Hall of Fame finalist Sidney Moncrief was the NBA’s first Defensive Player of the Year. But not only did he win the inaugural award in 1983, he also took home the trophy a second time the following year. Throughout the course of Moncrief’s 11-year career, he was a five-time All-Star and five-time All-NBA selection. His No. 4 is retired by the Milwaukee Bucks and at the NCAA Final Four in Minneapolis, he’ll find out if he’s being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
HoopsHype caught up with Moncrief to discuss his defensive dominance, today’s NBA game, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s success, his interactions with current players, super-teams throughout NBA history and more.
You won the NBA’s first two Defensive Player of the Year awards in 1983 and 1984. That’s a huge honor and it cemented your place in league history. What did that mean to you?
Sidney Moncrief: I didn’t think a lot of it when I was selected. It caught me off guard, but I didn’t process it. But when I retired, I started realizing, “That’s pretty cool.” It’s really nice to be the first person chosen for that award. I don’t know if they had a lot of criteria developed. (Laughs) They’ve probably changed it a lot over the years based on different teams and different types of players. But it’s certainly an honor to be the first person to win it.
That was a big step toward honoring players who made huge contributions on the defensive end of the court as opposed to just highlighting the league’s offensive stars. When you look at the NBA today, do you think defenders get more credit now or are they still too overlooked?
SM: It’s always harder for defensive players to get recognition. Always. I think a lot of it depends on the team you play on. If you’re on a championship-caliber team and you’re a good defender, you’ll draw attention – with people saying how good you are and how important you are to the team. But if you’re just on an average team, you can be playing absolutely lights out on defense and – while you’ll get noticed internally – you won’t get credit publicly.
Why do you think that is? Is it because, statistically, it’s harder to measure good defense? That may be why the defender on the championship-caliber team gets credit – because it’s translating into wins, so that’s a way to quantify and measure his impact.
SM: Well, it is very hard to measure good defense. Also, when most fans are watching the game, they’re focused on the offensive end and who’s scoring. Every once in a while, the commentators will throw in a defensive highlight and show something like an adjustment a player made [on defense], but for the most part they are showing offensive highlights and emphasizing offense. Defense normally gets overshadowed, even on the broadcast.
The NBA game has evolved so much. What do you think of the defense that’s played now?
SM: The game is so loose and free with the rules and three-point shooting. You can’t really contain players anymore. Even if a player has the potential to be a good one-on-one defender, because of the NBA rules and the skill sets of today’s offensive players, you really can’t show it. The offensive players are so good; they’re going to break you down, they’re going to get into the paint and they’re going to make plays. It’s just hard to even gauge how good some of today’s defenders are because of the rules and the skill sets of today’s scorers.
Speaking of today’s scorers, James Harden is averaging over 35 points and earlier this season, he had 30 or more points in 32-straight games. He gets a lot of criticism because he gets to the free-throw line a lot, but what do you make of his game and what he’s been able to do this season?
SM: I just know James Harden is a phenomenal offensive player. He would be a good offensive player in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and so on. He’s mastered the art of reading the defense and making the right play. He certainly knows how to get fouled and get to the line. But I got the line quite a bit when I played [too]. Once you develop that reputation of getting fouled often, officials tend to look for it more. And you probably are getting fouled a lot of the times.
I think that streak is pretty amazing. He might have had the same streak back in… Actually no, he wouldn’t have had the same streak [in my era] because we would’ve knocked him down. (Laughs) Somebody would’ve done something to him to make sure that did not continue.
Young fans don’t understand how much more physical the NBA was back then and how different defense was as well. They hear about it, but they don’t realize just how different things were back then.
SM: Well, the rules were different. Even though you couldn’t be down low for more than 2.9 seconds, the defenses were set up to help more in the paint. The three-point shot wasn’t as much of a factor, so you could play someone softer [to help out closer to the basket] or you could push up on them a little bit more to force them to penetrate. You had a lot of help. It’s not really one-on-one defense [that has changed] as much as it is the team defense. I just feel like one-on-one, the guys are so talented with the basketball nowadays that containing them is so hard. [Take the best defenders among] the older players and containment would be an issue for them against these younger players too. But that second line of defense would probably be there to prevent so many uncontested lay-ups.
When you look at this year’s Most Valuable Player race, who stands out to you? We talked about what James Harden is doing. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been excellent. Paul George is getting some love. Who stands out as the MVP to you?
SM: Oh, it’s Giannis. Giannis is the most dominant player and the most unique talent the NBA has seen in a long, long time. Number one: what he can do at his size. Number two: he plays the game the right way. He’s a serious basketball player. He’s not drawing attention to himself. He’s out there, what we call, balling. He can score the basketball, he can play defense, he can rebound, he can grab a board and then go coast-to-coast to make a play. He can do so many things that most players cannot do. In my opinion, he’s head and shoulders above most elite players.
I love watching him and every time I see him play, I just wonder, “How good is he going to be in a few years?” It always seems like he has untapped potential, even when he’s absolutely dominating. You starred in Milwaukee and you’ve worked there as a broadcaster, so how excited are you for this fan base? It’s obviously great for them to have a superstar like Giannis there.
SM: It’s really fun to see the excitement. Milwaukee is obviously one of my favorite cities, but it’s a football town. The Packers are the Packers, and they [are beloved] for a reason. They have championship pedigree, so they’re going to get most of the attention. But for the diehard NBA fans and for the younger fans, having a player come along like Giannis is amazing. This is an old cliché, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get to witness what he’s doing on the basketball court.
The only thing I had against Giannis two years ago or even last year was that [his production didn’t always translate into wins], but that’s no longer an issue. To me, you can be a great talent, but if you aren’t winning, what’s the point? What we’re seeing now is that he’s translating his skill set along with his teammates’ contributions into wins. That’s how you become a superstar, in my opinion.
The Bucks have the best record in the NBA too. As I mentioned, you played there for many years. Sometimes you’ll hear people knock Milwaukee for being a small market and you’re already starting to hear people predict that Giannis won’t stay long-term. I don’t think people realize how much Giannis likes it there and how he’s connected with the city and fans. When you hear people say things like that about Giannis’ future, what’s your reaction?
SM: Comfort is very important. Comfort, for some players, is even more important than recognition. And how much more recognition could Giannis receive [elsewhere]? In a “small market,” he’s already the face of the NBA. He’s one of the Top 3 players in the NBA while playing in Milwaukee, WI. I don’t buy very much into that [kind of talk]. I just think that fans want to see the best players in Milwaukee and they’re due.
You’ve said before that you wouldn’t have become a five-time All-Star or a two-time Defensive Player of the Year if it wasn’t for Coach Don Nelson. Can you explain how he impacted your career and what separates a head coach like Don Nelson from others?
SM: Coaches, and leaders in general, always say, “My primary responsibility is to put you in the position to succeed and not fail.” Don Nelson lived that. He thought outside the box. You could be a big man who didn’t have a post-up game, but you had a three-point shot so [he’d encourage you to shoot]. He was one of the first coaches who started utilizing big guys as three-point shooters. You could be a guard, like myself, who had great post-up skills and he’d take a player like me and put me in the post. He would do whatever he needed to do to gain an advantage over his opponents. He was one of the best match-up coaches in the history of basketball.
I’ve talked to a lot of retired players who say that today’s players don’t know the game’s history or have any knowledge about their predecessors. Would you agree with that assessment? How have your interactions with current players gone?
SM: Well, you have to understand that even back when we played, we were probably limited in the respect and reverence that we showed [our predecessors]. You can’t know everyone. Players come and go. So even though I’m a five-time NBA All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year – which is a status that 95 percent of players in the NBA right now will never get to – it doesn’t mean today’s players should know who I am. That was so long ago!
I see today’s players as very respectful. I really do. And now, with today’s technology, if they see a guy or hear a guy’s name, they can pull out their phone really quick and look them up. We didn’t have that! That’s happened to me a few times with players; they’ll pull out their phone and [Google me]. Then, they’re saying, “Oh wow, you did this and that!” But I think it’s unfair for us to hold today’s players to a standard where we expect them to meet us former players and know all about us on the spot. Time has passed by! That was 30 to 40 years ago!
When you look at the evolution of the game – a ton of three-pointers, the fast-paced play, no midrange shots, things like that – what are your thoughts?
SM: I don’t like the game today. Remember, if you go back and look at the scores, our teams scored a lot of points too. So it’s not that. I like the talent. I like when teams play the right way in the NBA – like we see from the teams like the Golden State Warriors or the Milwaukee Bucks. When that ball is moving, the guys are cutting, they’re picking, they’re helping one another and they’re playing the right way, it’s beautiful.
But I think analytics has caused teams to play a certain way. Now, according to analytics, the three-point shot means a lot and the midrange shot means nothing. I think the game needs to be fine-tuned a bit. But that’s my opinion; I’m just one fan. Obviously, there are a lot of people who love what they see because they’re watching it.
You mention the Warriors. Some people feel like they’ve “ruined the NBA” because everyone assumes a Golden State championship is inevitable and that ruined the suspense. What do you think of that notion?
SM: All I can say is you had Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] on the same team. (Laughs) You had Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson on the same team. I mean, teams back then also had dynasties and [loaded up on star] players! It’s always been a part of the NBA.
The only difference is that now, the players can actually consciously make that decision based on free agency. And I believe in that. I believe in free agency because I feel players should be able to go wherever they want to play basketball.