The Milwaukee Bucks’ Best Season: 1971

In the 1969 NBA Draft, the Milwaukee Bucks made quite possibly the most history-changing choice in the entire annals of professional basketball when they selected Lew Alcindor out of UCLA with the first overall pick.

Alcindor, who is better known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, turned a team that went 27-55 in its first year in existence as an expansion team, around overnight. Milwaukee went 56-26 and made the East Division finals in Kareem’s rookie year, losing to the eventual-champion Knicks.

In Kareem’s second year, Milwaukee won 66 games and the title, the only title in franchise history until the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Bucks finally broke through and gave the city its first championship in 50 years in 2021.

That’s not to say the Bucks spent all that much time wandering the wilderness; for a team that started life as an expansion team, they would not miss the playoffs for two straight years for the first time until the 1992 and ’93 seasons—sadly, that would end up being a seven-year drought, longest in their 53 seasons in existence. No honorable mentions for the mid-90s Bucks.

But that 1971 team…man, there has never been anything quite like it. An expansion team finding instant success and being a contender in their second year ever and a champion in their third, all because of one tremendous draft pick and one absolutely brilliant trade—during the 1970 offseason, Milwaukee acquired Oscar Robertson—that turned an expansion team into a win-now squad overnight. Let’s take a look at just what made the ’71 Bucks so great.

The On-Court Record

The biggest tiebreaker between the 1971 and 2021 Bucks for the purpose of this piece is the won-lost record. The 2021 team went 46-26 in a 72-game season, or a 52-30 pace, good for third in the East.

The 1971 team went 66-16 and finished 15 games ahead of the second-place Chicago Bulls for the best record in the Western Division and 14 games up on the Knicks (52-30) for the best record out of 17 teams in the entire league.

This is a fact made all the more stark by how top-heavy the league was supposed to be. There were three expansion teams in 1970-71 for everyone to beat up on. The Buffalo Braves went 22-60, the Cleveland Cavaliers debuted at 15-67, and the Portland Trail Blazers were the best of the lot at 29-53, but instead of lifting the win totals of the established teams who got to smack them around, only three teams won at least 50 games and Milwaukee…well, they just crushed everyone.

The Bucks were tops in offensive rating, tops in defensive rating, and their plus-10.8 Net Rating is higher than the 2016 Warriors (who went 73-9), higher than the 67-win 2000 Lakers, higher even than the 1986 Celtics (a 67-15 team.) It’s not the highest of all time—the 2017 Warriors topped 10.8, so did three of Michael Jordan‘s Bulls teams, and so did the 2016 Spurs despite San Antonio losing in the second round of the playoffs that year.

The Bucks then steamrolled through the playoffs, beating the Warriors 4-1 in the conference semifinals, the Lakers—who were a year away from their own greatest season in history—in the West finals 4-1, then sweeping the Baltimore Bullets (now the Washington Wizards) in the NBA Finals.

Nobody stopped the 1971 Bucks. They just destroyed everyone.

The Featured Players

Everyone knows Kareem and Big O from this team, the former drafted in 1969, the latter traded for during the 1970 offseason for incumbent point guard Flynn Robinson.

Kareem’s 1971 was an absolutely spectacular sophomore campaign. He won the scoring title, averaging 31.7 points per game, the second-highest mark of his career. He would score 34.8 the following season on his way to a still-standing NBA record of 38,387 career points.

Kareem also grabbed 16.0 rebounds, his third-highest career total, and his 22.3 Win Shares and .326 WS/48 were surpassed only by his 25.4 and .340 the following season, both NBA records. In fact, Kareem holds three of the four best seasons for WS/48 in NBA history; Wilt Chamberlain‘s 1964 campaign is third and LeBron James is the only player from the past 50 years to crack the top five, which he did in 2013 for the Miami team we covered yesterday in this series.

In terms of a single player dominating, the 1971 Bucks featured a big man who set the second-highest mark for WS/48 in the history of the league. Giannis, in 2021, posted .243 WS/48; that’s only good for 130th on the same list. Kareem was on another level, especially as a young man.

Robertson, meanwhile, was starting to slow down in 1971; it was the first time in his career he would fail to crack 20 points per game (19.4) and represented a decline in his “triple double numbers”—Big O, after all, was the first to average a triple-double (in 1962) and the only player not named Russell Westbrook ever to do it in NBA history. Robertson averaged 5.7 rebounds and 8.1 assists, but let’s face it—something like a 19, 6, and 8 every night is one heck of a stat line.

And the other big difference between Robertson and Westbrook is that Big O made the most of his shots. He hit 49.6 percent from the field in 1971, feasting on the open looks that he was able to get thanks to Kareem drawing all the attention from the defense. There was no such thing as a 3-pointer in 1971, of course, but for some perspective, Westbrook is a career 47 percent shooter on 2-point shots despite more of his looks coming on driving layups and fewer on the apples-to-apples midrange jump shots that were Robertson’s bread and butter. Westbrook hasn’t cracked 40 percent from anywhere in the midrange for his career.

Even in 1971, however, two players alone, even Hall of Famers, couldn’t provide 66 wins by themselves.

Bob Dandridge, himself a Hall of Famer, was the small forward, and he scored 18.4 points per game on 50.9 percent shooting, another beneficiary of Milwaukee’s ability to leave the defense constantly picking its poison when trying to choose who to focus on defensively.

Jon McGlocklin, who had made his only All-Star appearance as a member of the expansion Bucks in 1969, contributed 15.8 points per game to the cause in 1971 as the shooting guard, making 53.5 percent of his shots.

And power forward Greg Smith, a fourth-round pick by the expansion Bucks in 1968, provided 11.7 points per contest while making 51.2 percent of his shots.

All of this just further demonstrates how mind-blowing it is the way Kareem was able to change the entire face of the game. When the worst shooter in a five-man lineup is shooting 49.6 percent from the field, that’s a recipe for utter domination. Even today, if your worst guy has an eFG% of .496—and that includes 3-pointers!—you’re probably a contender.

The Coach

Larry Costello coached the Bucks for the franchise’s first nine seasons in existence, compiling a record of 410-264, good for a winning percentage of .608.

Of course, when you get to coach Kareem in his youth, that sort of thing will happen. Costello coached the Chicago Bulls for just 56 games of the 1978-79 season, going 20-36, before he was never seen or heard from again on an NBA sideline; he was just 47 years old when he left the NBA coaching ranks and passed away in 2001 at the age of 70.

It’s hard to pin down Costello’s coaching legacy, in part because whenever he didn’t have Kareem, his teams stunk. Indeed, things went south as soon as Robertson left. When Kareem and Bob Dandridge are your two best players, you should probably go better than 38-44, but that was Milwaukee’s record in 1975 a year after making the Finals in Robertson’s final season as a player.

Kareem took off for the Lakers after the ’75 season, Milwaukee went 38-44 again, and Costello was finally fired for Don Nelson—who would lead the Bucks to deep playoff runs of his own a few years later—after starting the ’76-77 season 3-15.

Was he a good coach? He was good enough to get a Bucks team to a championship and an additional Finals appearance, but it’s hard to think that was anything other than having a generational talent at the height of his powers and a veteran Hall of Fame point guard directing the show out on the floor. One tends to suspect that anyone could’ve coached that team.

Honorable Mentions

Besides the obvious 2021 Bucks, who won the title despite a bit of a disappointing regular season, there have been a few other notable Bucks teams over the years.

The 2001 team, featuring Glenn Robinson and Ray Allen, reached the height of their powers by making the Eastern Conference Finals, but Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers disposed of them in seven games before running face-first into the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers.

And those Don Nelson-coached Bucks mentioned a bit earlier made three East finals, in 1983, ’84, and ’86. Unfortunately for the Bucks, they crashed into two of the greatest teams ever assembled, first in ’83 with the Julius Erving, Moses Malone, and Maurice Cheeks 76ers, and then in ’84 and ’86 with Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics. All three of those East finals losses were to the eventual champion that year.

Milwaukee’s only broken through twice. And the first time? Well, let’s just say you never forget your first time, and the 1971 Bucks were unforgettable.

NEXT: Minnesota Timberwolves. They’ve only been out of the first round once in franchise history and have made the playoffs just once in the last 17 years. No prizes for guessing how this one is going to go. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!