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.