The Milwaukee Bucks are in the NBA Finals for the first time in a long time. What some younger basketball fans may not realize is that this isn’t the first finals trip for the 53-year-old franchise. While it’s been quite some time since they’ve experienced the NBA Finals, they did win a championship in the 1970s, when the team played in the Western Conference.
Let’s take a closer look at how the Bucks’ incredible 1971 season set them up to achieve something that’s never been done before the 2021 NBA Finals.
The Milwaukee Bucks have achieved something no other NBA team has done
According to Basketball-Reference, from the team’s founding in 1968 to 1979, the Bucks played in the NBA’s Western Conference. Today, Giannis Antetokounmpo leads the team. But back then, Milwaukee followed the lead of another elite player: Kareem Abdul Jabbar. They also had another legendary athlete alongside him in the early ’70s — none other than the great Oscar Robertson. In 1971, the team won the Western Conference (more on this NBA Finals trip in a bit).
In 2021, the Bucks won the NBA’s Eastern Conference to advance to play the Suns. This makes Milwaukee the first franchise in league history to win both conference championships. According to The Oklahoman, the Bucks and Chicago Bulls moved from the West to the East in 1980, swapping conferences with the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs.
Until this year, the Bucks haven’t been able to match their Western Conference success in the Eastern Conference.
The Bucks’ 1971 Western Conference championship led to their first NBA Finals victory
The Bucks’ Western Conference finals victory in 1971 ended well for them, as Basketball-Reference details. They advanced to the NBA Finals and defeated the Baltimore Bullets, sweeping them 4-1.
Milwaukee went an amazing 66-16 that season, coming within a stone’s throw of a 70-win season. It’s no wonder they were able to do this. Abdul-Jabbar and Robertson made up one of the most potent center-guard combos of all time. Abdul-Jabbar was still near the beginning of a Hall of Fame career, using his patented sky-hook to score over opponents. Robertson, who previously averaged a triple-double over the course of a season, was still a significant offensive threat.
In 1974, the Bucks returned to the Finals but lost to the Boston Celtics in seven games. This was their last Finals appearance until the 2021 NBA season. They’ve had plenty of solid playoff teams since then, but none have been able to emerge from a conference finals. The closest they came was a 2001 Eastern Conference finals appearance behind Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson. The run ultimately came up short. But the Bucks are making up for it this year.
The Pistons have also won the Eastern and the Western Conference finals, but with a catch
It’s true that the Bucks are the only franchise that has won both the Eastern and Western Conference finals. That said, the Pistons have achieved a similar feat. But there’s an important distinction that makes the Bucks’ achievement unique.
The Detroit Pistons have won the Eastern Conference several times. Before they moved to Detroit, the team was known as the Fort Wayne Pistons. According to Basketball-Reference, that team played in the NBA’s Western Division. The franchise made finals appearances in 1955 and 1956. But the team never technically won the NBA’s Western Conference. (The league didn’t adopt the conference model until 1970.)
The bottom line: The Fort Wayne Pistons played in a league that was much different than the one the Bucks are in today. With so many rounds of playoffs, the Bucks’ accomplishment this year stands out as being quite remarkable – especially making the finals with their best player out.