LITTLE ROCK — Former Arkansas star Bobby Portishas become a folk hero in the city of Milwaukee in just his first season playing with the Bucks, and given the rich history of the Arkansas men’s basketball program serving as a pipeline to Milwaukee’s proud NBA franchise there is an added feel-good to his story.
Once upon a time — for 19 consecutive seasons (1979 to 1998) — the Milwaukee Bucks had at least one former Hog on their roster: Naismith Hall of Famer Sidney Moncrief (1979-89) whose Bucks jersey is retired; all-star Alvin Robertson (1989-93); Tony Brown (1988-90); 1992 NBA Draft first-round picks Todd Day (1992-95) and Lee Mayberry (1992-96); and Andrew Lang (1996-1998).
Lots of wins, success, and hope for the future generated in Milwaukee with those former Razorbacks playing significant roles, but only the under-the-radar, self-proclaimed Underdog — Little Rock’s Portis — has been successful in helping push the Bucks to the NBA Finals.
With two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo out with a hyper-extended knee and the Eastern Conference finals series knotted up at 2-2, Portis (6-10 forward / center) joined the starting lineup in the last two games and averaged 17.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.5 steals as the No. 3 seed Bucks went 2-0 to close out the series against the 5th-seeded Atlanta Hawks, 4-2, and punch their ticket to the NBA Finals, which begin on Tuesday with Milwaukee playing on the road against the Phoenix Suns in game one of the best-of-7 series.
It marks the first time a former Hog has played in an NBA Finals since Corliss Williamson helped the Detroit Pistons win the title with a 4-1 series win over the Los Angeles Lakers in ’03-04.
Portis — he averaged 12.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and 1.0 steal overall in the Milwaukee-Atlanta series — began hearing the thunderous chants of “Bobby, Bobby, Bobby!” from the grateful Bucks fans inside Fiserv Arena early on in the series and the chorus has continued ever since — at Fiserv, from the throng of Bucks fans watching outdoors on big screen TVs in the Deer District, at local bars, and even at the airport as Portis was departing in his vehicle following Milwaukee’s game six, series-clinching 118-107 in Atlanta on Saturday night.
“It’s a blue-collar city and I’m a blue-collar player … I still give my all to the team 100%, for the name in front of the jersey and they love players like that,” Portis explained after the Bucks’ 123-112 home win in game five during which Portis made his first career playoff start and finished with a playoff career-high 22 points to go with 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals.
Milwaukee head coach Mike Budenholzer recognizes the value Portis brings to the team.
“His teammates love him,” he said following game five. “The fans love him. He brings that passion for the game, for life. He’s fun to be around. I think the crowd can feel that. His teammates can feel that. Coaches can feel it. He’s a worker, too.
“It’s a little bit of everything, but passion to me is the thing he brings to the game.”
Portis has been a significant key — both in the regular season and now in the postseason — to the Bucks advancing to the franchise’s first NBA Finals since 1974, and the Bucks have won only one NBA title (1971) when League icons Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson were leading the way.
While current Milwaukee stars Antetokounmpo (a.k.a the Greek Freak), Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, and Brook Lopez were the obvious choices to shoulder expectations to finally deliver postseason results after recent Eastern Conference top-seeded Milwaukee teams faltered in the playoffs, it’s the underdog Portis who has emerged unexpectedly as one of the heroes after coming in quietly in the offseason on a 2-year, $7.4 million free-agent contract.
Like everything else with Portis, his ascent has been organic without aid of pomp and circumstance. Portis finished the regular season averaging 11.4 points and 7.1 rebounds in only 20.8 minutes per game — the only NBA non-starter to average at least 10 points and 7 rebounds per outing. His 47.1% shooting from 3 was third-best in the league, his 52.3% overall shooting from the field was among the best in the league, and his Player Efficiency Rating of 20.00 ranked him 40th in the league.
His production is even more impressive when considering the fact that, again, it was organic and not by design. In other words, the Bucks don’t run plays specifically for Portis. Everything he gets is unselfishly self-created off grit and hustle — putbacks, transition run-outs, secondary-transition post-feeds, or reads off pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop.
That he was left out of serious contention for the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award seems like League malpractice.
Production aside, Portis’ energy, hard-hat / hard-working approach, and team-first attitude have pushed the right impact buttons with his teammates.
“He’s so incredible,” said Bucks starting center and one-time NBA all star Brook Lopez. “He does a bit of everything for us. He gets the crowd going, he gets us going when he makes big plays. Whether it’s a steal, offensive rebound, score-and-one. He’s always bringing energy, playing hard, and I just love that so much about him. I love that guy!”
As consistently good as he was in the regular season, not everything has been rosy in this postseason for Portis.
He followed a strong showing in a first-round sweep of Miami (he averaged 10.8 points and 5.3 rebounds in just 17.8 minutes per game while shooting 59.5% from the field) with diminishing returns against the No. 2 seed Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals as Budenholzer opted to play mostly a small-ball lineup that shrank Portis’ playing time in the first four games of the series before relegating him to no game action in the final three outings in the Bucks’ dramatic 4-3 series win. Milwaukee went 2-2 with Portis playing in the series, and 2-1 when he did not play.
Cue the underdog theme music, because Portis not only regained his role for the Atlanta series in the ECF, but he was consistently effective and certainly instrumental as a starter in sending the Bucks to the NBA Finals.
“I didn’t play the last couple games in the Brooklyn series, but I didn’t pout,” Portis said. “I just kept working and knew my time would come. I always just believe if you do the things the right way and you do right, it always comes back around. The cream always rises to the top. I just tried to stay in the moment and be a team guy and I give all the credit to my teammates and Coach for just trusting me.”
In his lone season in New York in ’19-20 after signing a two-year, free-agent deal with the Knicks, Portis played in 66 games (starting five times) while seeing a significant dip in his production — 10.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per outing — relative to his previous two seasons in the NBA. The Knicks declined the team option on Portis — which reportedly would have paid Portis $15.7 million in ’20-21 — and as an offseason free agent he ultimately turned down more lucrative deals to join a playoff contender in Milwaukee for less money.
“Coming here was one of the best decisions for my career,” Portis said. “I started my career kind of shaky, up and down, a lot of highs, a lot of lows, as well, and when you first come to the NBA, you don’t really understand the journey.
“Coming here was the best decision, like I said, of my career.”
As a sophomore at Arkansas in ’14-15, Portis was the SEC Player of the Year and second-team All American when the Hogs won 27 games, finished second in the SEC at 13-5, and finished the season ranked 20th in the nation. The former McDonald’s All American (2013) left school after his sophomore season and was drafted 22nd overall in the first round by the Chicago Bulls in the 2015 NBA Draft.
Portis played in three full seasons (2015-2018) plus 22 games into the ’18-19 campaign with the Bulls before a trade to Washington, where he played in 28 games to finish out the season and subsequently became the aforementioned offseason free-agent signee with the New York Knicks.
Portis, 26, has averaged double-figure scoring in each of the last 4 seasons, and his best statistical year was in ’18-19 (split between Chicago and Washington) when in a combined 50 games played he averaged 14.2 points and 8.1 rebounds in 26.0 minutes per contest while shooting 44.4% from the field, including a then-career-best 39.3% from 3, and a career-best 79.4% from the free throw line.
In his 6-year NBA career, Portis has played in 381 regular-season games and averaged 10.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.2 assists in 20.5 minutes per outing while shooting 46.8% from the field, including 38.0% from 3, and 75.2% from the free throw line. Portis has appeared in the NBA playoffs in two seasons, including his second year in the league when he averaged 6.7 points and 6.0 rebounds in Chicago’s 4-2 first-round Eastern Conference series loss against Boston.
As for the aforementioned Hogs-to-Bucks and their contributions in Milwaukee, here’s what it looked like …
* Moncrief — Milwaukee made the 6-4 guard out of Little Rock Hall the highest drafted Hog ever with the 5th overall pick in the 1979 NBA draft, and Moncrief (a member of the famed Triplets and the only consensus first team All American in Arkansas history) went on to have one of the greatest Bucks careers ever as he was 5-time NBA all pro, 2-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, a 5-time NBA all-star, and a 5-time NBA All Defensive team selection (all honors from 1982-86) while helping the Bucks win 8 Central Divison titles in his 10 seasons with the club. Moncrief made his second appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a Milwaukee Buck, his No. 4 jersey was eventually retired by the Bucks’ organization, and he was enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019. Moncrief’s best season in Milwaukee was his fourth (’82-83) when he was named NBA All Pro first team and NBA Defensive Player of the Year after averaging 22.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 1.5 steals while shooting 52.4% field goals and 82.6% free throws on a Bucks team that finished 51-31 and won the Central Division in the regular season before sweeping the Boston Celtics in the NBA playoffs to reach the Eastern Conference finals where the Philadelphia 76ers prevailed for a 4-1 series win on their way to the NBA title.
* Robertson — an All American at Arkansas in 1984, an Olympic gold medalist in 1984, and the 7th overall pick by San Antonio in the 1984 NBA Draft — played three-and-a-half seasons in Milwaukee in the middle of his 10-year NBA career. His best season with the Bucks was in ’90-91 when he averaged 13.6 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and a league-best 3.0 steals per game as he was honored as an NBA all-star and an NBA All Defensive first team selection. In 7 total playoff games in Milwaukee (4 in ’89-90 and 3 in ’90-91), Robertson had eye-popping collective averages of 23.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, and 2.5 steals per game. In his career, Robertson was a one-time NBA all pro (second team in 1986), one time NBA Defensive Player of the Year (1986), 4-time NBA all star (1986-88, 1991), 6-time NBA All Defensive team selection, NBA Most Improved Player (1986), and three-time league steals leader (1986, 1987, 1991).
* Brown — the 6-6 wing who played for Eddie Sutton at Arkansas in the early 1980s enjoyed a 10-team, 7-season NBA career with the Bucks being the only club that he spent more than one season with. In his second season with the Bucks (’89-90), Brown started 10 of the 61 games he played in and averaged 3.6 points and 1.2 rebounds in 10.4 minutes. Brown’s best season in the NBA was his third campaign (’86-87) as he started 67 of the 77 games he played in and averaged 11.3 points, 3.4 assists, 2.8 rebounds, and 1.2 steals in 30.4 minutes in his lone season with the New Jersey Nets.
* Day and Mayberry — the Bucks selected Arkansas teammates Day (8th overall) and Mayberry (23 overall) in the first round of the 1992 NBA Draft after the duo had teamed up for four of the best seasons (1988-92) in Razorbacks history as both racked up All American and all-conference honors under Naismith Hall of Fame coach Nolan Richardson. Day — Arkansas’ all-time leader in career scoring — played three full seasons and eight games into his 4th season with the Bucks before being traded to Boston. Day ended up playing for five different teams in his 8-season NBA career, but his best season scoring the ball was his third in Milwaukee (’94-95) when he started 81 of 82 games played and averaged 16.0 points to go with 4.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1.4 steals in 33.1 minutes per outing. Day averaged 14.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 1.2 steals in his 237 games with the Bucks. Mayberry played the first 4 of his 7 total NBA seasons in Milwaukee with his best statistical campaign coming in ’94-95 when Mayberry played in all 82 games (50 starts) and averaged 5.8 points, 3.4 assists, and 1.0 rebounds in 21.3 minutes per outing. Mayberry played in all 328 games while he was in Milwaukee, and he finished his career playing three seasons (1996-99) with the Vancouver Grizzlies.
* Lang — the 6-11 Pine Bluff native played for both Naismith Hall of Fame coaches at Arkansas (first Sutton, then Richardson) before being selected No. 28 overall (second round back then) by the Phoenix Suns, but Lang would find his way to Milwaukee for two seasons (’96-97 and ’97-98) toward the end of his 6-team, 12-season NBA career. Lang’s first season in Milwaukee was his most productive with the Bucks as he started in all 52 games that he played in and averaged 5.3 points and 5.3 rebounds in 23.0 minutes per game.