The Houston Rockets’ Worst Season: 1983

The Houston Rockets went to the NBA Finals in 1981 and lost to the Boston Celtics. They went to the NBA Finals in 1986…and lost to the Boston Celtics.

In between, the Rockets had a season so putrid that it’s worse than their first year in the league in San Diego, a 15-67 record in 1968. It’s worse than their grab-your-barf-bag 20-62 season in 2022 that represents their other worst 82-game record in Houston.

In 1983, two years after making the Finals and three years before reaching the Finals again, the Houston Rockets went 14-68. How the heck…?

Let’s answer that.

The On-Court Record

Houston made the Finals despite a 40-42 record in 1981. They stunned the defending champion Lakers in the first round. They bumped off a 52-30 Spurs team in round two. Then they beat another 40-42 team, the wildly overachieving Kansas City Kings, in the Western Conference Finals.

The Rockets then improved to 46-36 in 1982 but didn’t have quite the same mind for an upset in the playoffs, falling to Seattle in the first round.

Then…well…how’s 0-10 before they finally got a win sound?

The ’83 Rockets went 3-22 in their last 25 games. All three of those wins were by two points. Almost all of the losses were by double digits. They could very easily have finished 0-25.

Their minus-11.3 Net Rating is about as bad as it gets, as the next-worst team by Net Rating, the 23-59 Cleveland Cavaliers, posted a minus-7.6. The next-worst team by record, the 20-62 Indiana Pacers, actually posted a minus-5.6 record, a mark suggesting a 27-win team.

Houston was bad, so bad in fact that they practically lapped the field on their way to an entirely deserved 14-win season.

The Featured Players

Houston only ran out 14 players all season. Just 12 players played seven games or more.

The problem was that their core of the 1981 Finals team was either old (Elvin Hayes at 37, Calvin Murphy at 34, and Billy Paultz at 34), awful (Joe Bryant, father of Kobe, posted negative Win Shares, and so did Terry Teagle), or useless on defense (everyone except Caldwell Jones posted a negative DBPM.)

Allen Leavell, only managed 14.8 points a game to lead the team. Their 44.8 FG% was worst in the league.

Absolutely nobody on this team stood out. It’s kind of remarkable how guys who’d seen the NBA Finals and who were in the playoffs a year before got old or awful overnight. Just a total collapse.

The Coach

Del Harris built a career on coaching teams to playoff runs and then suddenly getting himself fired after right around four seasons.

In Houston, the 14-68 season was his fourth at the helm. He was fired in Milwaukee after starting his fifth season 8-9. And he was fired from the Lakers after starting his fifth season 6-6.

The guy owns a career winning percentage of .549 in the regular season. He managed a 38-50 record overall in the playoffs in 12 full seasons. 11 of those 12 full seasons featured playoff appearances.

But there was just something about the guy that lost the locker room in that fourth or fifth year, and this was the first instance of such a thing.

The Aftermath

Houston drafted Ralph Sampson first overall in 1983. They then went 29-53 in Sampson’s rookie year, putting them in position to take Hakeem Olajuwon first overall in 1984 and improve to 48-34.

Then they added John Lucas to their ranks for the 1985-86 season and just like that, they were in the Finals just three years after posting a truly plug-awful record.

Between 1985 and 1999, the Rockets only missed the playoffs once, while they won two titles during the Jordan Interregnum, all thanks to drafting Olajuwon as part of hitting rock bottom a decade prior.

As aftermaths go, that’s a truly pure silver lining.

NEXT: Indiana Pacers. Hey look, a team that’s never failed to win at least 20 games! Unfortunately, that means…well, read this article again. Let’s stick around this era for another day. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

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