Suns-Bucks Finals Stirs NBA’s Ancient History

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The Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks were both born into the National Basketball Association as expansion teams in 1968 and began play with the 1968-69 season. The expansion fee was $2 million, or $14.67 million in today’s inflated monetary value.

Based on Sportico’s most recent valuations of NBA franchises, the Bucks are worth $1.86 billion, 15th in the league, while the Suns, at $1.64 billion, rank 22nd. Tuesday it was reported that Dyal HomeCourt Partners is purchasing a small stake in the Suns that values the team at $1.55 billion.

Here they both are 53 years later about to face off in the NBA Finals. The best-of-seven series for all the marbles opens on Tuesday evening at what’s now called Phoenix Suns Arena.

It’s a huge measure of how the NBA has changed.

“I didn’t know the historical facts of both organizations,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “But that’s pretty cool. I hope we win, and that’s the historical fact in play 50 years from now.”

And one other major factoid: In the 1969 draft, the two teams staged a coin flip for the top pick, a star center coming out of UCLA named Lew Alcindor, later to become the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. There was no such thing as a draft lottery back then.

The Suns had polled their nascent fans and called heads. When the late commissioner Walter Kennedy flipped the coin, it turned up tails. The Bucks took Alcindor with the No. 1 pick. The Suns selected Neal Walk, another center who lasted eight seasons in the league, five with the Suns, and scored 7,157 points.

Abdul-Jabbar, meanwhile, scored an NBA all-time record 38,387 points and along with Oscar Robertson led the Bucks to their only title in 1971, sweeping the then-Baltimore Bullets.

Kareem was a blessing and curse for Milwaukee, too. He and the Big O took the Bucks to the Finals again in 1974, where they lost to the Boston Celtics in seven games.

After that, Abdul-Jabbar demanded a trade to Los Angeles Lakers. Teaming with Magic Johnson and the “Showtime” ensemble, he won five more NBA titles. The Bucks haven’t been back to the Finals since. Until now.

Larry Costello was the Bucks coach back then. Current coach Mike Budenholzer knows he’s now in rare Milwaukee company.

“You get to see and feel and appreciate some of that history,” he said. “Where the Bucks started, how they’ve evolved, including those early years. And now to where we are today and all the things an organization goes through. We joke, ‘It’s been 50-plus years.’ I’m just happy to be a very small piece of it.”

The Suns have been to the Finals twice, in 1976 and 1993, losing on both occasions. They are eyeing their first NBA title since their birth and that famous coin flip.

During his post-practice media conference Monday at the Arena, Suns guard Devin Booker wore a shirt reflecting the 1993 Finals, lost by the Suns to the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls in six games. Charles Barkley was the star of that era’s Suns team.

“The Suns are the baby here,” Booker said. “Fans love this franchise with a passion. That’s why I’m wearing the ’93 shirt right now. That’s when it developed. You hear people talking about, ‘I remember Charles and them.’ Even being at the bottom of the barrel for a while shows the love they have here for this team.”

John MacLeod, Paul Westphal and now Williams are the three coaches to guide the Suns to the Finals.

“You just want to get there, you know what I mean?” Williams said. “As a head coach I’m not focused on all that. My job is to get wins. That’s all I’m thinking about. I can’t stop and think about my feelings. It’s human nature to take you there….

“Obviously, there’s a level of gratitude to be in this position,” he said. “But then you snap out of it.”

If it’s been a long haul over the decades for these franchises just to get back to the pinnacle—not to mention that the last 16 months, dominated by COVID-19 and the protocols enacted by the league, has been a matrix to wade through just to succeed.

The 2019-20 season playoffs were staged in an Orlando bubble sans fans over two months, culminating with the Los Angeles Lakers defeatng the Miami Heat in six games to win the title.

The NBA and the players opted for a 72-game schedule this season, beginning Dec. 23, that had all teams traveling nationally. By the time the playoffs and a week of play-in games came around, the Lakers and Heat were so injured and worn out they lost this year in the first round.

The condensed schedule led to an uncommon number of injuries to key players. The Suns have been chastised this postseason for defeating the Lakers without Anthony Davis, the Denver Nuggets without Jamal Murray, and the Clippers sans Kawhi Leonard. The Bucks go into the Finals with center Giannis Antetokounmpo nursing a left knee injury.

“It’s kind of a survivor-of-the-fittest mindset,” Booker said.

Giannis missed the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, which the Bucks won in six games over the Atlanta Hawks, and is still questionable for Game 1 against the Suns.

“He did court work and is making progress, and that’s all I want to say about it,” Budenholzer said as the Bucks practiced on Monday.

LeBron James complained that the compressed schedule was the reason for so many injuries. But Suns veteran guard Chris Paul, making his first Finals appearance in his 16-season career, didn’t want to hear about it.

Paul this postseason has played through shoulder and wrist injuries, plus missed the first two games of the Western Conference Finals because he was placed in the NBA’s COVID protocols.

“One thing about our league and the players is that everything’s a conversation,” Paul said. “There’s a ton of guys on the executive committee who are working hard as we speak. Injuries are unfortunate. You hate to have them. But decisions are made every day, and players are always involved in it….

“If people don’t like it, everybody has a chance to be part of these conversations,” he said.

It’ll all be part of the record 50 years from now.

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