It has been exactly 1 month since we have seen a live NBA game played. Commissioner Adam Silver hasn’t set an exact date of the NBA’s return, but May 1 seems to be where the NBA will initiate talks of continuing the season.
If the NBA were to decide on capping off the regular season as it stands and jumping into the playoffs or even letting teams play exhibition games leading into the playoffs, we would see 3 teams below .500 making the NBA playoffs this year: Memphis Grizzlies (32-33, .492), Brooklyn Nets (30-34, .469), Orlando Magic (30-35, .462). This wouldn’t be the 1st time that 3 teams below .500 made the playoffs, nonetheless the MOST amount of sub-.500 teams making the playoffs in 1 year.
Not to mention, the Magic’s 30-35 record would be far from the worst we’ve seen in the playoffs. Since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, there have been 48 teams that made the playoffs despite being under .500 (not including this ‘19-’20 season).
Here, we’ll take a look at 3 of the worst teams to do so (and 2 pre-merger teams). Shockingly enough, 2 teams hold the 5 spots for worst teams; 2 historically good franchises at that.
1966-1967 Chicago Bulls (33-48)
The ‘67 Bulls were the 8th best team in a 10-team NBA league. They managed to make the playoffs with a 33-48 record (.407), 3 games ahead of the 9th place Detroit Pistons. The team ranked 9th offensively; remember there were only 10 teams in the league. The team’s saving grace was their 4th ranked defense that season. The team also featured 2 All-Stars that season: PG Guy Rodgers (18.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 11.2 assists) and SG Jerry Sloan (17.4 points and 9.1 rebounds.
To be fair to the Bulls, this was the franchise’s 1st year of inception. Not finishing last was a huge win for the expansion franchise. So big that 1st year Head Coach Red Kerr nabbed the Coach of the Year award that season. Unfortunately, this would be Kerr’s best season as a Head Coach, fizzling out after 4 years of coaching with the Bulls and Phoenix Suns.
The ‘67 Bulls went 2-16 against the 2 best teams in the league that year, 68-13 Philadelphia 76ers and 60-21 Boston Celtics. That leaves them with a 31-32 record against the rest of league; showing that the team was fairly competitive against the majority of the league. With that said, their season ended with a 1st round sweep (0-3) against the St. Louis Hawks.
1967-1968 Chicago Bulls (29-53)
The Bulls are featured here 2x before the merger, in back-to-back seasons. In the ‘67-’68 season, the NBA added 2 more expansion teams following the previous success with expansion teams. The Bulls, with a 1-year head-start on the new expansion teams, finished the season in 10th place with a 29-53 record (.354). The team had no business making the playoffs as their both of their ‘67 All-Star players regressed significantly the subsequent season
The team was still able to send 1 player to the All-Star game, PF Bob Boozer (21.5 points and 9.8 rebounds on 49.2% shooting). They finished the season ranked 11th offensively and 8th defensively with 12 teams in the league.
Kerr was once again the team’s Head Coach but was let go after the conclusion of the season. The Bulls were able to prevent back-to-back 1st round sweeps as they won game 3 in the 1st round against the 52-30 Los Angeles Lakers but eventually lost in 5 games.
The league once again expanded the following year, to 14 teams, and reduced the numbers of playoff teams back down to 8. This left the following season’s Bulls out of the playoffs, ending their streak of below .500 ‘moral success’.
*Let’s fast forward past the 1976 NBA/ABA merger for the next 3 ‘worst NBA playoff teams’
1985-1986 Chicago Bulls (30-52)
The ‘85-’86 featured 2 teams that make the list of wost teams to make the playoffs, the Chicago Bulls (once again) and the San Antonio Spurs. That season also featured 6 total sub-.500 teams that made the playoffs.
This year’s Bulls were coming off a playoff appearance with newly drafted star Michael Jordan in the previous season. Unfortunately for the Bulls, Jordan suffered a broken foot which limited him to 18 games; leading to the Bulls finishing the season 30-52 (.366). Despite his absence, the Bulls were able to sneak into the playoffs 1 game ahead of the 29-53 Cleveland Cavaliers. The team owned the 8th best offense (out of 23 teams) but featured the league’s worst defense.
It was a lost season for the Bulls as they boasted 0 All-Star representatives on their roster that season and were swept (0-3) in the 1st round of the playoffs against the eventual NBA Champion Boston Celtics.
The Bulls would follow up that season by controversially firing their 1-year Head Coach Stan Albeck and promoting a recently-hired scout Doug Collins as their new Head Coach. This would mark Albeck’s last season as an NBA Head Coach despite coaching 5 above .500 teams in 7 seasons as a coach (.535 coaching record in the NBA). The Bulls would then go on to return to the playoffs with Jordan returned to the lineup but would once again be swept by the Celtics.
1985-1986 San Antonio Spurs (35-47)
As stated above, the Spurs joined the Bulls as one of the worst NBA playoff teams in the same season. The ‘86 Spurs finished the season 3 games in front of the 9th place Los Angeles Clippers. They ranked 13th offensively and 17th defensively, finishing with a 35-47 (.427) record.
The ‘86 Spurs were led by 2 players on completely different career trajectories, both of which were All-Stars that season.
At C was 36-year old Artis Gilmore. Gilmore was clearly past his prime yet still managed to put up 16.7 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks (career lows in rebounds and blocks at that point). This season would be Gilmore’s last season as an All-Star participant.
At SG, the Spurs featured 2nd-year combo guard Alvin Robertson. Robertson provided the Spurs with phenomenal 2-way play. He contributed all-around great numbers with 17.0 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and a league-leading 3.7 steals. The numbers landed Robertson on the All-NBA 2nd team, won him Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year, even though he oddly landed on the All-Defensive 2nd team.
Even with the individual successes of their star players, the Spurs finished the season 8 games under .500 and suffered a 1st round sweep (0-3) against the Los Angeles Lakers. The team would then fire Head Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, which led to a 7-game decline the following season (28-54) and no playoff appearance.
1987-1988 San Antonio Spurs (31-51)
The last of the 5 teams featured here is once again the San Antonio Spurs. These Spurs came 2 years after their last appearance in the playoffs with a sub-.500 record. The team was coached by Bob Weiss, who would be fired after having a 59-105 (.360) record in 2 seasons as the Spurs’ Head Coach. Weiss coached the team to a 31-51 (.378) record, which surprisingly led to a playoff berth.
Gone was veteran C Artis Gilmore, replaced by 4th-year big man Frank Brickowski. Alvin Robertson was now the team’s lone All-Star, once again making the All-Defensive 2nd team (no other awards). Robertson was able to once more put up all-around great numbers for his team as he finished the season with 19.6 points, 6.1 rebounds, 6.8 assists, and 3.0 steals in his 4th season as a pro. The team would inevitably get swept by the Los Angeles Lakers yet again, as the Lakers ended the season as the NBA Champions that year.
The Spurs would regress further the following season with a 21-61 record. They would then trade away Robertson for veteran guard Terry Cummings while drafting future NBA great C David Robinson. These changes would lead the San Antonio Spurs to consistent above .500 success and playoff appearances.
These are just 5 of the 48+ sub-.500 playoff teams in NBA history. Though not every season, we will continue to see teams with below-average regular season play make the playoffs. If this season features 3 sub-.500 teams in the playoffs, we would not be in uncharted territory.