Almost exactly one year ago (on February 24, 2020), this site took a look at the Eastern Conference and noted that the last time a 7 seed had a losing record before it happened again with the 35-37 Brooklyn Nets was when the Boston Celtics went 40-42 in 2015.
The Orlando Magic finished 33-40, which prorated to 82 games is a 37-45 record, itself the worst record by a playoff team since the Indiana Pacers won 37 games in 2011 and grabbed the 8 seed.
Even worse, the ninth-best winning percentage in the East in 2020 was the 23-42 (.354) Charlotte Hornets, which prorates to a 29-53 record over 82 games, the worst record by a team to finish one place shy of the playoffs since the Sacramento Kings went 27-55 in a year when there were only 29 teams in the league, in 1998.
Well, buckle up, buttercup, because through games of February 24, 2021, there are only three teams in the Eastern Conference—the Philadelphia 76ers, the Nets, and the Milwaukee Bucks—that even have winning records. The 4 seed Indiana Pacers are 15-15; every other team is below .500.
Which brings up a question. Last year, we had the sad but by no means unprecedented case of a 7 seed with a losing record. That seems to happen every few years, especially in the East; the Western Conference had its first sub-.500 playoff team since the 1997 Los Angeles Clippers when the 35-39 Portland Trail Blazers snuck into the 8 spot and won a play-in game against the Memphis Grizzlies, so they’ve been less prone to this problem.
The last time a 6 seed had a losing record was 1997 in the West; the Minnesota Timberwolves went 40-42, fully nine games below the 49-33 5-seed Trail Blazers.
The last time a 5 seed fared that badly?
You have to go all the way back to 1981, when there were only 23 teams in the entire league and only six teams per conference made the playoffs.
The Kansas City Kings went 40-42, took the 5 seed, and had to play an extra round because similar to the NFL, the top two teams (in the NBA’s case, the two division winners in each conference) got a first-round bye and the 3 through 6 seeds had to play a best two-out-of-three series in the wild card round.
Amusingly, the Kings made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals, first toppling the 45-37 Trail Blazers before beating the top-seed Phoenix Suns in the second round.
Their WCF opponent? The 40-42 Houston Rockets, who placed sixth that year and, by virtue of themselves wiping out the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and Midwest Division champ San Antonio Spurs, got to face a team with a losing record to earn the right to lose in the NBA Finals to Larry Bird and the Celtics.
Still. A 5 seed with a losing record hasn’t happened in 40 years, but if the season ended today, that’s exactly what the NBA would be looking at as the playoffs get underway.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been some 5 seeds that have flirted with that kind of disaster in the 40 years since.
The Atlanta Hawks won just 43 games in 2017 but ended up finishing fifth, Dwyane Wade‘s Miami Heat likewise won 43 games in 2009 and took the 5 seed, and the Washington Wizards went 42-40 and took fifth in 2006.
But a 5 seed with a losing record? Seven current NBA teams hadn’t even started playing yet, and the Dallas Mavericks were an expansion team that the rest of the West should’ve been able to beat up on (indeed, Dallas went 15-67 in that first year, but three years later they’d be a 4 seed in the league’s first full 16-team playoff, going 43-39.)
So we haven’t seen a 5 seed as bad as the currently 15-16 Toronto Raptors in 40 years.
But what about that fourth-seeded Pacers team that is on pace to go an 82-game-prorated 41-41?
Surely no team in any kind of recent memory has been that bad…right?
Well, you have to step back another year in history, but the Rockets and Spurs each went 41-41 to tie for fourth in the East—remember, this was a six-team-per-conference playoff and there were only 22 teams in the league in 1980.
It’s wild to consider that Houston and San Antonio were Eastern Conference teams in 1980, especially considering that the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls played in the West, but that realignment wouldn’t be tackled until that 1981 season under the pretext of Dallas entering the league, when the Texas teams were all drawn into the same division and realigned to the Western Conference.
The point of all this is that it has been 40 years since a conference was so top-heavy that the 5 seed lost more games than it won, and 41 years since even the 4 seed couldn’t crack a winning record…and that’s when there were only 23 and 22 teams in the entire league, respectively.
The Eastern Conference, 15 teams deep in 2021, can’t even find four teams with a winning record, making it by a pretty large margin the biggest nearly top-to-bottom Dumpster fire in NBA history.