The Milwaukee Bucks won the 2021 NBA Finals last month, providing the team with the second championship of its long history and first in a handful of a decades. It was a momentous moment for basketball in Milwaukee and sports in Wisconsin, marking the first major pro sports title to come to the state since 2010.
Let’s take a look at the history of the Milwaukee Bucks, starting from their inception up to their most recent campaign, which went as well as possible.
Milwaukee Bucks History: Franchise Timeline
On Jan. 22, 1968, the NBA awarded the rights to a new franchise in its league to Milwaukee Professional Sports and Services, Inc., which was run by Wesley D. Pavalon and Marvin L. Fishman. When the franchise was incorporated 14 days later, the two were named president and executive vice president, respectively. The company sold shares of its new franchise to Wisconsin residents at $5 per share, originally released 300,000 shares to the public but upping it by another 125,000 because of the positive reception.
Larry Costello was hired to serve as the first head coach in Milwaukee Bucks history. To say he worked out in Milwaukee would be a strong understatement, but we’ll get more into that later. The Bucks filled out their roster via the college and expansion drafts, which Costello oversaw.
The team played its first NBA season in the 1968-69 campaign. It finished its first year with a 27-55 record, with players like John McGlocklin, Flynn Robinson, and Wayne Embry taking most of the headlines throughout the season. That was the last season that Milwaukee would finish below-.500 for a handful of years.
1971 NBA Championship
It didn’t take too long for the Bucks to achieve the ultimate goal. They made their first appearance in the postseason in the 1969-70 season, completely flipping the script from year one to go 56-26 in the regular season and taking the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Division. Milwaukee defeated the Philadelphia 76ers, 4-1, in the Eastern Division Semifinals to win its first-ever NBA playoffs series, then fell to the top-seeded New York Knicks, 4-1, in the Eastern Division Finals. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the No. 1 pick in the 1969 NBA Draft, had a lot to do with the quick turnaround.
On April 21, 1970, the Bucks made a massive move to prepare for the 1970-71 season. They shipped Flynn Robinson and Charlie Paulk to the Cincinnati Royals in exchange for Oscar Robinson, and the move paid off in spades one year later.
The Bucks ran away with the Midwest Division in 1970-71 and set a record of 66 regular season wins, which has since been broken multiple times. From Feb. 6 through March 8, 1971, Milwaukee won 20 games in a row, setting another NBA record that’s been since beaten.
The Bucks annihilated their competition in the postseason. They topped the San Francisco Warriors, 4-1, then made quick work of the Los Angeles Lakers, 4-1, before sweeping the Baltimore Bullets, 4-0, in the 1971 NBA Finals. It was the fastest any expansion major professional sports team had ever won a championship. Abdul-Jabbar was named league MVP, he and Robertson were both listed as All-NBA players, and one of the most fearsome teams in the league’s history cemented its legacy.
“Larry, Oscar and I have the same ways about us,” Abdul-Jabbar, who went by Lew Alcindor at the time, told Sports Illustrated in 1971. “We agree that being as efficient as possible cuts down our chances for errors. Larry has a very professional attitude. There’s no nonsense, because he’s a man dedicated wholly to basketball. He simply wants to get the job done, which makes it a lot easier for me. I know what he demands and I have no worry about working around any idiosyncrasies he might have.”
Through the Bucks didn’t win another title in the years immediately after their dominance in 1971, they remained in the mix.
From 1972 to 1974, the Bucks reached the playoffs every year, making the Western Conference Finals in 1972 and appearing in the 1974 NBA Finals. Abdul-Jabbar remained Milwaukee’s most lethal weapon, and Costello kept the machine running well, but there was always someone else in the way. In 1972, it was the Lakers who defeated the 63-win Bucks in six to knock off the No. 1 seed in the West. In 1973, the Golden State Warriors upset 60-win Milwaukee, 4-2, in the first round. In 1974, the team won 59 games and made it to the ultimate series, only to come up just short to the Boston Celtics, 4-3, losing Game 7 by 15 points after a one-point win in Game 6, 102-101, forced a winner-take-all contest to decide the championship.
That would be the end of the Milwaukee Bucks history of contention for a few years.
Fun fact: the Bucks hired one of their original players, Wayne Embry, as general manager in March 1972, making him the first Black GM in American pro sports history.
All Good Things Must End
The Bucks missed the postseason in 1975, just the second time in Milwaukee’s history that it failed to escape the regular season. Robertson had retired in September 1974, and it got worse a year later: on June 16, 1975, the Bucks traded Abdul-Jabbar and Walt Wesley to the Lakers to Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers, Elmore Smith, and Brian Winters. It did not have many positive effects on them.
Milwaukee did get back to the playoffs in 1976, but it was a quick trip with a loss in the first round. Just 18 games into the 1976-77 campaign with a 3-15 record, Costello resigned from his post as head coach.
“The resignation was initiated by me because I sincerely feel it is in the best interests of everybody concerned,” Costello told the AP in 1976. “I want this team and this organization to be winners. Hopefully this will help in that direction, never thought this would happen when we signed Don Nelson as my assistant. I hope Don is here as long as I have been.”
Nelson replaced Costello as head coach. The Bucks did not qualify for the 1977 postseason. Milwaukee did return to the playoffs the next year, losing to the Denver Nuggets in seven games in the Western Conference Semifinals, but the team again missed the playoffs in 1979.
12-Straight Playoffs Appearances
Milwaukee bounced back in the 1979-80 season, winning 49 games and earning a spot in the 1980 NBA Playoffs. It would be the first of 12-straight NBA playoffs appearances for the Bucks, though none of them concluded with a championship or showing in the NBA Finals.
Between the 1979-80 and 1990-91 seasons, Milwaukee went 614-370 (.624) and consistently competed in the top half of the NBA, but it never had much to show for it by the end of the playoffs. During that 12-year span, the Bucks lost in the first round three times, the conference semifinals six times, and the conference finals on three separate occasions, in 1983, 1984, and 1986.
Seven-Year Playoff Drought
Del Harris resigned as Bucks head coach 17 games into the 1991-92 NBA season, pulling back to serve as only the team’s vice president of basketball operations. Frank Hamblen was his replacement, and Milwaukee finished the season 31-51 and outside of the playoff picture for the first time since 1979.
It wouldn’t get much better for a while in Milwaukee. Mike Dunleavy Sr. took over as head coach in the summer leading up to the 1992-93 campaign, returning to the team after serving as an assistant coach there from 1987 to 1990, and the hire was considered a major coup at the time. As the Lakers head coach, he had helped them reach the 1991 NBA Finals, and the hope was that he would accomplish the same with the Bucks.
Dunleavy lasted four full seasons in Milwaukee, compiling a 107-221 (.326) record with zero playoff appearances.
Chris Ford replaced him before the 1996-97 season, and his two years in charge only went slightly better. The Bucks went 69-95 (.421) under him, still failing to reach the postseason.
There were some good moments during this era. The franchise hosted its 5,000,000th fan to the Bradley Center on Feb. 13, 1996, highlighting the longevity of the team in the area. Ray Allen, whom the Bucks added via a draft-day trade in 1996 with the Timberwolves for Stephon Marbury, scored the organization’s 100,000th field goal on Jan. 18, 1997, in his rookie season. And Vin Baker and Glenn Robinson became one of the most dynamic duos in the NBA. But these positives were few and far between.
On Aug. 29, 1998, the Milwaukee Bucks hired George Karl as their seventh head coach in franchise history. A lockout postponed the season for months, delaying its start until Feb. 6, 1999, but that shortened campaign proved to be positive for the Bucks. At the trade deadline, they acquired Sam Cassell, Chris Gatling, and Paul Grant in a three-team deal, plus Tim Thomas and Scott Williams in a different trade. Those moves helped lift the Bucks to a 28-22 record and .560 winning percentage, their best since 1990-91. It also earned them the playoff birth that ended the long drought, though that quickly ended with a 3-0 sweep at the hands of the Indiana Pacers in the first round.
That offered Karl and his Bucks some momentum heading into the 1999-00 season, and their 42-40 mark was enough to get back into the playoffs. It was another early exit, but at least there was something positive happening in Milwaukee.
In 2000-01, the Bucks won the Central Division for the first time since 1986 with a 52-30 record. Karl became the 17th coach in NBA history to win at least 600 games, and Glenn Robinson became the fifth player in the team’s history to score 10,000 points. Ray Allen, now well removed from his rookie campaign, was cementing himself as a serious NBA star, earning a spot in the NBA All-Star Game and on the All-NBA Third Team.
As the No. 2 seed in the East, the Bucks faced the No. 7 seed Orlando Magic in the first round. Milwaukee dispatched of the Magic in four games, 3-1, to secure its first playoff series win since 1989.
The conference semifinals proved to be more of a challenge, but Milwaukee ultimately outlasted the Charlotte Hornets, 4-3, to return to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 15 years. Allen and Robinson combined to average 45.4 points per game in the series, and Allen also dished 7.0 assists per contest and shot 42 percent from deep.
The No. 1 seed Philadelphia 76ers stood in the way of the Bucks and a trip to the 2001 NBA Finals, and the Bucks took a 2-1 series lead three games into the matchup. Allen Iverson proved to be too much, though, as he scored 44 points in Game 7 and averaged 30.5 points per game in the series. Milwaukee fell just short, 4-3, but it was the best season the franchise had seen in well over a decade. Karl became the highest-paid coach in all North American major sports when he signed a two-year extension during the 2000-01 season, plus given a one-percent ownership stake.
The following season was a dud, with the team finishing .500 and missing the postseason after a late-season collapse. The 2002-03 campaign was only slightly better, with a barely above-.500 record good enough for the Bucks to enter and quickly exit the playoffs in the first round.
But something very notable happened during that 2002-03 season: the Ray Allen trade.
The Bucks shipped Allen to the Seattle SuperSonics, along with Ronald “Flip” Murray, Kevin Ollie, and a first-round pick, for Gary Payton and Desmond Mason. It was blindsiding to Milwaukee fans, and it stemmed from a poor relationship between Allen and Karl.
“Ray Allen was nothing but trouble,” Karl told Charlie Rosen of ESPN in April 2003. “We had no choice but to get rid of him.”
The Allen trade altered the trajectory of the Bucks for years after, and not in a positive sense. Karl’s time in Milwaukee ended after the 2002-03 season, and the Bucks were left with neither of the two feuding parties.
Back to Purgatory
The Milwaukee Bucks returned back to what had been their general state for more than a decade of history: below-.500 seasons, occasional playoff appearances that ended in the first round, and zero serious challenges for the NBA title. From the 2003-04 season, their first without Karl at the helm, through 2017-18 and Jason Kidd’s tenure, the team finished better than .500 just three times and qualified for the playoffs seven times, never advancing beyond the first round.
That’s not to say nothing happened in those 15 years. Michael Redd was the face of the franchise for a while, Andrew Bogut was one of the best rim protectors in the league for a time, and Richard Jefferson had a good campaign in the one season he played in Milwaukee in 2008-09. But all in all, those years on the court were very forgettable.
Things got so bad that on July 6, 2015, Bucks president Peter Feigin said the team could move without public funding of a new arena, naming Las Vegas and Seattle as possible new homes for the franchise. This came just months after the team’s new owners vowed not to move the Bucks.
Some very notable positive things happened off the court in the mid-2010s, though that didn’t become fully understood until years down the road. In the 2013 NBA Draft, Milwaukee selected Giannis Antetokounmpo with the No. 15 overall pick. Later that same summer on July 31, 2013, the Bucks traded Brandon Kennings to the Detroit Pistons for Brandon Knight, Viacheslav Kravtsov, and Khris Middleton, who was only one year into his professional career at the time. These two players, as I am sure you know, have been instrumental in pulling the Bucks out of their hellish purgatory.
The Bucks fired Jason Kidd in January 2018, then hired Mike Budenholzer as his replacement in May that year. It was another major piece of the puzzle that culminated in what we witness this summer.
In his first season as head coach in 2018-19, the Bucks improved mightily from the year before, winning 60 games and earning the top seed in the East. After sweping the Pistons, 4-0, in the first round, and then handling the Boston Celtics, 4-1, in the second round, the Bucks came up against a determined Toronto Raptors squad. Milwaukee took a 2-0 lead in the series to start, but the Raptors captured the next four games, claiming the series, 4-2, and ending Milwaukee’s dream of a return to the ultimate stage. Still, things looked to be turning around for the Bucks, who had a maturing Antetokounmpo and reasons to smile after returning to the Eastern Conference Finals and winning their first playoffs series for the first time since 2001.
The 2019-20 season ended a little more disappointingly as the Bucks were eliminated in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, 4-1, by the Miami Heat after against claiming the East’s No. 1 seed via the regular season. Naysayers piled on, but believers pointed to the strange situation caused by COVID-19 that made the conclusion of that NBA season much more unusual and quite disconnected from the rest of the campaign from before the pandemic.
Then, finally, we all witnessed the Milwaukee Bucks make history for the first time since 1971. Behind incredible performances from Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Jrue Holiday (who was acquired in a massive four-team deal in November 2020), and more, the Bucks ran through the Heat in the first round, 4-0, then narrowly escaped the Brooklyn Nets in the second round, 4-3, knocking out the favorites in a dramatic Game 7. Milwaukee then dispatched of the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, 4-2, before needing six games to overcome the Phoenix Suns, 4-2, in the 2021 NBA Finals.
What will the future hold for the Milwaukee Bucks? That I cannot tell you. But I can tell you that it looks much better than it did only a handful of years ago, and that this is unquestionably one of the best times in history to be a fan of the Milwaukee Bucks.