Bucks’ Jump Ranks Among NBA’s Best Ever

Only 11 other teams have made 26-win upgrades
by Truman Reed
Bucks.com Writer

The Milwaukee Bucks have made their share of leaps and bounds since their inception in 1968.

Only once in their history, though, have they stepped up more substantially than they did during the 2014-15 campaign, winning 26 more games than they won last season.

The original Bucks posted 27 victories. After selecting Lew Alcindor with the top overall pick in the 1969 NBA Draft and snaring Bob Dandridge in the fourth round, Milwaukee matched its expansion-year win total on Jan. 2 of its second season. The Bucks went on to finish 56-26, and that 29-game upgrade ranks as the sixth-best in league history.

The fact that the 2014-15 Bucks fell just three wins short of matching that one-year improvement speaks volumes about what they have accomplished.

Their 26-game climb has been duplicated or exceeded only 11 times in NBA annals, and a valid case can be made that they achieved it more collectively than any of their predecessors.

Virtually all of those previous 11 teams benefitted from the addition – by draft, trade or return from injury – of at least one current or future Hall-of-Famer.

Alcindor was not only an overwhelming choice as 1969 NBA Rookie of the Year, but finished as the league’s second-leading scorer (28.8 points per game) and third-leading rebounder (14.5 rebounds per game).

He proceeded to lead the Bucks to the 1971 NBA championship, then changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the very next day. He played 18 more seasons and retired as the league’s all-time leading scorer, a distinction he holds to this day. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995.

Dandridge also made an instant impact with the Bucks. He averaged 13.2 points a game and joined Alcindor on the NBA All-Rookie Team. One of the starting forwards on Milwaukee’s NBA title team, Dandridge represented the franchise in three NBA All-Star Games, and his 11,478 points rank fifth in Bucks history.

“We’re a young group, and our coaches have done a good job of helping us learn the game better and work with each other. We’ve become a team.”

Ersan Ilyasova

None of the 15 players on this year’s Bucks roster has been an NBA All-Star, and only six had ever appeared in an NBA Playoff game before the series with Chicago.

Milwaukee lost forward Jabari Parker, whom it selected with No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, just 25 games into his rookie season to a torn ACL.

Yet the Bucks achieved. And they did so by committee.

Their high scorer averaged 14.4 points per game. Six players averaged in double figures. They utilized 23 different starting lineups, and 16 different players made at least one start. Their players missed a total of 260 games due to injury, illness or other reasons.

Yet the team pressed on toward its goal.

“We really came together in training camp,” said forward Ersan Ilyasova, one of just two current Bucks who played on Milwaukee’s last playoff qualifier in 2013. “Our goal was to be in the playoffs, but nobody really knew for sure if we would be there. We put in a lot of hard work all season long.

“We’re a young group, and our coaches have done a good job of helping us learn the game better and work with each other. We’ve become a team.”

Jason Kidd, the Bucks’ first-year head coach, has admired his players’ commitment to the team since Day 1. That has been Kidd’s focus since he and Milwaukee’s new owners mapped out the blueprint for the team last summer.

“We were talking about getting guys to play hard, understanding what it means to be a team, and that we’re not built around one guy or two guys,” Kidd said. “Especially being young, you can’t fall into the trap of promoting one guy or two guys. It’s a team.
“I think since training camp, the guys really believed that. They talked about it when they answered questions and they showed it in the games.”

Kidd is well aware of what it takes for an NBA team to make a major transformation.

The New Jersey Nets, coming off a 26-56 season in 2000-01, acquired Kidd in a trade the following summer. He took over as their starting point guard and led them to a 52-30 ledger in 2001-02.

Thirteen years later, Kidd’s Bucks have duplicated that 26-win upgrade.

The following is a list of the other 10 NBA teams that have improved by 26 victories or more from one season to the next:

26 Games

2003-04 Denver Nuggets: The Nuggets, who went 17-65 in 2002-03, landed Syracuse University standout Carmelo Anthony with the third overall selection in the 2003 NBA Draft. Anthony averaged 21.0 points a game, made the NBA All-Rookie First Team and helped Denver to a 43-39 mark and berth in the NBA Playoffs.

27 Games

2009-10 Oklahoma City Thunder: The Thunder struggled to a 23-59 record in 2008-09 before snaring James Harden out of  Arizona State with the third overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. Harden did not start a game in his first pro season, but averaged 9.9 points per outing, made the NBA All-Rookie Second Team and joined Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in helping OKC finish 50-32.

1988-89 Phoenix Suns: Phoenix finished the 1987-88 season with a 28-54 mark, but acquired point guard Kevin Johnson in a midseason deal, then signed 1987 NBA All-Star Game MVP Tom Chambers as a free agent the following summer. Johnson was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 1988-89, Chambers made the All-Star team, and together they led the Suns to a 55-27 record.

28 Games

2008-09 Miami Heat: After missing 30 games in the 2007-08 season, Dwyane Wade returned to full strength to lead the Miami Heat rebuilding process that included draft picks Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers in addition to notable off-season acquisitions Jermaine O'Neal, James Jones and Jamaal Magloire. Their 43 game win total made head coach Erick Spoelstra the winningest first-year coach in franchise history.

29 Games

1969-70 Milwaukee Bucks: Though the Bucks posted the NBA’s worst record (27-55) in 1968-69, they featured one of the NBA’s best-shooting backcourt tandems in Flynn Robinson and Jon McGlocklin, and a 6-5 forward, Greg Smith, who averaged better than 10 rebounds per game. The trio returned to join Alcindor and Dandridge in a 1969-70 starting lineup that engineered a second-place Eastern Conference finish during the regular season and won the first playoff series in franchise history.

32 Games

1979-80 Boston Celtics: The Celtics went 29-54 during the 1978-79 season, but General Manager Red Auerbach made a shrewd move before it even began, drafting Larry Bird out of Indiana State University while he still had one season of college eligibility remaining. Bird completed his college career by leading the Sycamores all the way to the NCAA Championship game, then signed with the Celtics and helped them go 61-21 the following season. He was named NBA Rookie of the Year and earned the first of his 12 NBA All-Star selections.

33 Games

2004-05 Phoenix Suns: The Suns, 29-53 finishers in 2003-04, made a coaching change midway through the season and rose all the way to the best record in the NBA (62-20) in the following season under Mike D’Antoni. Point guard Steve Nash, signed during the offseason as a free agent away from the Dallas Mavericks, averaged 15.5 points and 11.5 assists and was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. Nash was joined on the West All-Star roster by teammates Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion.

35 Games

1989-90 San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs posted the worst record in franchise history (21-61) in 1988-89, but they had an ace in the hole. They had chosen David Robinson with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1987 NBA Draft, but were willing to wait two years while the Naismith and Wooden Award winner fulfilled his active-duty obligation with the United States Navy. Robinson proved more worth the wait than even the Spurs anticipated. He averaged 24.3 points, 12.0 rebounds and 3.9 blocks to earn NBA Rookie of the Year honors and his first of 10 All-Star selections while leading San Antonio to a 56-26 record – the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history at the time.

36 Games

1997-98 San Antonio Spurs: David Robinson was integrally involved in the Spurs’ second major uptick in an eight-year span. The 7-1 center had missed most of the 20-62 campaign of 1996-97 with an injury, but returned to average 21.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks and form a dominant post duo with 6-11 Tim Duncan, whom the Spurs picked with the No. 1 overall selection in the 1997 NBA Draft. Duncan contributed 19.4 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game to earn the NBA Rookie of the Year Award and join Robinson as an All-Star, and the Spurs matched their 56-26 ledger of 1989-90.

42 Games

2007-08 Boston Celtics: Boston finished 24-58 and missed the NBA Playoffs for a second consecutive season in 2006-07, but made two major deals in the ensuing offseason. They acquired guard Ray Allen from the Seattle SuperSonics in exchange for Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and the fifth pick in the 2007 NBA Draft. Then they sent Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Theo Ratliff, Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair and their 2009 first-round draft pick – and returned Minnesota’s conditional first-round draft pick – to the Timberwolves for forward Kevin Garnett. Allen averaged 17.4 points, Garnett 18.8 points and 9.2 rebounds, and Paul Pierce 19.6 points as the Celtics finished atop the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference with a 66-16 record and recorded the third-most wins in franchise history. Boston went on to capture its first NBA championship since 1987.

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