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MILWAUKEE — What the Milwaukee Bucks and the Chicago Bulls have isn’t so much a rivalry as an unrealized rivalry.
It should be so much more. By geography, by shared history as NBA entries and by the fact that there is genuine dislike — sports “hate” even — between the teams and the fans in the cities: the Brewers hate the Cubs, the Bears hate the Packers and the White Sox hated the Brewers in their American League incarnation.
There hasn’t been much venom or bile to what passes between the Bucks and the Bulls. Mostly because they have been on disparate wavelengths for most of the half century-plus they’ve been around. When one is up, the other typically is down.
That’s why there is such hope now for a new, exciting, potentially snarly phase of Chicago vs. Milwaukee in the NBA. When the Bucks play host to the Bulls tonight (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), it will be the first of their four meetings crammed into the final three months of 2021-22. Better yet, it comes with both teams vying for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, a rarity in the (cough) rivalry.
Separated by 90 miles along I-94, the two are separated in the standings by only two games: Chicago at 28-15 in the top spot by percentage points, Milwaukee in the No. 4 seed at 28-19, behind Miami and Brooklyn. Both teams rank in the top 10 in offensive and net ratings — the Bucks ninth and sixth, the Bulls third and 10th. (The Bucks are eighth in defensive rating, while recent blowouts have dropped the Bulls to 19th there.)
The all-time series between the teams is close: 255 games, with Chicago holding a 132-123 edge. In fact, the difference in their winning percentages in the series — .518 vs. .482 – is tinier (0.36) than the gap in their year-by-year W-L records in all about two seasons (2006, 2017).
Remember, when one has been good, the other usually hasn’t.
Some more info on the unfulfilling rivalry:
• Both teams being on track to snag a top seed in the East wouldn’t seem like such a big deal if we didn’t know how rare it is. It only has happened once before, in the 1991-92 season, when Chicago was first at 61-21 and Milwaukee finished fourth at 48-34. The Bucks got swept from the first round by Philadelphia, but the Bulls won the first of their six NBA titles that postseason.
• The Bulls and the Bucks have reached the playoffs together only five times in the past 30 years. And just 18 times in the 53 seasons both have been in the league (33 appearances each, seldom in tandem).
• They have faced each other in a playoff series only four times: 1974, 1985, 1990 and most recently 2015. Of the players and coaches on both rosters who competed in Chicago’s 4-2 first-round victory nearly seven years ago, only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton remain.
• At their current winning percentages — .651 for the Bulls, .596 for the Bucks – both teams have a legitimate shot at winning 50 games or more. That hasn’t happened since 1974, the end of what would qualify as the “golden age” in a budding rivalry that never really took off.
• More than 50 players have worked for both franchises. The most notable in terms of being productive with both, i.e., more than token stays with one or the other, have been Mike Dunleavy Jr., Craig Hodges, Mickey Johnson, Guy Rodgers, Tony Snell and current Bucks reserve Bobby Portis. Rodgers, a Hall of Famer, had his biggest years with the Philadelphia and San Francisco Warriors, but he was acquired by both the Bulls and the Bucks in their inaugural seasons to provide some point-guard maturity in expansion situations.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the teams’ oscillating fortunes in the series, with any gaps in the timeline best neglected:
The Golden Era (1970-74): This still ranks as the most fiercely contested cluster of seasons between the teams. Both were recent additions as NBA expansion franchises, the Bulls arriving in 1966-67 and making the playoffs their first two seasons, while the Bucks were added in 1968-69 and needed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s arrival a season later to get traction. Both teams made the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, the Bucks winning rings in 1971 with Oscar Robertson and Bobby Dandridge as key players while the Bulls never fully broke through with a core of Bob Love, Chet Walker, Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier and Tom Boerwinkle. Their coaches — Larry Costello for Milwaukee, Dick Motta for Chicago — were intensely competitive.
“The rivalry was at a high point,” former Bucks general manager Wayne Embry said a few years ago. “During the season, those games were like wars. … Every night we weren’t playing, Larry would go down to Chicago to watch the Bulls. Motta always said he knew his plays better than [the Bulls] players did.”
The teams met in the playoffs only in 1974, with Milwaukee sweeping 4-0 on its way to its second Finals appearance.
The Nellie Years (1978-87): The Bucks in the 1980 didn’t worry about the Bulls, they had bigger targets in the Celtics and the Sixers. Led by coach Don Nelson and stars Sidney Moncrief and Marques Johnson, they won 513 games in 10 seasons but never could beat both Boston and Philadelphia in the same postseason to get out of the East. The Bulls of Artis Gilmore, Reggie Theus, David Greenwood and the rest won 323 games in the same period, missing the playoffs in six of the first seven years.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1985-98): The balance of power began to tilt with Michael Jordan’s arrival as the No. 3 pick overall in 1984. But the Bulls as they came to be known really took off after Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant arrived three years later. As Chicago soared, heading to its run of six championships in eight seasons in the 1990s, Milwaukee hung in there for a while. In fact, both teams finished above .500 for four consecutive seasons (1988-91) before the Bucks succumbed to Hall of Famer Jack Sikma’s retirement and a mismatched roster.
The franchises met twice in the playoffs during this time. In 1985, Nelson’s scheming and gang-defense isolated the rookie Jordan (29.3 ppg) in a series Milwaukee won, 3-1. The Bulls flipped that five years later, eliminating a Bucks team led by Alvin Robertson and Ricky Pierce.
The Sorta Big Three (1999-2002): Milwaukee had a mini-run while Chicago was suffering through its early post-Jordan sag. Led primarily by Ray Allen, Sam Cassell and Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson and coached by George Karl, they had a stretch of six straight .500 or better seasons, making the playoffs in five of those. They almost broke through in 2001, losing the East finals to Philadelphia when Sixers guard Allen Iverson dropped 44 and Dikembe Mutombo added 23 with 19 rebounds. By 2002-03, Robinson was gone, followed soon thereafter by Allen, then Karl.
The Rise of Rose (2008-15): Chicago perked up temporarily with Scott Skiles as coach but GM Jerry Krause’s Tyson Chandler-Eddy Curry brainstorm never panned out. Krause was gone by the time the Bulls landed Derrick Rose as the No. 1 pick in 2008. An explosive combo guard from Chicago’s South Side, Rose, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah helped boost the Bulls back into the playoffs. Then they took off when coach Tom Thibodeau came aboard in 2010. Rose, at 22, became the league’s youngest Kia MVP ever in 2011. But he suffered a disastrous ACL injury in the 2012 playoff opener, after which Chicago never had enough to get past LeBron James’ Heat or Cavs teams in the East. The Bucks? They cracked .500 just once in this period.
Giannis Takes Over (2014-present): It’s hard to recall just how skinny and presumably overmatched Antetokounmpo was when he arrived as Milwaukee’s pick at No. 15 in 2013. He was built like a Tootsie Pop, an 18-year-old from Athens and the ultimate project player. Well, look at him and his team now: two MVP trophies, a bunch of other personal hardware and honors, postseason appearances in six of the past seven years and Milwaukee’s second title ever, won last summer 50 years after the first one.
The Bulls have eked out just one brief playoff glimpse since Thibodeau and Rose were dispatched. A rebuild through Fred Hoiberg and Jim Boylen cost both their jobs, as well as bosses John Paxson and Gar Forman. Finally with Arturas Karnisovas’ arrival, his hiring of Billy Donovan and the acquisition of help such as DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and Nikola Vucevic around Zach LaVine and Coby White, Chicago looks poised to make some noise.
At the moment, Chicago looks out of sync again within the teams’ competing good seasons. Ball and LaVine both are out, the former facing a lengthy layoff from meniscus surgery, the latter on track for a swifter return. But forward Patrick Williams has been out all season from a frontcourt that can’t spare size.
The Bucks have had to play without veteran center Brook Lopez, still rehabbing since opening night from back surgery. Like most teams, they’ve had their share of brief injury and virus absences, but Antetokounmpo is playing at an MVP level and his cohorts Middleton and Jrue Holiday combine with role players on a true East contender.
“They’re defending champs,” DeRozan said Wednesday. “To me, those are the games you kind of look forward to. Playing against one of the best players in the league. Just everything that comes with it. You’ve got to respect ‘em, but at the same time you want to take on that challenge to see where you stand.”
So there you have it. Both are on the short list of NBA franchises that have won multiple championships: Six by the Bulls, two by the Bucks. Both placed three players each on the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team: Jordan, Pippen and Dennis Rodman for Chicago, Abdul-Jabbar, Robertson and Antetokounmpo for Milwaukee.
Yet for all their proximity, parallels and connections, what ought to be some healthy antagonism between the teams is more like that line from “Casablanca,” when Bogart’s character is asked by that weasel “Ugarte” if he despises him.
“If I gave you any thought I probably would,” comes the answer.
Maybe this can be the start of a beautiful renewed rivalry.
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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