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The Best Teams to Never Win a Championship: What If...Don Nelson’s Bucks Broke Through?

A near decade of great basketball faced a common opponent

Welcome back to “What If...” a series that will see me cover and go through notable Milwaukee Bucks moments and wonder, what if the opposite happened? Most of these will reverse painful moments in Milwaukee Bucks history, but sometimes the “what if” takes away the good and leaves us with a darker timeline. But first, a quick note to explain my logic: the future is entirely fictional and is rarely based on statistics, facts or reason.

This article will also be a collaboration with SB Nation “Best Teams to Never Win a Championship” tournament just to pile on the misery, as the 1985-86 Bucks were an entry in the “Not Good Enough” region.

The suspension of the NBA due to the COVID-19 pandemic has many Bucks fans feeling like they were robbed of a special season, Milwaukee was on pace to improve on their breakthrough 60-win season the year prior. The reason there was so much disappointment is that for many Bucks fans, this was the best stretch of basketball the franchise has shown in their lifetime. For others though, that claim goes to the Don Nelson-led Bucks in the 80’s. The team consistently won their division and finished in the top two of the Eastern Conference but could never seem to get over the hump and make the finals, let alone win it all. Some of those teams were the best teams to never win the title, so what if any of Don Nelson’s Bucks teams broke through?

1976 was the beginning of attempting to rebuild the Milwaukee Bucks. The team was in its second season without franchise icon Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; who had forced his way out of Milwaukee to land with the Los Angeles Lakers. The Bucks also lost head coach Larry Costello, who surprisingly resigned after struggling to start the 1976-77 season. This move allowed for assistant coach Don Nelson to take over the Milwaukee Bucks and begin the team’s best stretch in franchise history.

With his first full season in charge, Nelson was able to use the draft picks Milwaukee acquired from the Kareem trade to add Kent Benson, who later got punched in the face by Kareem, Ernie Grunfeld, and everybody’s favorite Marques Johnson. Milwaukee improved by 14 games, finishing with a 44-38 record, good enough to finish 6th in the West. Milwaukee truly got all of its pieces in place going into the 1979-80 season by drafting guard Sidney Moncrief and trading the underachieving Kent Benson for veteran center Bob Lanier.

The Bucks entered the 1980s ready to compete for a NBA title. Milwaukee moved to the Eastern Conference and would proceed to win six straight division titles and often finishing 2nd in the East. Despite the success, Milwaukee could never get to the finals, always falling to the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers. Some of the those teams were always behind in terms of talent to the Celtics and 76ers, however Milwaukee did have two teams that could potentially disrupt the duopoly of the Eastern Conference hold.

The first was the 1984-85 team, which won 59 games and had the second best defensive rating in the league, only to lose to the Sixers. The second team is our “best team to never win a title” entry, as the 85-86 Bucks won 57 games and avenged their loss to the Sixers. But, they ultimately were swept by a Celtics team that boasted a phenomenal 40-1 record at home and were intent on redeeming themselves after falling short in the Finals the year prior.

The 85-86 Bucks once again featured one of the best defenses in the league led by Sidney Moncrief; Paul Pressey and Ricky Pierce gave Nelson the guards he needed for Nellie Ball and Terry Cummings lead the frontcourt. The team had the talent, coaching and experience to make the leap but just couldn’t get over the hump. Milwaukee would continue to make the playoffs a few more times, but Don Nelson’s departure after the 1986-87 season combined with the core group of Moncrief, Pressey and Pierce aging would see Milwaukee not make a conference final again until 2001.

Now what if one of those Nelson led teams had made the leap? The 1980-81 team would win Game 7 against the Sixers and Celtics to face Houston in the NBA Finals. Houston’s Cinderella run would not be enough to beat Milwaukee as Marques Johnson impressively outduels Moses Malone while Sidney Moncrief and Junior Bridgeman limit Rudy Tomjanovic and Calvin Murphy to win Milwaukee’s second franchise title. Johnson takes home that Finals MVP.

Johnson still departs the team in 1984 but it is a much more amicable split and his jersey is retired in the 90’s. Milwaukee would fall short in the 84-85 season, but gained some shocking revenge by beating the Celtics in ‘86, setting up another rematch against the Houston Rockets. To counter Houston’s size of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, Milwaukee goes with small ball, but it’s not enough to beat Houston, ultimately losing the series in 6. Despite their disagreements, new owner Herb Kohl sees Nelson’s results and Nellie stays until the end of the 1990-91 season, where the Bradley Center court is named after him. Johnson and Moncrief jump to the 1st and 2nd greatest Bucks of all time with their title and finals appearance, surpassing Kareem at the time, whose departure still leaves a sour taste in Milwaukee fans’ mouths.

So what do you think, is the 1985-86 Milwaukee Bucks one of the best Bucks team to never win a title? Would you have picked a different team from that era? Would one of Don Nelson’s teams breaking through change your perception of the franchise?

There’s plenty of intrigue surrounding the best period of Bucks basketball, but what other “What Ifs” do you think should be tackled next?