The Lowdown: Sidney Moncrief

Regular Season: 767 games, 15.6 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.3 BPG, 50.2% FG, 83.1% FT
Playoffs: 93 games, 16 PPG, 5 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 47.5% FG, 81.1% FT
Accolades: 2x Defensive Player of the Year (1983 – 84)
All-NBA 1st Team (1983), 4x All-NBA 2nd Team (1982, 1984 – 86)
4x All-Defensive 1st Team (1983 – 86), All-Defensive 2nd Team (1982)
5x All-Star (1982 – 86)

Looking just at the total career numbers, Sidney Moncrief appeared to be nothing more than an above average shooting guard in the NBA. But when you zoom in on a 5-year period (1982-1986), you’ll see a player who made the All-Star, All-NBA and All-Defensive teams every year and garnered two Defensive Player of the Year awards.  During this peak, Moncrief averaged 21 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.5 steals a game as his team, the Milwaukee Bucks, averaged 54 wins, clinched the Central Division title each season and made the Eastern Conference Finals three times. His coach at the time, Don Nelson described Sid the Squid best: “Nothing stands out with Sidney, and everything does. It’s not one minute, it’s 48. It’s not one play, it’s every play.”

Moncrief was born in Little Rock, Arkansas and may very well be the most popular athlete in the state’s history. Speaking with Sports Illustrated in the mid-1980s, Arkansas Democrat editor John Robert called Sidney “the most beloved athlete in the history of Arkansas,” and declared that he “has done more for race relations in this state than anyone in the last 20 years.” Then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton even quipped, “the only comfort I can take in having the smallest governor’s salary in the nation is that it might stop Sidney Moncrief from running against me.” Moncrief brought a state together through his stellar play at the University of Arkansas. During his senior year, 1979, Moncrief brought the Razorbacks all the way to the Final Four meeting with Indiana State University and its star, Larry Bird.

Larry Legend burned the Razorbacks for 25 points in the game’s first 27 minutes when Arkansas head coach Eddie Sutton decided to unleash the Squid on Bird, despite Moncrief giving up several inches in height. What Sidney lacked in physical stature, he made up with tenacity and speed holding Bird to just 6 points for the rest of the contest. Nevertheless, Arkansas lost the game by 2 points as Bird’s team moved on to face Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans. This wouldn’t be the last time Moncrief would be denied a championship appearance by the Hick from French Lick.

Sports Illustrated

The 1979 NBA Draft saw Moncrief drafted 5th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks who were coming off a 38-win season. However the Bucks would rebound tremendously as 3rd-year small forward Marques Johnson continued his all-star play and the mid-season acquisition of Bob Lanier stabilized the interior defense and rebounding. Finishing with 49 wins and the Midwest Division crown, the Bucks were ousted by defending champions Seattle in 7 games in the 2nd round. Moncrief played only a minor role averaging just 9 points in the regular season, but upped his average to 12 for the postseason.

1981 heralded more Moncrief and more wins for the Bucks. Sidney averaged 10 more minutes a night than during his rookie campaign offering up 14 points and 5 rebounds. Milwaukee, now moved to the Eastern Conference’s Central Division, won another division title with a 60-win season. The Bucks, however, were stymied in the 2nd round of the playoffs yet again in a tough, 7-game series this time to the Philadelphia 76ers. Head coach Don Nelson, however, did notice Moncrief’s burgeoning talents throughout the 1981 season setting Moncrief up for his breakout year of 1982.

That season began quite badly for the Bucks as Marques Johnson staged a public and ugly hold out to renegotiate his contract (or as many suggested, force a trade to his hometown Los Angeles). Johnson’s holdout lasted over 20 games. The major fallout from this incident though was Moncrief’s emergence as the undisputed team leader. Logging nearly 37 minutes a game, Moncrief led the 1982 Bucks in rebounding (6.7), assists (4.8) and points scored (19.8). The Squid’s all around play earned him his first All-Star berth as well as 2nd Team All-NBA and All-Defensive honors. The postseason though was a near repeat of the previous year: Milwaukee losing in 6 to Philly in the 2nd Round.

The next year, 1983, Milwaukee saw it wins total decline, 51 wins, as the team struggled to keep a center on court. Bob Lanier was hampered by sore knees which relegated him to just 39 games. Desperate, the Bucks signed retired Dave Cowens who managed 40 games and pushed second-year stiff Alton Lister into the starting lineup for 37 games. The discord on the frontline wasn’t fatal thanks to Moncrief’s improving offense (22.5 points) and tenacious defense. At season’s end he was voted DPOY and made his only All-NBA 1st Team.

During that postseason, the Bucks swept the Boston Celtics in the 2nd round, but old nemesis Philadelphia blocked the road to the Finals. Having acquired center Moses Malone in the offseason (bad news given Milwaukee’s center woes), Philly proceeded to annihilate the Bucks in 5 games. On the bright side, Moncrief and company did deliver the only loss Philly suffered in the 1983 postseason as they rampaged to the title. The next season, Bob Lanier’s knees held up much better and he appeared in 72 games, but Milwaukee curiously only managed 50 wins, still good enough for a Central Division title, though. The Bucks again fought their way to the Conference Finals, though. Once again, they would be stopped short of the Finals, this time by Boston in 5 games. Moncrief by the way took home his 2nd straight DPOY and continued his streak of All-NBA and All-Star selections.

Noticing the decline in wins and remembering Marques’s frustration of playing in small-town Milwaukee, the Bucks swung a major trade in the summer of 1984. Johnson, aging Junior Bridgeman and Harvey Catchings were sent to the Los Angeles Clippers. In exchange, young stud and former ROY Terry Cummings was sent to Wisconsin along with sharp shooter Craig Hodges and Ricky Pierce’s microwave offense off the bench. Cummings’s more stoic demeanor fit in perfectly with Moncrief. The trade also opened up more playing time for little used point guard Paul Pressey who would blossom as a playmaker and formed a fearsome defensive backcourt with Moncrief. One final development was the retirement of Bob Lanier and Alton Lister developing into a legit defensive presence in the middle. The result was that Milwaukee fielded the best team of Moncrief’s career that season and in 1986.

59 wins in ’85 and 57 in ’86 were more than enough to snatch two more Central Division titles, but the Bucks improvement was matched by its conference rivals. Philadelphia swept Milwaukee in the 2nd round in 1985 thanks to the addition of rookie Charles Barkley. The next year, the Bucks achieved redemption by finally ousting the Sixers in a 7 game series, but only to get swept by the ’86 Celtics, a team many consider the greatest of all-time fresh off their acquisiton of 6th Man of the Year Bill Walton, in the conference finals. In an ominous foreshadow, Moncrief struggled with plantar fasciitis in the 1986 postseason.

A growing string of injuries would cripple Moncrief for the rest of his career. In 1987, foot and knee injuries limited Moncrief to just 39 games and he could only average 25 minutes and 12 points when he did suit up. Returning in time for the postseason, Moncrief gave one last hurrah dropping 19 points a game as the Bucks again dispatched Philly but was blocked by Larry Bird and Boston again in a harrowing 7-game series. Tendinitis derailed Sidney’s 1988 season limiting him to only 56 games and 11 points. 1989 would prove to be his last year with the Bucks. Playing in only 62 games and averaging 12 points, Moncrief clearly wasn’t the player he used to be on offense and on defense his agility and quickness were shot. The Squid called it quits in the summer of ’89, interrupted by a one-year, forgettable comeback for the Atlanta Hawks in 1991.

There was never a single moment to define Moncrief, good or bad. No signature move to point to. No immortal statistical season to draw buzz. Those Bucks teams he led made the playoffs every season, winning 49+ games 9 times in his 10 seasons, yet they never won a title or even made the Finals. He was physically gifted, but his knee caps were too high leading to the debilitating injuries that robbed him of putting up gaudy career stat totals.

But the kind of sustained, deliberate, all-around excellence exhibited by Sidney is what should be noted. In 1986, Sports Illustrated declared him the best pentathlete in the NBA since he was “a relentless rebounder and inside scorer, a reliable outside shooter, a creative passer and a master of… man-to-man, switching and rotation defenses.” He could deliver a little flash, every now and then with a thunderous dunk, but Nellie was right.

It’s not one play, it’s every play with Sidney.

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Posted in The Lowdown

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