Sidney Moncrief’s Forgotten Comeback

In the past, we’ve done deep dives on the comeback attempts of some Hall of Famers like Magic, Jordan, and Cousy.  I recently was reminded of another comeback attempt by a Hall of Famer that I thought was worth an examination.  The only difference is that this guy is more marginal a Hall of Famer and his comeback is almost totally forgotten. I am referring to the comeback attempt by Sidney Moncrief with the Hawks in 1990-91.  Moncrief’s return isn’t particularly well-documented so let’s give it a little bit of attention because it was relatively fruitful and interesting.

A Little Background Moncrief

Most fans remember Moncrief as the tough two-way guard from Arkansas who was a key star on the 1980s Don Nelson Milwaukee Bucks.  He wasn’t merely a good player. Moncrief was a five-time All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year.  Moncrief’s peak was from 1981-1986, when he put up some eye popping stats:

21.0 ppg, .592 TS%, 5.8 rpg, 4.7 apg, 20.5 PER, .212 WS48, 4.8 BPM, 24.0 VORP.

Those are impressive numbers.  In a world without Jordan and Drexler, Moncrief’s 1981-82 BPM is the second best by a shooting guard of the 1980s and 1990s (MJ & Clyde have the top 17 slots).  While Andrew Toney and George Gervin have arguments, to me, Moncrief was best shooting guard in the NBA for most of the early 1980s. 

Moncrief’s End in Milwaukee

It took until 2019 for him to finally get in the Hall of Fame.  This delay relates partially to Moncrief’s comeback in a roundabout way.  After his excellent 1985-86 season, Moncrief hurt his knee and was never the same player again.  He played only 39 games in 1986-87 and had only 11.8 ppg.  He played a little more and a little better the next two seasons but was not re-signed after the 1988-89 season.

Moncrief was turning 32 and his last season was not horrible but way below his prior standards: 25.7 mpg, 12.1 ppg, .591 TS%, 2.8 rpg, 3.0 apg, 16.4 PER, .151 WS48, 2.6 BPM

One would think those stats would be enough to earn Moncrief another deal somewhere but he really struggled in the playoffs:  

20.4 mpg, 6.1 ppg, .500 TS%, 2.9 rpg, 1.4 apg, 9.7 PER, .062 WS48, -2.9 BPM. 

In other words, Playoff Moncrief looked totally cooked.

Playoffs aside, shouldn’t a two guard who could put up 12 ppg at age-31 be able to get a job for age-32?  Well, not so much.  From 1973-74 to 1985-86, only 15 players defined as shooting guards played more than 1,500 minutes at age-32 and the norm was to write off these players, rather than keep them around.

According to an October 1989 UPI report, the Bucks wouldn’t offer Moncrief any deal because of the state of his knees.  Moncrief announced his retirement at the time as follows: “’I think my injuries played a role in my decision but more importantly I think the market pretty much dictates that your services are no longer a very hot commodity….I think the market told me and my body told me because the last couple of years I’ve had a number of injuries.”  Yup, no team wanted to give Moncrief a good contract because of his troublesome knee.

Return to Atlanta

Moncrief sat out the 1989-90 season but was contacted by the Hawks to be an assistant coach for the 1990-91 season.  He told The New York Times in October 1990 article that he would try a comeback instead because “”I wanted to know if I could still play.” 

In this January 1991 Chicago Tribune article, Moncrief gave more detail around his thought process for returning: “I felt I could still play when I retired, but I was just burned out on basketball.  I had knee problems, but nothing that threatened my career. I just had played a lot of minutes, and with the number of games and travel, I found everything was bothering me…. I felt I still could play so I didn`t think I`d be a good assistant. I`d be looking to project myself on the court.” 

Interestingly, both the Nets and the Hawks offered him a tryout but he chose Atlanta because the Nets were in a deep rebuild (they had just drafted Derrick Coleman).  Moncrief had a good camp and even hit a game winning three-pointer in an exhibition game and made the team as a fourth(ish) guard.

Moncrief played in 72 games averaged about 15 mpg.  His overall stat line reflected that he imparted some value:

15.2 mpg, 4.7 ppg, .620 TS%, 1.8 rpg, 1.4 apg, 13.5 PER, .142 WS48, -3.1 BPM.  

He also showed adaptability.  Whereas previously, like most 1980s players, Moncrief barely took any three-pointers, in 1990-91, he made 33% on threes (21-64) and took them at the highest rate of his career.  Some of his other highlights for the season were as follows:

-On January 18, 1991, Moncrief scored a season high 16 points in a win against MJ and the Bulls.

-On February 22, 1991, Moncrief scored 14 points on 7-8 shooting and 5 assists in a win against the Magic Johnson Lakers.

-The 1992 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball wrote that he “held Reggie Miller to one shot in 12 minutes in [a] game where [the] Pacer guard was toasting the Hawks.” It’s not clear which game this was from the logs.

-Moncrief’s best moment came in Game 4 of Atlanta’s first round series against the Pistons.  He put up 23 points on 8-11 shooting, as well as 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals and helped force a deciding Game 5 (Detroit walloped Atlanta by 32 in Game 5).

Moncrief retired for good after the season but with a sense that he showed he still could play.  Moncrief assessed his play as follows: “I feel I`ve performed well.  People see points as a barometer of how well you`re playing, but I`ve always been one to look at helping a team win. Do you pick up the team, or does it lose ground when you`re in there? Are you playing hard, and are you focused?   I`ve been very pleased at what I`ve been able to do, and that it might be a different way each night is exciting.”  Sure it was a low stakes return but, in many ways, Moncrief’s return was as successful, on its own terms, as most other comebacks we have reviewed.