The Houston Rockets and New Orleans Pelicans have begun the 2021-2022 season with two of the worst starts in NBA history. The Pelicans clock in at an awful 1-11, their .083 winning percentage driven by a league-worst defense and a bottom ten offense. At the same time, the Rockets find themselves at 1-10, behind a youth movement and a blatant attempt by GM Stephen Silas to tank his way into a top-3 selection in the 2022 draft lottery.
It’s still early. All-Star Zion Williamson is out with injury, and he might help steer the Pelicans ship through this early season storm. Rookie Jalen Green is brimming with talent. As the season progresses, the game could slow down for him and the rest of his young Rockets teammates. Hope prevails.
Sadly, for a handful of teams throughout the NBA’s history, early-season optimism slowly turned into despair for their respective fan bases. Next, we’ll look at the ten worst teams ever to play in the association.
10. Vancouver Grizzlies: 8-42 (1999)
We’ll forgive you if you forgot the Grizzlies once played up North in Canada. Folks in Vancouver were thrilled to have an NBA team to call their own for five years, yet most of them probably want to delete the 1999 season that featured some of the worst NBA basketball we’ve seen from their memories.
During the 1998-1999 season, the Grizzlies featured rookie Mike Bibby, who would become a legend in Sacramento, but was too raw to win in Vancouver. Bibby logged a heavy 35.2 minutes per game as a freshman, averaging a measly 13.2 PPG, with a 44.2 eFG%.
Shareef Abdur-Rahim also wore his knees out that season for head coach Brian Hill with a whopping 40.4 MPG. He averaged 23.0 points per game while shooting 43.2% from the field during his time on the floor. Abdur-Rahim proved to be a sweet-shooting big later in his career, but in 1999, with little help around him, Shareef struggled to carry the offensive load.
Throughout the 1999-2000 season, the Grizzlies ranked 24th in the league in passing with 19.3 assists per game. Often it felt like their offense boiled down to Mike Bibby dribbling around the court for 18 seconds before dumping the ball to Abdur-Rahim for a tough midrange jumper. In the end, the Grizzlies finished 28th in the league in offensive rating (98.4).
Sadly, the Grizzlies’ ineptitude helped lead the way towards their relocation in Memphis, leaving their rabid fan base left out in the cold Canadian night.
8 T. Atlanta Hawks: 13-69 (2005)
The 2004-2005 Atlanta Hawks had decent talent. The problem was that their top players had no interest in winning. As Tim Duncan and the Spurs showed the world what true team basketball looked like on their way towards the title, Antoine Walker and Al Harrington each became a cautionary tale of what happens when two gifted athletes care more about stat-stuffing than anything else.
Antoine Walker was the Hawks' best player in 2005. He was a supremely skilled athlete who could have been a top-10 player in the league. Walker could have used his explosive leaping ability and smooth stroke to create superstar gravity for his team. He could have been a winning player.
Alas, Walker’s ego got in the way. Antoine spent the year ignoring his teammates as he jacked up awful midrange jumpers to the tune of 19.1 FGAs per game and only 3.7 assists. Hawks’ management got so tired of Walker they traded him midway through the season to the Boston Celtics. Antoine lasted only three more seasons in the NBA before retiring at age 31.
Al Harrington wasn’t much better, putting up 14.9 FGAs while dishing out a measly 3.2 APG and playing lazy, uninspired defense. Looking back, it seems nearly impossible that Harrington at 6-9, with incredible hops, only managed to block 0.2 shots per game for the Hawks that season.
The Atlanta Hawks stand out as perhaps the most talented team on this list with an assortment of solid players:
- Al Harrington
- Tyronn Lue
- Josh Childress
- Josh Smith
- Kenny Anderson
- Boris Diaw
- Antoine Walker
This Hawks team is a perfect example of how vital chemistry, teamwork, and culture are in the NBA. Games aren’t won on paper. And simply compiling a group of talented players isn’t enough to win games.
8 T. Dallas Mavericks: 13-69 (1994)
In the early 1980s, the Rockets began the idea of tanking, but the 1993 (more on them later) and 1994 Mavericks took the notion to the next level. Dallas GM Norm Sonju scanned his Mavericks roster and saw bare cupboards, so he encouraged head coach Quinn Buckner to play the young guys.
Play the young guys is what Quinn Buckner did.
- Jim Jackson, age 23, played 37.4 MPG
- Jamal Mashburn, age 21, played 36.7 MPG
- Sean Rooks, age 24, played 26.7 MPG
- Popeye Jones, age 23, played 21.9 MPG
- Lorenzo Williams, age 24, played 19.9 MPG
Buckner handed the keys to the car over to the youth movement, and as expected, they crashed all the way to 8th on our list. Their team stats were ugly:
24th in defensive rating, 109.6 (out of 27 teams)
27th in offensive rating, 100.4 (last place)
-9.2 net rating
27th in true shooting percentage, .492
27th in assists per game, 19.9
1994 was an unpleasant year for Mavericks fans, but in the end, Jim Jackson and Jamal Mashburn became solid NBA players, in part because of the run they got when they were young and developing in Dallas.
6 T. New Jersey Nets: 12-70 (2010)
The New Jersey Nets began the 2009-2010 season 0-16, and things somehow got worse from there. New majority owner Mikhail Prokhorov had head coach Lawrence Frank fired. Tom Barrise then stepped in before Nets GM Kiki Vandeweghe hired himself (I’m literally laughing out loud) as the head coach.
Here’s a quick summary:
1. Mikhail Prokhorov bought the Nets with no front office basketball experience
2. Prokhorov had his GM fire his head coach
3. Prokhorov then allowed his GM to run his team and become the head coach
So many questions ensue: Did Kiki Vandeweghe sleep that year? Did Kiki have time to eat? Most importantly, was he able to coach up his young players with all his other responsibilities?
This was an unpleasant situation. The Nets dumped almost their entire roster after Prokhorov bought the team, leaving Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, Devin Harris, and Terrence Williams as the lone holdovers from the 2009 squad. They were an undermanned squad, and Lawrence Frank never had a chance before he was let go.
As anticipated, the Nets finished the season with awful team metrics. Brooklyn was 25th in DEFRTG at 110.5 and last in OFFRTG (100.6).
It was a challenging decade for Brooklyn diehards, but at least now they can take solace in the mastery of Kevin Durant as this version of the Nets looks to win a title.
6 T. Los Angeles Clippers: 12-70 (1987)
This wasn’t a tank job. The Clippers had ten straight seasons from 1982 through 1991 with a winning percentage under 40%. 1987 was the chasm, but this wasn’t a well-planned attempt to pick up lottery talent. This was mismanagement.
In 1987, Los Angeles was a tale of two cities. Lakerstown featured Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the height of their powers, selling out the Forum nightly and amassing a whopping 681,207 total attendance record, good for first in the NBA by over 130,00 people.
At the same time, Clippers Nation included Michael Cage, Cedric Maxwell, and Benoit Benjamin as their leading trio, who played in front of a league-low 316,140 fans for the season.
The Clippers were truly outclassed in their own city and short-staffed throughout 1987. You probably already guessed this, but their team stats jump off the screen and shout, “Bad!”
The Clippers finished last in the league in DEFRTG, OFFRTG, and net rating.
The lone bright spot on LA’s other team was Michael Cage, who averaged a double-double of 15.7 PPG and 11.5 RPG while shooting 52.1% overall, giving Clippers fans a glimmer of hope for the future.
4 T. Denver Nuggets: 11-71 (1998)
From 1994 to 1997, Denver cycled through nearly every player on their roster, leaving the 1998 Nuggets barren. As with most poor teams, this version of the Nuggets didn’t have an All-Star. This team also lacked a solid point guard to guide the ship or a player who could regularly get his own bucket as things bogged down in the half-court.
The 1997-1998 Nuggets featured:
- Eric Williams: 19.8 PPG on 39.3% from the field
- Cory Alexander: 14.0 PPG on 43.5% from the field
- LaPhonso Ellis: 14.3 PPG on 40.7% from the field
- Johnny Newman: 14.7 PPG on 43.1% from the field
This was a straightforward tank job. The Nuggets had losing streaks of 12 games, 16 games, and 23 games throughout the season. Unfortunately, despite having the worst record in the league, the Nuggets ended up with the number three pick in the lottery, eventually deciding on Raef LaFrentz, a player whose professional career lasted less than ten years.
It would take the Dallas Mavericks six more seasons to make the playoffs, eventually earning a spot in the Western Conference Finals in 2009 with George Karl as the head coach.
4 T. Dallas Mavericks: 11-71 (1993)
We’ve already mentioned the 1994 Mavericks as one of the worst teams in NBA history. Regrettably for the Dallas Mavericks, the 1993 squad also cracks our list.
The 1993 Mavericks tanked with a conviction rarely seen in the NBA, featuring lone veteran Derek Harper and a group of young players all 25 or under. If winning comes down to superstars in the NBA, then Dallas GM Norm Sonju got this tank job done well.
Derek Harper was the best player on the Mavericks during the 1993-1994 season, averaging 18.2 PPG and 5.4 APG while connecting on a paltry 41.9% of his shots from the field. Harper was a solid role player thrust into the unenviable position of trying to be a Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan type, which was a bit out of his range.
Jim Jackson, Terry Davis, and Sean Rooks joined Harper to try and drag this team into the win column nightly. All three players would turn into solid contributors after they had time to hone their skills, but in 1993 they were pushed into more prominent roles than they were ready for, and the team suffered.
Unlike many teams that tank with vigor, the Dallas Mavericks were able to land Jamal Mashburn in the 1993 draft and eventual Hall-of-Famer Jason Kidd in 1994. So, all was not to waste.
Two years later, in 1995, the Mavericks climbed the standings, winning 36 games and giving Dallas fans hope for the future.
3. Philadelphia 76ers: 10-72 (2016)
“Trust the process.”
“Trust the process.”
“Trust the process.”
Say it with me, “Trust the process.”
Philadelphia’s GM, Sam Hinkie, became an overnight sensation in 2016 by trying to game the system in a way nobody had seen in the NBA.
Other losing squads in the past, like the Nuggets and Mavericks from our list, never admitted to the media they were losing on purpose. They branded their awful seasons “as a chance for the young guys to get some run.”
Then Sam Hinkie came along and openly admitted he was intentionally losing. He let everyone know that in the modern NBA, teams like the 76ers that couldn’t land a superstar in free agency had no other choice but to tank, improving their odds of landing an impact player in the draft.
The 2015-2016 season was the height of Sam Hinkie’s “process.” That year, the 76ers didn’t have a single perimeter player who could score off the bounce or generate something out of nothing. Instead, they had Ish Smith, a solid backup point guard who was pushed into a starting role, and Robert Covington, an excellent 3-and-D wing but not a player who should be regularly working out of isolation sets.
On the block, the 76ers started “twin towers,” Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel. Okafor’s a decent post player, but his old school game doesn’t fit in today’s modern switch-heavy NBA. For now, Okafor’s out of the league. Nerlens Noel is probably the best player out of the bunch. This season, he’s missed some time with a minor knee injury, but he provides solid rim protection and perimeter defense for the New York Knicks when he plays.
All the 76ers losing in 2016 netted them the number one pick in the draft, which Hinkie used to select Ben Simmons.
Did the process work?
The 76ers went from being an afterthought from 2010 through 2017 to a perennial title contender. Still, Philadelphia hasn’t made the finals since Allen Iverson played, and former number one pick Ben Simmons has yet to suit this year due to “mental issues.”
So, you be the judge on whether the 76ers awful 2016 was worth it.
2. Philadelphia 76ers: 9-73 (1973)
The 2016 76ers were dreadful, but at least Sam Hinkie and company had a plan. The 1973 76ers were worse, and it wasn’t by design. They were simply left stranded after trading, Hall-of-Famer, Wilt Chamberlain to the Lakers in 1968 for Darrall Imhoff, Archie Clark, and Jerry Chambers in a deal that made another LA transaction — Pau Gasol to the Lakers for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, and Marc Gasol — look like pure genius.
Without Wilt Chamberlain, the 76ers sloshed their way through three mediocre seasons before bottoming out in 1973 and becoming one of the worst NBA teams ever.
The 1972-1973 76ers featured Fred Carter, Tom Van Arsdale, John Block, and Bill Bridges, none of whom are household names. Still, they were decent defensive players. It was on offense where they struggled and tumbled down the standings.
Their effective field goal percentages were ugly:
- Fred Carter: 42.1 eFG%
- Tom Van Arsdale: 39.3 eFG%
- John Block: 44.1 eFG%
- Bill Bridges: 37.6 eFG%
John Block led the bunch with a sub-45 eFG%, a mark that would have him glued to the bench in 2021.
The 1973 Philadelphia 76ers finished the year with the worst offense in the league at 90.2 as fans stopped coming to the famed Spectrum building to witness shooting futility in person.
It would take two more seasons before the Philadelphia 76ers found their way back to the playoffs, eventually winning the title in 1983.
1. Charlotte Bobcats: 7-59 (2012)
The 2012 Bobcats go down as the worst team in the NBA’s long history, with only seven games won and a.106 winning percentage.
This squad ended the season on a 23-game losing streak and might have had the worst offense ever, only scoring 87.0 points per game. In 2012, Bobcats head coach Paul Silas started 14 different players as he tinkered around trying to find something that worked. Out of those 14 starters, only one managed an eFG% over 50%, little known Derrick Brown at.526.
Compare 2012 Bobcats to the worst offensive team last season, the Oklahoma City Thunder, with 13 players with an eFG% above 50%.
It was dark in Charlotte on offense, and it wasn’t much better on the less glamorous end where Charlotte also finished dead last in the NBA.
On the bright side, rookie Kemba Walker got significant minutes among the chaos, which certainly helped him progress into an All-Star and the face of the Bobcats (and Hornets) for seven years after his rookie season.
In the end, Charlotte fans didn’t have to suffer too long. After only one more down year, the Bobcats made the playoffs in 2014, losing in the first round but still procuring a winning season.
What Goes Up Must Go Down
Everything in life flows up and down. Nobody stays down forever, and the same holds true in the NBA, where fortunes swing with the bounce of a ping pong ball or the crack of a knee.
The ten teams on this list had awful seasons. Still, except for the Clippers, the other organizations quickly turned things around, making the playoffs within a handful of years after their award-winning ineptitude.
The Rockets and Pelicans are struggling in 2021, and it seems unlikely either squad will make the postseason this year in the crowded Western Conference. Houston and New Orleans fans can take solace in the stories from the teams listed above and see the lights coming.