The Most Underachieving Teams in NBA History

In our last piece, we took a look at the most overachieving teams in NBA history—that is, the teams whose regular-season records most exceeded the record you’d expect them to post given their point differential.

But what about the flip side of that? What about teams that did great on the aggregate scoreboard but lost far more games than the stats say they should have?

We’re going to look at that today. Some of these teams missed the playoffs when they should’ve gotten in. Others had a lower seed and a tougher road. And still others got a better draft pick than they should have, changing the course of their franchise history when they got to pick a better player.

Let’s begin with possibly the unluckiest team in the entire history of the league, a squad that finished fully 10 games short of where the stats say they should have:

1959 Syracuse Nationals

Actual W-L: 35-37
Expected W-L: 45-27

The greatest raw number of games below expectation came when the NBA still played only a 72-game season.

Luckily, they still made the playoffs—this was when an 8-team league had three out of the four teams in each division end up in the postseason. Only the Philadelphia Warriors (32-40) and the wretched Cincinnati Royals (19-53) went fishing without playing a playoff game.

Syracuse, for their part, got matched up with the East’s second-place New York Knicks and saw their luck improve, winning both games to take the best-of-three series.

They then gave Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics everything they wanted and then some in a seven-game Eastern Conference Finals.

Boston went 52-20 that year. So ultimately the NBA restored order; the second-best team, despite being the lower seed, beat the third-best team and then lost to the best team (who then went on to beat the 49-23 St. Louis Hawks to avenge their loss in the 1958 Finals.)

Dolph Schayes, in his Hall of Fame career, won a ring for Syracuse in 1955, and would frequently lead the Nationals to playoff series wins over their rival Philadelphia Warriors. When the Warriors decamped to San Francisco in 1962, the Nationals moved a year later to Philadelphia, and Schayes got to play the last year of his career in front of the city that once dreaded his appearance, inaugurating the lifetime of the 76ers.

But in ’59, he played on a hard-luck team in western New York.

The Nationals finished 10 games below where the stats say they should have. Seven teams in NBA history have fallen nine games short of the mark. In chronological order:

1952 Minneapolis Lakers

Actual W-L: 40-26
Expected W-L: 49-17

The Lakers went nine games short in a 66-game season. Either they were going to be snakebitten in the playoffs, or everything was finally going to break their way.

Unfortunately for their opponents, the latter happened.

49-17 would’ve been the best record in the league that year by a mile. The West 1 seed Rochester Royals went 41-25. Over in the East, the Nationals went 40-26 in the aforementioned Schayes’ third year in the league.

The Lakers asserted their dominance in the playoffs. First they beat the Indianapolis Olympians in the second of three straight first-round triumphs over Indy’s first pro basketball team.

Then they showed Rochester who the real best of the West was in the division finals, taking the series 3-1.

Finally, George Mikan and friends took out the New York Knicks in seven games in the ’52 NBA Finals, taking the first of what would be three straight titles in a six-year stretch where the squad won five rings.

Mikan retired first after the 1954 season (and that fifth title) and then after a brief comeback in 1956. The Lakers lost eight Finals between 1959 and 1970, eight of them to Russell and the Celtics, before finally getting their first ring in Los Angeles in 1972. They wouldn’t beat the Celtics in a Finals until 1985.

But in the old days? Even a historically bad run of regular-season luck wasn’t enough to stop Minneapolis from winning it all.

1974 Houston Rockets

Actual W-L: 32-50
Expected W-L: 41-41

The ’74 Rockets, over the course of the season, gave up just 11 more points than they scored. They should’ve been right in the mix for the final playoff spot in the East—four of the eight East and nine West teams made the playoffs that year—but instead of finishing one game behind the Buffalo Braves, they finished 10 games back of the playoffs.

Indeed, had the Rockets not lost in overtime on the opening day of the season against Buffalo, and had they otherwise gone chalk, they’d have gotten in.

So what became of that franchise after the ’74 season?

Well, they made the playoffs the next year, going 41-41 before losing in the East semis to the Celtics, and fell to Julius Erving and the 76ers in the 1977 East Finals.

The franchise finally bottomed out in 1978 when star Rudy Tomjanovich ran face-first into the fist of Kermit Washington, but luckily for them, they had a young Moses Malone and would soon have Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon. The rest is four Finals and two rings in franchise history.

1976 Chicago Bulls

Actual W-L: 24-58
Expected W-L: 33-49

When your best players by VORP are Mickey Johnson and Tom Boerwinkle, it kind of doesn’t matter whether you win 24 games or 33. The last team in the playoffs from the West that year, the 5 seed (out of nine) Detroit Pistons, went 36-46, so the Bulls didn’t lose out on a playoff appearance.

Chicago got Artis Gilmore in the ’76 offseason when the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels folded, and with Gilmore on their team they made the ’77 playoffs behind a 44-38 record.

But the Bulls had only one more playoff appearance, in 1981, before they got the third pick in the 1984 draft and made history.

1977 Phoenix Suns

Actual W-L: 34-48
Expected W-L: 43-39

After taking the Boston Celtics six games in the 1976 NBA Finals, the ’77 Suns crashed hard against the rocks of bad luck, missing the playoffs entirely.

They’d have still missed the playoffs with 43 wins (the aforementioned Bulls and their 44-38 mark made it in as the 6 seed out of 11 teams in the West), but instead they just looked terrible.

But as mentioned when talking about that Celtics team, which was eight games on the other side of the ledger in ’77, the Suns didn’t panic. They kept their coach, John MacLeod, and would go on to make the playoffs in eight straight years, reaching the Western Conference Finals twice in that stretch with stars like Paul Westphal and Larry Nance.

There’s a lesson in that when a good franchise has an unusually bad year that defies the stats.

1979 Milwaukee Bucks

Actual W-L: 38-44
Expected W-L: 47-35

The Bucks are another example of how not panic-firing the coach after a freaky season on the scoreboard can be good for a franchise.

In Don Nelson’s first full year as coach in 1978, the Bucks went 44-38, posting their first winning season since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson took them to the Finals back in 1974.

In ’79, the Bucks should’ve improved their record by three wins but instead put up their third 38-44 record in five years.

But the ship righted itself a year later, and Milwaukee made the playoffs for 12 straight seasons first behind Nelson and then behind Del Harris, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals three times with guys like Sidney Moncrief and Marques Johnson making their name in the land of Laverne and Shirley.

The moral of the story, as it was in Phoenix, was that smart franchises don’t overreact to screwy stats.

And, perhaps, that there’s no such thing as “grit” when teams win big and lose close.

1998 Detroit Pistons

Actual W-L: 37-45
Expected W-L: 46-36

It’s funny how of the seven teams to fall nine games short of expectations, four of them were in a six-year stretch of the weirdest decade in NBA history. Since 1979, it’s only happened twice.

The first time was in 1998, when any won-lost record that didn’t belong to Michael Jordan and the Bulls was ultimately irrelevant, but the Pistons going 37-45 spelled the end of Doug Collins coaching them; he was fired midseason and replaced by Alvin Gentry, who got his second interim coaching assignment (his first was Miami in 1995 before the Heat hired Pat Riley) and the first that landed him a full-time gig the following season.

The Pistons made the playoffs at 29-21 in the lockout-shortened 1999 season, but Gentry soon revealed that he’s a terrible coach—he’s made the playoffs only three times in 17 years as a head coach—and Detroit eventually came into its own as a franchise under other, better coaches in Rick Carlisle and Larry Brown, going on to win the 2004 title.

The sequence of events that led Detroit to that point might not have been possible had they not fallen apart in 1998.

Unlike the don’t-panic benefits in Phoenix and Milwaukee, however, Detroit absolutely made the right move replacing Collins, a guy whose entire career as a coach has been early success, then lose the locker room, incite a player revolt, and get fired as soon as the losses start piling up.

And finally…

2018 Dallas Mavericks

Actual W-L: 24-58
Expected W-L: 33-49

The Mavs were bad in Dirk Nowitzki’s penultimate year in the league. The franchise was largely running on fumes at that point; they hadn’t sniffed the playoffs since 2016 and hadn’t been out of the first round since they won the title in 2011.

But they were never 24 wins bad, not on paper. They should have been better than that in 2018.

However, since they’d gone 24-58, that meant they got the fifth pick in the draft.

With the fifth pick, they grabbed Trae Young, then turned around and clowned the Atlanta Hawks in order to snooker them into giving Dallas the best European rookie since Nowitzki himself, potentially laying the groundwork for another 20 years of Mavericks playoff heroics.

If the Mavs had won 33 games like their point differential says they should have, they would’ve been picking ninth. That’s where New York grabbed Kevin Knox.

Knox is playing just 13 minutes a game for New York in 2021, posting negative VORP, and still has negative Win Shares for his career. He is legitimately horrible, one of the worst players in the league.

Had Dallas not historically underachieved, it might’ve been them stuck with the biggest bust of the entire 2018 draft.

Instead, they got a guy whose ceiling is “greatest European player who ever lived”, surpassing the guy in the twilight of his career who suffered through that awful 2018 campaign.

The really funny thing about these underachievers is that where the cutoff for overachievers Friday was eight wins above expectation, the standard for the other side is nine games.

There’s probably a reason for that—teams that are playing out of their minds tend to face motivated opponents as the season go on, while teams that are playing terribly have their confidence destroyed, playing just a bit worse than they otherwise would.

Or maybe it’s just a freakish coincidence.

Either way, I hope you’ve enjoyed this two-part look at the outliers of the standings. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!