(We’re counting down the best 20 Bucks since 1991 over the next few weeks. It’s something to do with the lockout sucking the life out of NBA fans. We continue with number 16. Moses Malone. A grizzled vet primed for two disappointing seasons in Milwauke, Malone surprised everyone in his first season, one strong enough to get him onto our list! Something good from the early Nineties?! Hurrah! – Jeremy)
As the NBA season kicked off in late 1990, the Milwaukee Bucks weren’t expected to do much. Currently, we know of a Central Division that’s been among the league’s worst for a few years now, but the 1990 version was a hellacious mix of battle tested veterans and youngsters brimming with talent. The Pistons reigned supreme at the time, but the Bulls weren’t far behind. Isaiah Thomas and Michael Jordan were all the rage, Every Rose Has Its Thorn was a hit single and Derrick Rose was just a year old. Was there a connection there? Perhaps, but let’s not get off track.
Most of us remember the Cavs for little besides being the team that Jordan tortured, but remember, those were playoff games. The Cavs meant business in the regular season. Plus, the Pacers had a young Reggie Miller and younger Rik Smits. And the Charlotte Hornets were adorable with their turquoise shirts and miniature point guard.
Meanwhile, Milwaukee’s leading scorer was a 31-year-old sixth man the team had been shopping for months (Ricky Pierce), its leading rebounder was a guard (Alvin Robertson) and its center shot threes and had a perm (Jack Sikma).
Somehow, this worked. Milwaukee surprised the league and made the playoffs witha 48-34 record. This was nothing new of course. Milwaukee was one of the most successful franchises of the 80s. The team failed to make a conference championship, but averaged 51 wins from 1979 through 1990. The organization saw little reason why it couldn’t continue to be successful as the 1991-92 season began.
There was less reason to expect much out of Moses Malone.
Malone almost became a Buck in 1990. The Atlanta Hawks had offered to fill Milwaukee’s void inside with Malone in exchange for the sweet-shooing Pierce. Milwaukee didn’t have the salary space available at the time and the deal later fell apart. But Milwaukee would sign Malone as an unrestricted free agent a season later, despite his disappointing final season for the Hawks in which he averaged just 10.1 points and 8.6 rebounds.
Most figured Malone was finished. It seemed another novelty veteran signing for the Bucks who in recent seasons had brought on past-his-prime stars like Tiny Archibald, Dave Cowens and Adrian Dantley. But Malone was surprisingly effective and occasionally downright dominant.
He averaged 15.1 points and 9.2 rebounds in his first season in Milwaukee, giving them a post-up presence they had sorely lacked in seasons past. Unfortunately, as things were falling into place for Malone, things began falling apart for the Bucks. A prime example was Malone’s finest game of the season, and finest as a Buck. Malone surpassed 29,000 points with a dominant 30 points, 19 rebound effort in late March against the Supersonics. Great stuff, right? Unfortunately the Bucks crumbled down the stretch and the team trailed by one with two seconds left. Malone’s final shot was blocked and the Bucks lost their 19th of what would be 24 consecutive road losses.
Without Pierce, Milwaukee lacked much scoring punch in the backcourt. Jay Humprhies was still just a distributor and coaches Del Harris and Frank Hamblen were reluctant to unleash leading scorer Dale Ellis. Even behind a terrific bounce back season from Malone, the team would begin its long journey to the bottom of the NBA. After a strong first season, an injury derailed Malone nearly immediately in his second season as a Buck. After playing in just 11 games, he would shut it down and undergo surgery for a herniated disk.
Malone and the rest of the Bucks of the early nineties are easily forgettable. Most older Bucks fans began to lose interest at that point, spoiled by a long run of successful seasons and most younger Bucks fans barely recognize the names that populated those rosters. But its worth remembering that one of those crazy veteran signings did work out in the Bucks favor, even if the team did mismanage the rest of the roster.
At 36, Malone could have easily cashed the fairly generous checks Milwaukee was giving him at the time and half-assed his way through what could have been his final two seasons. But he didn’t. He turned back the clock, if only a few years, and gave the Bucks more return on the team’s investment than most of his teammates.
If only we would have been able to say that about a few more players throughout the 90s, perhaps Malone wouldn’t have found his way onto this list with just one good season.
Jeremy Schmidt writes the Milwaukee Bucks blog Bucksketball.com. Follow him on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.