Not long ago, I was on YouTube watching footage of Michael Jordan‘s legendary 63-point outburst in Game 2 of the 1986 first round, a game his Chicago Bulls lost to the Boston Celtics 135-131 in double overtime on their way to a sweep.
That Bulls team, at 30-52 on the regular season, made the playoffs because there were only 11 teams in the Eastern Conference and three of them—29-53 Cleveland, 26-56 Indiana, and 23-59 New York—managed to be even more utterly putrescent than a Bulls team referred to as “a bunch of coke fiends” in ESPN’s 2020 smash hit documentary “The Last Dance.”
Which got me thinking.
Is that the worst team ever to make the playoffs in NBA history?
It’s time to go Dumpster diving. Let’s run this all the way back to the NBA Stone Age, all the way back to 1946, and see just how bad it gets. In chronological order, here’s every team to post the 82-game equivalent of a 32-50 or worse season and still make the playoffs.
1950 Sheboygan Red Skins: 22-40 (29-53 over 82 games)
The NBA as we know it today played its first season in 1949-50, after the Basketball Association of America (the NBA’s official predecessor and the reason this is the 75th anniversary season in 2021-22) and the National Basketball League (an older, largely Midwestern, and much more loosely organized pro circuit that dated all the way back to 1937) merged.
This meant that there were 17 teams in the new league, a figure the NBA wouldn’t reach again until 1970, when the Buffalo Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers), Cleveland Cavaliers, and Portland Trail Blazers joined the show to complete a five-year burst of expansion that swelled the NBA from just 8 teams back to 17.
12 of them made the playoffs, the top four teams in each division. And since the Western Division was the weakest, that meant an actual NBA team from Sheboygan, Wisconsin—a city half the size of Green Bay, if you thought that NFL city was a podunk small town—with an unfortunate-by-today’s-standards name and a 22-40 record snuck into the playoffs.
They actually won a playoff game. It took the Indianapolis Olympians—at 39-25 the West champion in the regular season—the full three games to dispose of their pathetic opponent.
1953 Baltimore Bullets: 16-54 (19-63 over 82 games)
These are not the Baltimore Bullets that ultimately became the Washington Wizards. This version of the Bullets showed up in the BAA for its second season in 1948 (and won the title!) but had fallen on hard times by 1953. They played one more season in the league, going 16-56 in 1954, then folded during the 1955 season with a 3-11 record, and all 14 games were officially erased from the NBA record book as if they were never played.
The Knicks beat them twice to sweep the best-of-three first round, and the NBA got a lesson it continually failed to learn for years to come, namely that you shouldn’t seed teams based on divisions. Even in a league where 8 out of 10 teams made the playoffs, the 27-44 Milwaukee Hawks deserved to be there more than Baltimore did. Baltimore just played in an Eastern Division where the Philadelphia Warriors—another legendary BAA squad that had hit a rough patch, although the Warriors eventually moved to San Francisco and went to five straight Finals 60-plus years later—went 12-57.
19-63 will get you top odds for the first overall pick in 2022. In 1953 it got you a playoff appearance. The Stone Age was messed up.
Dishonorable Mention: The 1957 Western Division
Three teams went 34-38 (39-43 over 82 games) in the same season and took a three-way tie for a division title in an eight-team league. The St. Louis Hawks, Fort Wayne Pistons, and Minneapolis Lakers were the NBA’s junk shop, all while the 36-36 Knicks missed the playoffs entirely because they came fourth in the four-team Eastern Division. The NBA didn’t learn this lesson once and for all until 2016, when it finally eliminated “division winner” as a playoff criterion except as a tiebreaker, deciding at last to seed by conference. Considering that even in 2022, there’s pressure on the league to just select the 16 best teams regardless of conference (and leaving out the play-in games), there’s still ground to be gained.
1957 was just another demonstration of this, and it bears mention. This was also when the NBA got out of the caveman days, since that was the year Bill Russell was a rookie.
1959 Detroit Pistons: 28-44 (32-50 over 82 games)
The Pistons may have left Fort Wayne after that 1957 season, but they were still the beneficiary of playing in the putrid Western Division. The Philadelphia Warriors (who would draft Wilt Chamberlain as a consolation prize in the 1959 draft) went 32-40, the third straight year the East’s odd men out were better than Western teams who got in (Detroit went 33-39 in 1958, second in the West, but worse than the 35-37 Knicks.)
Detroit lost to the Lakers. One nice thing about the old days. You didn’t see stuff like the 2007 Warriors or the 1999 Knicks. When playoff teams are truly awful, they don’t beat 1 seeds, not even in 8-team leagues and best-of-three series.
1960 Minneapolis Lakers: 25-50 (27-55 over 82 games)
Oh good grief, not this again…the Knicks went 27-48. Fourth in the East. Good enough for the playoffs in the West. And whose idiot idea was it to put six teams in the playoffs in an eight-team league?
The Lakers had made the Finals in 1959, losing to the Celtics and denying the world the chance to ultimately see the same teams meet in the Finals five years in a row. St. Louis was your West finalist every year but one between 1957 and 1961 and, of course, Boston won the East for ten straight years between 1957 and 1966.
The Lakers were also the first team to sneak into a division final despite a 32-50 or worse 82-game record, beating the 30-45 Pistons in the division semis before losing in a surprisingly competitive seven-game series to St. Louis. Would’ve been a heck of a thing to see a 25-50 team playing for the title, but it almost happened in 1960. Imagine the 2022 Indiana Pacers (a team in a similar place record-wise) playing in June.
1968 Chicago Bulls: 29-53
Fast forward to the expansion era and, happily, the NBA’s first year playing an 82-game schedule, so we no longer have to convert from shorter schedules to get projected records.
The Bulls expanded into existence in 1967 and made the playoffs in their inaugural season. Sure, they went 33-48 and got in because the NBA has this obsession with participation trophies, having on only the rarest of occasions played a season with more teams missing the playoffs than making them (and with play-in games, the league’s back up to fully two-thirds of its franchises participating in the postseason.)
But somehow an expansion team managed to get worse in their sophomore campaign and still make the playoffs. The basketball gods gave the world the Seattle SuperSonics and San Diego Rockets (yes, the same Rockets now entrenched in Houston) and those two squads went 23-59 and 15-67 respectively.
We should’ve learned something about pro sports in San Diego by now. They’re down to being a one-sport town and it’s not like the Padres are MLB’s cash cow franchise.
Oh, and in another recurring theme, the Cincinnati Royals (now the Sacramento Kings) and Baltimore Bullets (now THIS is the eventual Wizards team we were waiting for) went 39-43 and 36-46 respectively…missing the playoffs in the East while the West sent one of the worst playoff teams of all time to postseason basketball. Sigh…
1986 Chicago Bulls: 30-52
The dust settled on NBA putrescence when expansion finally made conferences make sense starting in 1971, and that dust hardened into NBA concrete in 1974 when teams were finally seeded first by conference and only then by division (insofar as the division winner was guaranteed a playoff spot.) This was the system that held sway in one form or another all the way to the 2015 season.
And for the most part, it was a good system. There were rarely enough complete dogs in any given year in any given conference to truly produce a gods-awful playoff team in a way that was a regular fixture of the Stone Age.
As such, it was 18 years between a truly dreadful Bulls team making the playoffs with a plug-awful record and…a truly dreadful Bulls team making the playoffs with a plug-awful record. Someone didn’t learn from history, and that someone was the NBA.
We’ve already talked about these guys. Helluva game from MJ in Game 2 though.
And oh by the way, Seattle went 44-38 and missed the playoffs in the West. We’re still talking about this system in 2022. WE. ARE. STILL. TALKING. ABOUT. THIS. Just wait until some year when all the talent convenes in one conference again and some team barrels through those bloody play-in games after going 27-55. It’s going to happen. You mark my words.
1988 San Antonio Spurs: 31-51
At long last, we have the last instance of this kind of garbage. The Spurs, who kind of skidded along the floor after George Gervin retired, slithered into the playoffs with a terrible record in 1988 as David Robinson served the first of his two years in the Navy before joining the team for the 1989-90 season and setting the franchise on a path of nearly nonstop success that lasted for 30 years before everything fell apart completely in 2020.
This ’88 Spurs squad featured such Hall of Fame talent as Alvin Robertson (the guy who holds the record for steals in a season but wasn’t actually any good), Johnny Dawkins (the “other” Dawkins who wasn’t Darryl), Frank Brickowski (great basketball name…), and Pete Myers, a guy best known for being the guy who played 82 games in 1994 as Dollar Store Knockoff Jordan when the real thing was playing baseball.
They weren’t even as good as that 31-51 record. The Lakers swept them in the first round.
And yes, the 38-44 Pacers and 36-46 Sixers would like a word in this “geographic divisions are for losers” discussion we’ve been having.
Well, at least we haven’t seen true dregs-of-the-league teams make the playoffs in well over 30 years now; the 35-47 1995 Celtics were the worst team of the NBA’s second major era of expansion that started in 1989 and ran through 1996 (as Toronto and Vancouver made the NBA a 29-team league), while the 2004 Celtics went 36-46 and posted the worst record before the Charlotte Bobcats showed up and gave the NBA its present-day total of 30 teams.
The worst we’ve seen since then either has a COVID asterisk on it or it’s got to do with those stupid play-in games.
But it seems like the days of losing 50 games or more in an 82-game season and making the playoffs anyway are long gone, fossils of a time when the NBA had eight teams and six playoff teams and had the howling mad lack of sense to make those playoff berths division-based.
If you haven’t studied the NBA Stone Age (i.e. the era before Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, between 1946 and 1956), head over to Basketball Reference. There’s some insane stuff to chew on that provided the data for this article.