When my grandmother Gertrude passed in the summer of 2013 at the age of 103 (and a half!) years old, she did so with very few regrets. Except one. My grandmother - a Milwaukee resident since the end of World War II - never did get to see her beloved NBA team, the Bucks*, win a second NBA Championship. Something that just might happen this June, and for the first time since 1971.
With a grandmother, mother, aunt and uncle from Milwaukee, despite growing up in Denver I spent my Christmas breaks in Milwaukee and got to attend many Bucks games throughout the 1980s. So even though I was a die-hard Denver Nuggets fan, I had a “second favorite team” that played in the Eastern Conference.
And for the first time since the 1980s, the Bucks and the Nuggets have a lot in common; including a shot at facing off in the NBA Finals.
The Bucks of the 1980s were basically the Stiffs of the East. While the Nuggets had stars like Fat Lever at point guard, Kiki Vandeweghe and Alex English at small forward, Calvin Natt at power forward and Dan Issel at center, the Bucks too had stars at those positions in Sidney Moncrief at the one, Marques Johnson and Terry Cummings at the three, Jack Sikma at the four and Bob Lanier at the five.
But surrounding those stars were true Stiffs that longtime and loyal fans will forever remember. The Nuggets supporting cast featured the likes of Danny Schayes, Blair Rasmussen, Bill Hanzlik, Dave Robisch and Joe Kopicki, while the Bucks roster had names like Randy Breuer, Pat Cummings, Brian Winters and the doughy, lumbering 7’0”, 250 pound Paul Mokeski, nicknamed the “Speed Bump” (I can’t make this stuff up). And Sikma - for as good as he was - sported a perm during his years on the Bucks’ roster, which would give him the speed pass to the Denver Stiffs Hall of Fame had he been a Nugget.
Even the teams’ respective defensive stalwarts like Wayne Cooper and T.R. Dunn (Nuggets) and Alton Lister and Paul Pressey (Bucks) were essentially the same players: stingy on defense, Stiffs on offense.
And of course both teams had blue collar, everyman schleppers for head coaches for the majority of the 1980s. The Nuggets had the famously disheveled Brooklynite Doug Moe (whom this site pays eternal homage to), and the Bucks had the fish-tie wearing hippie Don Nelson. Interestingly, both Moe (in the ABA) and Nelson (the NBA) were solid players - hard to imagine when looking at their coaching physiques and considering what Nellie is up to these days.
Like the Nuggets, the Bucks were basically the third best team in their conference throughout the 1980s. Under Moe, the Nuggets made the playoffs for nine consecutive years from 1982 through 1990. And on Nelson’s watch, the Bucks found their way into the post-season eight consecutive times from 1978 to 1987, before Nellie handed off the coaching reigns to his assistant Del Harris, who led the Bucks to four more years of playoff appearances.
For the Nuggets, Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers stood in the way of an NBA Finals appearance, defeating the Nuggets in the 1985 Western Conference Finals and again in the 1987 NBA Playoffs. The Bucks’ nemeses were the Lakers’ great rivals of that era: Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics and Julius Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers (remember, in those days the Eastern Conference wasn’t the junior varsity conference that it is today). The Bucks would succumb to the 76ers in the 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1985 NBA Playoffs, and would go on to lose to the Celtics in both the 1984 and 1986 post-seasons. Interestingly, the Bucks were a Western Conference team until the 1980-81 season and actually lost to the Nuggets in the 1978 Western Conference Semifinals.
Post-Moe and post-Nellie, the Nuggets and Bucks experienced decades of ineptitude. After Harris was fired in 1992, the Bucks would find the post-season just nine times in 25 years. The Nuggets have fared a little better, making the playoffs 12 times in 28 post-Moe seasons, including nine consecutive appearances under head coach George Karl from 2005 through 2013. Coincidentally, Karl gets credit for taking the Nuggets (2009) and the Bucks (2001) to their only conference finals appearances in the past 30-plus years. But since 1989, the Nuggets (three) and the Bucks (two) have won a combined five total playoff series.
That could all change when the playoffs commence this April. At 45-14 and on pace to win over 60 games for the first time since 1981, the Bucks sit atop the Eastern Conference. The Nuggets - boasting a Western Conference second-best record of 41-18 - are poised to match their NBA franchise-best 57 wins from the 2012-13 season. And the similarities between our two teams are aplenty.
Like the Nuggets - who are led by Serbian star Nikola Jokic - the 2018-19 Bucks are led by a European import who wasn’t a lottery pick and whose name is hard to spell and pronounce: Giannis Antetokounmpo, aka “The Greek Freak”. Antetokounmpo was drafted 15th overall in 2013 and will probably go down in history as the greatest 15th selection ever, just as Jokic will go down in history as the greatest 41st pick ever. Even the Bucks’ second-best player, Khris Middleton, was a second round draft choice and - after spending some time in the G League - was just a throw-in for a 2013 trade involving Brandon Knight and Brandon Jennings (not sure how often two Brandons get traded for each other, but it’s worth noting nonetheless).
As aptly noted by Denver Stiffs’ Adam Mares in his recent rebuke to Bill Simmons’ comments about this year’s Nuggets squad, the 2018-19 Nuggets are essentially a cast of nobodies that many other teams passed on. The 2018-19 Bucks aren’t much different, with a roster including late first rounders, second rounders and castoffs like Malcolm Brogdon, Eric Bledsoe, George Hill and Nikola Mirotic.
And just like the Moe / Nelson comparison from the 1980s, the teams’ current head coaches have much in common, as well. The Nuggets bench leader Michael Malone was a lifetime assistant who never played in a single NBA game and is on his second go-around as a head coach. The same goes for the Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer. They even faced off in this year’s NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte.
Could that have been a preview of the 2019 NBA Finals?
What would be a dream come true for an NBA geek like me would be the NBA’s worst nightmare. Based on statistical metropolitan area, Denver is the NBA’s 16th-largest market (but really 18th if you count Los Angeles and New York twice as they each have two franchises), whereas Milwaukee is the NBA’s 24th (i.e. 26th). During a season in which the NBA is already experiencing plummeting television ratings, a Nuggets vs. Bucks finals would be an all-time ratings loser, on par with the 2003 San Antonio Spurs vs. New Jersey Nets or the 2007 Spurs vs. Cleveland Cavaliers NBA Finals. (And just for the record, I did warn that Kevin Durant going to the Golden State Warriors would be bad for the NBA.)
But while the NBA and their television partners might hate it, fans of small market teams everywhere would rejoice as a Nuggets vs. Bucks NBA Finals would serve as inspiration for the fans of all those other small markets out there. Moreover, the Nuggets and Bucks have this opportunity thanks to the incompetent roster management that has taken place in Los Angeles, New York, Brooklyn, Chicago, Dallas, Washington and Atlanta for the past five-plus years. Of the NBA’s top-10 teams by market size, only the Toronto Raptors (go Masai!), Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics and aforementioned Bay Area Warriors have a shot at title contention in 2019.
Which means ... for the first time since the 1980s there’s a shot - a real shot - that the Nuggets and Bucks could compete for an NBA title. And while my grandmother regrettably won’t be here to witness it, I have a feeling she’ll get to witness it from someplace higher up.