With Jack Sikma set to be inducted to the Hall of Fame on Friday, it’s only natural to think of what could have been for the Milwaukee Bucks.
On Friday, the Milwaukee Bucks will have two more former players join one of the sport’s most illustrious clubs as Sidney Moncrief and Jack Sikma are inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
To pull back the curtain just a little, in close to five years writing at this site, I’ve learned and written a lot about the history of Bucks — certainly more than most people would likely deem to be necessary or reasonable. Part of that process has involved frequently shining a light on individual players from the franchise’s past.
That journey has included taking deep dives on some of the franchise’s true greats and what made them or their time with the Bucks really special, such as examining Moncrief’s remarkable consistency, considering the complex off court incidents that accompanied much of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar‘s time as a Buck, and highlighting how Marques Johnson was just as innovative in pushing forward the players’ agenda as he was in helping to re-invent what a forward could do.
It has also ranged to cult heroes, role players, and general curiosities, such as examining how the controversy and conspiracy of the 2001 Conference Finals will always leave Scott Williams with a special place in Bucks fans’ hearts, and how the sheer absurdity of everything surrounding Yi Jianlian‘s time in Milwaukee will make him incredibly difficult to forget too.
All of this is to say, in writing about such a wide range of figures throughout the team’s history, I’ve never once turned my sole attention to Sikma.
That’s not a knock on his considerable talent or his stellar contributions during his five seasons with the Bucks, but a more reflection on never quite knowing what to say about him within a Milwaukee context. Ahead of his well deserved moment at Springfield on Friday, I’ve been forced into confronting that struggle and have realized it likely says a lot about his place — or, perhaps more accurately, his time — in Bucks history.
Averaging 13.4 points and 7.9 rebounds per game across close to 400 games with the Bucks, Sikma’s production stands among the best non-Kareem centers the franchise has ever seen. Still, the fact remains, he arrived in Milwaukee as he transitioned into his post-prime, and joined a long-time juggernaut Bucks team that was similarly falling into its own period of decline.
That fact brings about a sense of reflection on what could have been for this particular marriage of player and team, and its not one that’s exclusively tied to Sikma either.
For the variety of outstanding players the Bucks had in the years after Abdul-Jabbar’s departure for Los Angeles, and the sheer embarrassment of riches they boasted in terms of high quality and versatile depth, center remained the one position they could never quite figure out.
Even a cursory look at the Bucks’ season by season record throughout the 1980s begs the question of how Milwaukee never even reached the Finals in that span, and the answer really lies in the fact they could never find a foundational center to pair with their wealth of options at other spots.
My co-site expert Jordan Treske touched on this very issue with his exploration of the Bucks’ attempt to land Joe Barry Carroll in 1985 and the bizarre saga that unfolded from there, and ultimately if it wasn’t for the failure of that pursuit its unlikely that Sikma would have ended up in Milwaukee a year later.
But while Carroll may have been the in his prime answer to all of Milwaukee’s center problems, Sikma has a proxy in Bucks history, and one that bookended the other half of the 80s.
Exactly like Sikma, Bob Lanier came to Milwaukee as a 31-year-old, seven-time All-Star center. Both were tremendous professionals during their time with the Bucks and key cogs in very good teams, and yet in hindsight its impossible not to imagine what could have been achieved if they’d made the move to Milwaukee when they were just a couple of years younger. Of course, in Lanier’s case, he at least had the advantage of his Bucks teammates being young and in their prime.
Sikma is far from an after-thought in Bucks history, as he delivered individually, but what he did and didn’t achieve must be attributed to a matter of timing as much as anything else.
That’s best typified by a piece in the New York Times from just a couple of months into Sikma’s Milwaukee tenure. In the same breath that Don Nelson talked up the potential for Sikma to push the Bucks over the edge, the article’s author, Sam Goldaper, made note of how the Bucks were falling below the standards they’d set for the decade up to that point due to injuries to Moncrief and Paul Pressey.
In many ways, it couldn’t be any more fitting — i.e. any more tragic for Bucks fans — that Moncrief’s overdue induction into the Hall of Fame comes alongside Sikma’s.
Moncrief had made five straight All-Star teams prior to Sikma’s arrival. Having played over 70 games in each of his first seven seasons with the Bucks, Moncrief played just 39 in Sikma’s first season with the team, and would never surpass the 70-game mark in Milwaukee again. After averaging 20.2 points per game in the season preceding the Sikma acquisition, Moncrief managed just 11.8 points per game in 1986-87, and never bettered 12.1 again.
Sikma’s arrival was intended to be the extension of an era of glorious Milwaukee basketball, yet ultimately it coincided with its end. Earlier in his career, Sikma would single-handedly have been able to kickstart the next great Bucks team, but having crossed the wrong side of 30 it wasn’t to be in this case.
His first season offered up one last 50-win campaign to hold the franchise over until 2001. Under Del Harris, the Bucks at least remained highly competitive in a regular season context until the moment Sikma retired in 1991, which spurred a seven-year playoff drought.
It’s in that regard that the beginning and end point of Sikma’s time in Milwaukee represents a major milestone in the franchise’s history. His arrival coincided with the beginning of a transitional phase, and his departure marked its very last moment. Age and health never truly afforded the Bucks the opportunity to be great with Sikma, and when he left they weren’t even close to simply being good any more.
Sikma in Seattle was a force of nature, at a time when that would have been a similarly appropriate description for the Bucks. Paired together at that time, they could have dominated the NBA, and the fact that it came just a little too late makes it tough not to feel just a little wistful.
That doesn’t diminish Sikma’s individual legacy, or his contributions to the game and the NBA in the slightest. When he takes to the stage and begins his speech on Friday, he’ll have an army of admirers and well-wishers cheering him on back in Milwaukee too. Deep down, though, Sikma and those fans will likely wish they could also have had more to cheer about in that moment.
As with so much involving the Bucks over the years, it’s a great case of what could have been.