and two first round picks, one in 1977 (Ernie Grunfeld) and one in 1978 (George Johnson).  They drafted Quinn Buckner and Alex English in 1976, then Nellie traded monster rebounding center Swen Nater (their 1973 draft pick, who had been playing in the ABA until the merger) to the Buffalo Braves for the No. 3 first round pick that would be used to draft forward Marques Johnson in 1977.  When Marques arrived the Bucks started winning and the rest, as they say, is history. those were the days to be a young Bucks fan. The Bucks became a perennial contender after drafting Sidney Moncrief in 1979 and acquiring Lanier from Detroit in 1980.

12. 1992 Miami Heat (38-44).   First playoff trip for the expansion heat. Glen Rice wasn’t a 50-40-90 shooter this season (the Bird-Dirk-Durant standard) but he wasn’t too far off at 47-39-84. Rice led the fledgling Heat with 22.3 ppg, getting help from center Rony Seikaly and rookie gunner Steve Smith. The Heat would try use those three as a base to build a winner; they would not succeed.  The Heat started winning when Pat Riley took over in 1995 and completely overhauled the roster, including the core three.  The 1992 Heat were coached by Kevin Loughery, same Loughery who coached the Nets in the 1970s and Jordan’s Bulls in 1986 (see Nos. 1 and 8 on this list). Swept in the first round by Jordan and the Bulls on their way to title No. 2.

13. 2013 Milwaukee Bucks (38-44).  What will history say about this Bucks team?  Their coach, Scott Skiles, quit/was let go 32 games into the season after putting his house up for sale and declining to sign a contract extension.  The interim coach, Jim Boylan (the same Jim Boylan who was included in that 1979 Bernard King trade) played his team fast and loose and continued to develop good, young big men (Larry Sanders, John Henson).  But the Bucks’ trio of guards shot too poorly overall and played too little defense down the stretch to avoid a first round series against the defending champs, the Heat.  The Bucks lost 15 of their last 21 games, and few expect Boylan back as coach (Boylan was fired after the Heat dismissed the Bucks from the playoffs in a 4-0 sweep).

There are worse teams on this “38 or less” playoffs list, to be sure (Jim O’Brien’s teams come to mind), and better teams too.  Three of them were coached by Kevin Loughery, so coaching quality is a factor.  Weirdly enough, Jim Boylan is a recurring character in this post, as is long forgotten point guard Eric Money. The common thread for these teams is that they were all in transition, most of them on the way down, not up or sideways.  Those sideways teams that stayed the course, such as the 1976 Pistons and the 1992 Heat would break up their teams within three years. It will happen this summer in Atlanta.  It may happen soon in Indiana, too, though not this season. History shows that mediocrity in the NBA plays itself out to sub-mediocrity, unless your Hall of Famer can stay healthy, and the Bucks don’t have one of those.  They don’t even have an Al Horford or a Glen Rice, not to say that Sanders can’t get better (this statement looks funny two years later).

The current situation says the Bucks won’t win in the long or short run with Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis and J.J. Redick’s disparate jump-shooting tendencies.  Whatever happens with the rest of the Bucks roster, the series against the Heat should be the last time we see the guard trio play for the Bucks.

Nellie’s Hall of Fame induction speech and the Bucks era the NBA forgot

The winningest coach in NBA history (1,335) got the lion’s share of those wins as coach of the Milwaukee Bucks in the Marques JohnsonSidney Moncrief era.  This weekend coach Don Nelson — Nellie — was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame.

With Satch Sanders (a Celtics teammate from Nellie’s playing days), Bucks center Bob Lanier and Nellie’s Warriors star Chris Mullin standing behind him, Nellie reeled off the names of his Bucks core – the best team the NBA ever forgot:  Sidney, Marques, Junior Bridgeman, Brian Winters and Paul Pressey (Terry Cummings, Marques’ eventual replacement, also got a nod).  Here’s the video of the full speech:

Nellie won 540 games (.611 winning percentage) and seven straight division titles with the Bucks, one in the Western Conference, then six straight Central Division titles in the East after the 1980 realignment that set the rivalries in the post-ABA merger Golden Age.   Oh, it made sense geographically for the Bucks and Bulls to switch conferences with the Rockets and Spurs, aligning the three Texas teams in the Midwest Division after the 1980 expansion in Dallas — but moving Marques and Lanier’s Bucks (Moncrief was coming off the bench behind Winters at the time) into the East with the Dr. J’s 76ers and Larry Bird’s Celtics grossly weighted the balance of power in the league.

Had the Bucks stayed in the West, the 1981 Finals might well have been a Milwaukee-Philly matchup.   The 1983 Finals would certainly have been a Milwaukee-Philly showdown.   Instead, Nellie’s Bucks were denied the big stage by either Philly or Boston in the East playoffs while Magic Johnson’s Lakers waltzed to the Finals eight times in 10 years.   Those great Bucks teams have faded in league memory, getting less respect now than Reggie’s Pacers and the Malone-Stockton Jazz teams, even Ewing’s Knicks, Finals losers all.

As difficult as it may be for fans who don’t remember to imagine this, Reggie Miller — inducted into the Hall this week with Nellie — would not have started on the Bucks and been a valued sharpshooter off the bench circa 1981-87, playing behind Moncrief.  The same is true of Jamal Wilkes, also inducted into the Hall this weekend.   Wilkes would have backed Marques up, just as future Hall of Famer Alex English did in the 1977-78 season.   Marques and Sidney — 5-time All-Stars both — were that good.  Yet their Bucks teams seem to slip further into unremembered time with each passing year.

Who was that the camera cut to when Nellie mention Sidney and Marques?   There in the audience sat an expressionless 76ers coach Billy Cunningham, deep in thought.  Four out of five years (1981-85), the Sixers kept the Bucks from a shot at the Finals or the Celtics, or both.   Was Cunningham remembering Game 7 in 1981 in Philly, when Caldwell Jones saved the Sixers by grabbing a loose ball under the 76er basket?   Or was he thinking of the protest Nellie filed with the league after that game?

Or was Cunningham thinking about Dr. J and Marques, a small forward showdown for the ages, one that Doc ceded to Bobby Jones on the defensive end?   If a Bucks fan could offer a guess, it was probably about “Bobby.”   Which heroic Jones defensive play was the Sixers coach remembering?   His memory on those plays (and non-calls by the refs)  can’t possibly resemble how a Bucks fan remembers them.  But at Nellie’s induction, Cunningham was there, back in time somewhere, lost in the many close shaves the Sixers had against the Bucks.

Dr. J and Bird were in the audience, but (as you’ll see in the video) the cameras didn’t find them during the Bucks portion of Nellie’s speech.   And when Nellie noted that his assistant coach (and former teammate), K.C. Jones, won two titles with Bird as Celtics head coach, Nellie politely declined to mention that Jones got the Boston job amid the fallout from the Bucks’ 1983 playoff sweep of the Celtics — four straight in the playoffs, in Bird’s prime.

Later on in the speech, when Nellie mentions that he coached Miller on “Dream Team II” in 1994, the cameras do find Bird and his “Dream Team I” teammate Michael Jordan.   While Jordan is smirking, apparently enjoying a private joke, the look on Bird’s face is none too pleasant.    It is drawn into a scowl, and there’s a dark look in his eyes, as though he wanted to revoke Nellie’s Celtics player credentials.   I like to think that Bird was still mulling the Bucks and the ’83 sweep, about the sub-par shooting series he had against Marques; and how Nellie humiliated the Celtics — Danny Ainge in particular — during the series, labeling the over-matched Ainge “a whiner,” not good enough to be on the court with Moncrief, Winters, Pressey and Bridgeman.  Things were pretty ugly for the Celtics in that series from the opening whistle to the end, when Moncrief threw in a three-pointer in the closing seconds just to add to the Celtics humiliation.   The final score wasn’t close.

The Celtics fired coach Bill Fitch shortly after the sweep and replaced him with Nellie’s assistant, Jones.  They kept Quinn Buckner on, too, as a backup point guard, probably more so to make sure Nellie didn’t bring Quinn back to Milwaukee in 1984 than because Quinn was much use to the Celtics.   Whether that’s true or not matters less than the depth of the bitterness felt in Boston after the sweep.   The next season the Celtics got their revenge, beating the Bucks in the 1984 East finals on their way to a title and Quinn, bad knees and all — the player once singled out by Nellie as the one guy he would never trade — was in kelly green, not the forest green of the Bucks.

Or maybe Bird was remembering the Celtics being down 10 to the Bucks in Boston with four minutes to go in Game 7 of the 1987 East semifinals, with only the Pistons between either team and the Lakers in the NBA Finals.   Miraculously and with it all on the line, the Bucks self-destructed and the Celtics won their fifth trip to the Finals in the Bird era, another Larry and Magic finals.   And it is Celtics guard Dennis Johnson, not Sidney Moncrief, who is in the basketball Hall of Fame.

This may change someday for Sidney, now a Bucks assistant coach, maybe next year but probably not.   Moncrief won the league’s first two Defensive Player of the Year awards and was the only guard in the 1980s allowed into any conversation about Magic and Michael (sorry Isaiah), yet his name did not appear on the list of potential 2013 inductees posted by NBA-TV during the induction ceremony.   Bobby Jones was listed, however, and so was Sixers point guard Maurice Cheeks.    This is how the league remembers the era that included Nellie’s Bucks, even if Larry Bird doesn’t.

For now, the Bucks coach is in the Hall, and that will have to do.   It does, if only because of Cunningham’s far away stare and that horrible scowl on Bird’s face during Nellie’s induction speech.

Recalling bitter rivalries long past: A Sixers, Celtics, Bucks round-robin with playoff implications

Springtime is on the way in Milwaukee.  The snows are melting a dirty trickle in the rain.  The chartered buses are revved up for the state high school sectionals.  March Madness is in the air.  And the Bucks playoff seeding rests (in part) on how well they fare in games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics.

Celtics-Sixers, Sixers-Bucks, Bucks-Celtics — a weekend round-robin that began tonight in Philly — harkens (albeit vaguely) back to the NBA’s Golden Age when Larry Bird‘s Celtics, Sidney Moncrief‘s Bucks and Dr. J‘s Sixers waged battle season after season for home court advantage in the Eastern Conference.

To be a fan of coach Don Nelson’s Bucks was to worry about your team’s health every spring and fret over the strength of the opposition, the names Bird, Erving, Bobby Jones, McHale, Moses muttered under the breath in curses.  Bucks fans cringed at the inevitable playoff disappointment against arguably the two best teams ever assembled in the NBA.  But the Bucks in those days had Moncrief and Marques Johnson and Bob Lanier, and later Moncrief and Terry Cummings and Paul Pressey.  There was always hope.

The stakes aren’t so high for our Bucks these days.  They are a disappointing 25-38, a far cry from the Bucks teams that chased 60-win seasons during Moncrief’s prime.  Yet the 2011 Bucks find themselves gaining ground in the mad stumble for the 8th and final playoff spot in the East, one game out as they face the Sixers Saturday at the BC and go to Boston Sunday to meet the Celtics.

The Celtics are hanging on to the top seed in the East with Derrick Rose’s Bulls hot on their heels.  The Sixers are in 7th place, out of the Bucks reach and looking to move up a rung or two on the East playoff ladder.

This Philly-Boston weekend is critical for Bucks as they work to establish some late consistency and salvage the season.

“The big test for us is Philly (on Saturday),” Bucks center Andrew Bogut noted after the Bucks ran away from the last place Cleveland Cavs on Wednesday for a rare easy victory.  “We never play well against Philly, and they’re having a great year. I think Philly is our test.”

Eighth will have to do for Bogut and the Bucks this season.

And, no, the names Bogut, Garnett and Brand don’t resonate like those of Erving, Bird and Moncrief, who will be on hand Saturday providing color commentary for the Bucks’ FSN broadcast.

But spring is almost here in Wisconsin, and this will have to do.

***********************

Eighth was good enough for the Chicago Bulls in 1986, Michael Jordan‘s second NBA season, the year he missed 64 games with a broken left foot.  It will be good enough for Brandon Jennings in his sophomore NBA season, a year in which he, too, broke his left foot.

Jordan’s 1986 Bulls, also featuring rookie Charles Oakley and Orlando Woolridge in his second season, are worth mentioning here because whoever grabs the 8th seed in the East this season will surely make the playoffs with one of the worst records in recent memory.

The worst NBA playoff record, post-ABA merger, belonged to the 1986 Bulls, who won just 30 games playing in arguably the toughest conference that the NBA had ever put on the nation’s courts — the Eastern Conference of the mid-1980’s.

How good was the 11-team East in 1986?  The young Bulls went 3-15 against the Celtics, Sixers and Bucks.  There were Dominique Wilkins‘ Hawks and Isaiah Thomas‘ Pistons to contend with, too, and the Bulls were just 3-9 against them.

The Western Conference champions, the Twin Towers Houston Rockets starring 7-footers Hakeem Olajawon and Ralph Sampson, would fall in six games to the Celtics in the 1986 NBA Finals.  The Rockets, with the luxury of playing in the West, finished 51-31 (#2 in the West behind the Lakers) but won just 3 of their 10 games against the Beasts of the East.  The Rockets would very likely have finished 6th in the East, and no better than 5th.

*************************

Playoff atmosphere in Philly. The Sixers kicked off the Boston-Philly-Milwaukee round-robin by holding off the Celtics, 89-86, snapping a seven-game home losing streak to the Celtics.  Center Spencer Hawes, forward Elton Brand and swingman Andre Iguodala led a balanced Sixer attack that ended with five players in double figures.   The Celtics were led by Jeff Green (18 pts) and Nenad Krstic (16 and 15 boards)?

No, these are not the Celtics and Sixers of the great Bird and Dr. J rivalry, but the Wachovia Center crowd roared playoff intensity nonetheless as Iguodala waltzed through the lane for the game-clinching layup.

Ray Allen had perhaps his worst game this season, scoring only 5 points on 2-11 shooting. The Celtics have lost two in a row.

The Sixers are playing their best ball since Allen Iverson’s heyday for coach Doug Collins, and moved to within a half game of the Knicks for 6th place and three games back of the Hawks in 5th.

The Hawks looked downright sick losing by 18 to the Carlos Boozer-less Bulls in Chicago.  “All-Star” Al Horford contributed 6 points and 7 rebounds in the loss.  Did I mention that the Bulls power forward, Carlos Boozer, didn’t play?

I watched Hawks-Bulls a second time, late night.  The Hawks simply turned dumb and selfish when faced with the in-your-face Bulls defense, just as they do when playing the Bucks.  They don’t like being challenged, and, even though Kirk Hinrich just joined the team, they looked completely lost when he wasn’t on the court.

They switched and had bigs guarding Derrick Rose in the 3rd quarter, same way the Mike Woodson Hawks of last season played Brandon Jennings.  That was a miserable failure.  Luol Deng got hot, and the Hawks had no one to guard him.  Josh Smith and Joe Johnson made horrible decisions on offense, repeatedly, Al Horford disappeared, and Jamaal Crawford and Kirk Hinrich seemed like the only guys interested in playing the game.

Zaza Pachulia was, as usual, a useless hack who isn’t too effective when a stronger player (Kurt Thomas) is matched up against him.

It was games 3, 4, and 5 last May all over again, with the Bulls dominating like the Bucks never could have without Bogut.   Bucks play the Hawks in Atlanta Tuesday, and that game looks very winnable.

Bucks making it easy for the Hawks

Bucks coach Scott Skiles was runner up in the coach of the year voting, but right now he's looking for hair to pull out over his Bucks' play against the Hawks.Two games into this playoffs series, just about the last thing I expected to write was this:   The Bucks aren’t challenging the Hawks’ shots and they’re lacking focus. They’ve hardly resembled the defensive Bucks team the NBA is used to.

Scott Skiles’ constant pressure defense has a few basic principles. Constant pressure on the ball, no switching on picks (the fight-through pick rule) and show help/don’t leave your man. The intended result of these activities is a sticky defensive stew in which the Bucks should be in position to tightly contest shooters. The consequence of not contesting shots is usually a seat on the bench.

The Hawks have generally been a lot more open than Bucks opponents usually are, and Skiles is not happy about it. Milwaukee Journal NBA beat reporter, Tom Enlund, is back in action for the playoffs, and Enlund reports that Skiles’ shot challenge charts from Games 1 and 2 are looking rather bare.

“We need to have a minimum of about 75% contested shots and we’re well below that right now,” said Skiles.

[Edit: Whether or not center Andrew Bogut is in the lineup shouldn’t impact whether or not (searching for the right example here) … John Salmons is sluggish on defense.]

In other news from Skiles:  “Our focus hasn’t been where it normally is.”

The Bucks have one shot to find theire focus and get it back to normal. If they lose Game 3 Saturday, they fall down 0-3 to the Hawks. Nobody’s ever come back from O-3 to win an NBA playoff series.

Coach of the Year:  While the Bucks were busy making the Hawks look like the Lakers, the NBA was preparing to release it’s Coach of the Year voting results. And the winner is:  Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks, down 0-2 to the actual Lakers.  The Thunder went from the lottery and 22-47 record in Brooks’  “interim” last year to 50 wins and the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Maybe they did it by surprising a lot of teams but Brooks’ Thunder play some D.  They finished in the league’s top 10 in defensive rating, in that 2nd hextile the Cavs fell to this season. It’s not a bad place to be — the Spurs, Jazz and D-Wade’s Heat are in the 2nd tier, too.

Brooks won 58% of the first place votes on the 123 NBA media ballots, a landslide. Skiles finished a strong enough second for people who tend to dribble around in cyberspace about the NBA to conclude this was a race of two Scotts. That’s fine. The lackluster play of the Bucks on Tuesday does, however, lead me to believe that the voters probably chose the right Scott.