This statement is sure to sting regional pride from sea to shining sea, but on the off chance that you had not noticed: American professional sport is suffering from a shortage of super-teams. The Baltimore Orioles are playing in Japan, a tour that would have been a whole lot more triumphant if the Best Damn Team in Baseball had been able to convince the Pittsburgh Pirates. Back on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Colts have yet to establish that they can beat the Miami Dolphins in their own division. As for the fabulous Boston Bruins, they went for the Stanley Cup again—and could not even get into the semifinals of the NHL playoffs. So much for superteams.
Where have all the giants gone? Where are the teams to compare with the 1927 Yankees, the 1941 Bears, the 1956 Canadiens? It happens there is one around, and it plays professional basketball in Milwaukee. Last season, the team's first in ascendancy, the Bucks wrung all the juice out of the rest of the NBA. Losing just 16 times during the regular season, Milwaukee ravaged the toughest division in its league by 15 games, outscored its opponents by a far wider margin (12.2 points per game) than any previous champion and then loped easily through the playoffs, winning the final round in the minimum four games. And neither Milwaukee's enthusiasm nor its dominance seems dampened so far this season. After two intradivisional wins over Chicago and Detroit last weekend, Milwaukee (10-1) had opened a two-game lead while overwhelming the opposition by an average of 20.4 points.
None of today's professional basketball teams can approach the Bucks, and if one recognizes a steamroller when it comes down the road, probably few teams of the past could match them, either. These are the new giants of basketball, and a good way to realize how big they have grown is to go back and look at the old-model superteams.
Go back to 1948-54, when the Minneapolis Lakers, led by George Mikan, first of the overpowering pro centers, won five of six NBA championships. Their best season was 1949-50, when the Lakers took 51 of 68 games and were 10-2 in the playoffs. Bill Russell's Boston Celtics were the champs 11 times between 1956-69, a record of consistent superiority unparalleled in pro sport. None of those Celtic teams was more punishing than the 1964-65 club, which ran off a 62-18 regular season record, then knocked Los Angeles out of the postseason finals 4 games to 1. And while Boston was certainly grand, many experts feel that Philadelphia in 1966-67—with the massive front line of Wilt Chamberlain, Luke Jackson and Chet Walker—was even better. The 76ers' record of 68-13 remains unsurpassed, and Philadelphia easily won the playoffs, even though both Boston and San Francisco were exceptionally strong that year.
The most notable attribute shared by all three early teams—and last year's Bucks—was a fine balance of offense and defense. Although Milwaukee and Philadelphia were powerful scorers, each leading the league, neither gave up too much at the other end of the court, where they finished third in points allowed. With Russell dominating at both ends, Boston's top-rated defense received unanimous acclaim, often at the expense of the Celtic scoring, which ranked third.
Thus the per-game difference between points scored and points allowed is a fine index for identifying giants. Good clubs compile positive averages, bad clubs negative ones. For example: last season the good Chicago Bulls had a plus 5.2 while the bad Cleveland Cavaliers were minus 11.2. But great teams have overpowering margins.
Sure, championships belong to teams that win the important games, but outstanding champions win the big ones—and most all the others, too—by impressive scores. And while comparing average scoring margins of great champions from different eras is a tricky business because playing conditions have changed, there is a way. In the finest Laker years, the 24-second clock was not yet in use; scores, and consequently margins of victory, were lower. But a reliable comparison involves determining how thoroughly each team dominates its league in its own time. Call this relationship the Dominance Index, since it compares the average margin of the champion with that of the next best team in the same year and yields a percentage figure. The D.I. thus takes into account differences in playing conditions and overall league strength.
Some observers downgrade the Milwaukee achievements of last season because the NBA diluted the playing talent by adding three new franchises. Still, the other good teams, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, received comparable advantages from expansion. So it figures that a comparison holds the same validity as a similar computation involving the Celtics and second-best St. Louis Hawks in 1964-65, when the league had not expanded in four years.
According to the Dominance Index, the Bucks are already far better than many experts are willing to concede. Milwaukee's 235 figure stands well above the 104 for Minneapolis or Philadelphia's 117. It is exceeded only by the Celtics' percentage of 277. But it should be remembered that the Bucks, after just one championship season, rank only slightly behind Boston—which reached its peak in its eighth title-winning year. In fact, if Milwaukee maintains its early pace of this season and decisively wins another championship, the Bucks could pass the Celtics and become statistically the most dominant NBA team ever.
So how about a few dream games? Although most coaches and former players agree that today's Bucks would defeat the old Lakers, they reject arguments favoring the Bucks over the old 76ers or Celtics. "Milwaukee doesn't have the kind of depth you need," says K. C. Jones, the former Boston guard who is now ex-teammate Bill Sharman's assistant coach at Los Angeles. "That one team in Philly, I thought, was the best in the league, with Wilt, Jackson, Walker, Hal Greer and Wally Jones. All of them could score. With us in Boston, we had three guys who could score. One year we had four—we were a tough club. The Bucks've got Jabbar and they've got Oscar Robertson at guard—but they don't have that forward who's worth 20 points all by himself. If they had one, then they'd have the nucleus. But, as of now, they're not stronger than the other clubs."
On a position-by-position basis the Bucks certainly do not fare well in comparison with the other teams, even the Lakers. Young Milwaukee Forwards Bob Dandridge and Greg Smith are not yet as good as the oldtime Minneapolis cornermen, Vern Mikkelsen and Jim Pollard. The Boston and Philadelphia lineups were stronger than the Bucks' at all positions other than the two filled by Jabbar and Robertson. And both teams boasted the superior bench strength Milwaukee lacks. Celtic John Havlicek and 76er Billy Cunningham, the sixth men during their clubs' best years, were the two forwards chosen to the NBA All-Star team last year.
However, a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED sampling of opinion from coaches and former players—almost all of whom agree with K. C. Jones—may hold the key to why Milwaukee is better than it appears. There are simply no quarrels left among pro basketball men over who the best center is—or was. They all concur on Kareem Jabbar, and many embellish their endorsements with loud huzzahs.
"Jabbar is the difference," explains Joe Mullaney, who coached the Lakers for two seasons before joining the ABA Colonels this year. "When you rate him, how far up the scale do you put him? Or do you go off the scale? Do you give him 10 on a scale of 10 or go ahead and give him a 40? He can so dominate a game."
"I think Jabbar combines pretty much what Russell and Chamberlain have individually specialized in," says Cincinnati Coach Bob Cousy. "And I think perhaps he has the physical ability to do both as well or better than either of them. The question is how long he can sustain it; whether he has the determination to sustain it, like Russell."
Since all the best teams have achieved excellence largely through the abilities of their extraordinary centers—Mikan, Russell, Chamberlain and Jabbar—it is possible that the Bucks, with the most talented of them all, can become the most dominant team without a full quota of strength at every position.
To stop Milwaukee, Jabbar must be contained. Buck Coach Larry Costello has designed his offense around winging the ball to Kareem in the low post and then letting the defense scramble as he wheels toward the basket or passes to an open teammate. How to stop it?
"I don't know whether it's worth going into," says Cousy of the Cincinnati approach to playing Jabbar. "You kind of play it by ear. We alternate double teaming on him. One quarter we'll send a double team in from behind. Another quarter from the front. I guess you could say we alternate strategy and get down on our knees and pray. There's just not a lot you can do."
"To play the Bucks effectively you have to make adjustments," agrees Celtic Coach Tom Heinsohn, whose team is the only one to beat the Bucks this year. "Jabbar's secret is that he is 7'4" and very smart. When you try to double-team him, he picks it up in a jiffy."
"I think you have to have a running game and sustain it," says the Lakers' Sharman. "If you let Milwaukee set up with Jabbar in the middle, those little quick forwards will pressure you up tight."
"We try to penetrate against them," says Philadelphia's Jack Ramsay.
"My approach to beating Milwaukee is to concede that Jabbar will score, and make him the sole responsibility of one player, Wes Unseld," explains Bullet Coach Gene Shue. "I'd plan to control the other four guys. New York did that well last year."
The Knicks did indeed beat the Bucks in four of five games last year, largely because, according to Coach Red Holzman, "the personnel on our club blended well playing against theirs." But with Willis Reed now out with tendinitis, the Knicks have had trouble with teams far less powerful than Milwaukee. The Bucks do not play New York until January and, if Reed is well by then, it will be interesting to discover if the Knicks can repeat their achievement of being the only team capable of defeating the Bucks more than twice last year.
Former Milwaukee Assistant Tom Nissalke, who now coaches the ABA's Chaparrals, has more definite ideas of how the Bucks can be beaten. "There are a couple of things you've got to do," he says. "One is hold the tempo of the game as slow as possible. Maintaining discipline and refusing to fast break are important because the Bucks are a spurt team. If you try to run with them, they might throw the ball away 30 times during the game, but sometime in there they'll roll up 14 straight points on you, and that'll be all they need to win.
"I'd also sag in on them and concede the outside shot. If you sag in, Kareem will throw it back outside and you've got some hope. The Bucks shot over 50% last year, which was a record, because teams allowed them to get the break and shoot inside. And the thing you've got to stop at all costs is letting Jabbar roll into the middle for his skyhook. Block him—let him do anything—but don't let him have that shot.
"Another reason you've got to sag is because you can't possibly stop them from getting the ball inside. Larry Costello has devised a myriad of ways of getting the ball to Jabbar, so that there's no way of stopping it often. You gotta play it as if the ball is already there. There's also not much sense to pressing them. Oscar's going to get the ball up the floor, anyhow. The fast forwards might blow by you for an easy basket or they may end up with Kareem isolated one-on-one under the basket. All he needs then is a high lob pass."
Ironically, despite all the confusion he has caused, Costello remains unsatisfied: "We can play better basketball than we have. I'd like to see if we could put it all together. I don't think it'll be too long."
The Bucks did just that twice last year, once when they defeated Baltimore by 52 points and again in the playoffs, streamrolling San Francisco by 50. A few more such displays could clinch the title of Best Basketball Team Ever for the Bucks. But if they do it, there will be little else to conquer. The Dominance Index already shows that the Celtics, not the 1927 Yankees, not the 1941 Bears, not the 1955-56 Canadiens, were the best pro team in any sport.
Circling all comers, the Bucks rank close to Bill Russell's Celtics (above), ahead of Wilt Chamberlain's 76ers (top right) and far up on the oldtime Lakers of George Mikan (right).