Friday, June 23, 2006

Worst, Worster...Worstest???

One of the phrases that's become commonplace this offseason is, "We can't do that because we'd be the worst team in history!" This brings up memories of the '72-'73 Philadelphia 76'ers, who went an amazing 9-73. Every year or two some media person will predict that a team will approach or break that record. Usually it's a small-town team with players he hasn't bothered to watch. It never happens though. You'd have to lose eight games for every one you win, which is hard to do even for underachievers. At the very least you have to figure that ten teams will take you for granted over the course of a season...a sure recipe for losing in the NBA.

Nevertheless there seems to be this idea floating in the air that "worst in history" is much poorer than "worst team in the league right now". As usual, I did some research to try and verify or disprove. The method was this:

I looked at seven of the eight worst teams in modern NBA history. I asked how many seasons it took them after their horrific performance to return to 30 wins and how many it took them to return to the playoffs. (This is what happened to the 8th team. We couldn't use the '04-'05 Atlanta Hawks because it's too recent and they haven't done either yet.)

Then I looked at league-wide records from 1970-2001, excluding the lockout-shortened '99 campaign. In each year I asked the same two questions of the three worst teams: How long did it take them to win 30 and how long to get back to the playoffs? I wanted legitimately bad teams other than the worst seven, so order to qualify a team had to win fewer than 30 games in a full season in addition to being one of the three worst.


81 teams qualified for the latter category over that 30-year span. The average time it took those "horrible but not worst ever" teams to win 30 games again was 2.2 years. It took them an average of 3.7 years to make the playoffs.

Here is the list of the seven worst teams in modern history with the same two stats:

'73 Sixers (9-73) 2 years to win 30, 3 years to playoffs
'99 Nuggets (11-71) 2 years, 6 years
'93 Mavericks (11-71) 2 years, 8 years
'87 Clippers (12-70) 3 years, 5 years
'94 Mavericks (13-69) 1 year, 7 years
'96 Grizzlies* (14-68) 7 years, 7 years
'83 Rockets (14-68) 2 years, 2 years

*expansion franchise

Indeed, it seems that the people who fear being one of the worst teams in history have a point. While the average return to 30 wins in this group is only half a season higher than the other (2.7 years), the average time it took them to return to the playoffs is significantly higher at 5.4 years. Almost two whole seasons may not seem like much, but four years in the NBA is an eternity in terms of player continuity, coaches, and injuries, and this is half that.

Perhaps a more faithful way to look at the stats is median...the exact halfway point in the study group which 50% of the teams are above and 50% below. In the group of 81 the median number of years to 30 was 3 and the median years to the playoffs was 4. Here our "worst ever" group fares better. Six of the seven fall below the median for time to 30 wins and two of them fall below for return to playoffs with another close. If you discount the Grizzlies expansion franchise years the numbers get better, with all the teams below the median winning 30 and half of them within one year for returning to the playoffs.


It's not good to become one of the worst teams in history, but it's not necessarily an inescapable disaster either, or at least not much more inescapable than being among the worst in any given season. None of the seven worst teams in the modern era came close to holding the record for longest playoff drought. The worst team of all time was also among the quickest to recover (and indeed as we know played for the NBA Championship four years later). You wouldn't want to intentionally maneuver to be bad, but it's not something to mortgage your franchise to avoid. It's probably a blow to fans' pride as much as anything.

It's also clear, however, that returning to the playoffs is a much more difficult task than merely being mediocre, taking nearly double the time in both groups. Almost everyone who's bad sees a small takes time and hard work to see a full one.

--Dave (


Blogger ignacio said...

Wasn't it the '83 Rockets who were responsible for the modern-day lottery, as they were believed to have intentionally lost games in order to draft... Ralph Sampson, wasn't it?

Somehow Steve Mix has always stuck in my head as the best player from that godawful 76ers team. How did they get so many good players by 1976? Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Doug Collins, Caldwell Jones, Darryl Dawkins (right out of high school, still very rare back then). Well, some of those came from the break-up of the ABA. But there was also Joe "JellyBean" Bryant (Kobe's father), Lloyd Free (who later changed his name to "World B. Free" in a fit of madness), Bobby Jones (out of North Carolina), Andrew Toney and Maurice Cheeks fairly soon...

Yet they needed Moses Malone before they won an NBA title.

When one looks back at Portland's 76-77 title team one marvels at what a "team" they were. Very few shooters. Lionel Hollins wasn't primarily a shooter. Johnny Davis wasn't; neither was Bob Gross. Maurice Lucas and Bill Walton were great big men, but rarely did either of them score 30 points.

No, it was a team. Such things as Larry Steele or Dave Twardzik or Lloyd Neal scoring 12 points off the bench was a big deal.

They tried to get lay-ups. Which meant working hard on back-door cuts and screens and (thanks to Walton's rebounding and outlet passes) fastbreaks.

12:38 PM  
Anonymous fatty said...

hey ignacio you never told me
was b.spears a blazer scout
or bradgelina or the other guy
as for getting better, hey look
in this century the players are
very different from the old
days , before players were
embarrassed to be losers now
unfortunately, with the money
these guys are getting paid
it's the 1st*15th of each month
you don't have to look any
further than the knicks*blazers
in the blazers case their 3
theifs i mean highest paid
players all quit on the team
and 70% of blazers fans still
support them, while in nyc
they're all fat cats that's
why l.brown is unemployed
and starbury*franchise and
fat slob e.curry are still
stealing money just like the
blazers theifs of the night !!!!

1:08 PM  
Anonymous jorga said...

Since you've got all those stats in front of you ... what is the longest run of under 30-win years? Is it the same as the longest
"missed the playoffs" run?

And all these "worst of the worst" teams - what were their records like the year before they crashed - or was it a steady decline? Was anyone in playoffs the year before?

6:19 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Good questions Jorga! I'll see if I can find them tomorrow.


7:53 PM  
Anonymous Dr.Dave said...

Another interesting stat might be: which teams made the most dramatic turnaround in a single season?

8:27 PM  

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