The Worst of the Worst

Posted on April 23, 2008 by


Winners get the glory and are remembered forever (at least by sports fans).

Losers are derided for a brief period time, and then tend to be forgotten.

Today, though, I want to focus on the losers.  Specifically, I wish to ask which edition of each team was the worst in the history of the franchise.

As I noted yesterday, we can measure offensive and defensive efficiency back to 1973-74.  And from this we can determine efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency).

It’s been argued that efficiency differential is the best way to measure the quality of an NBA team.  When it comes to the NBA’s best, this argument is disputed.  People often argue that the playoffs determine the top teams.  Of course the problem with the playoff argument is that the post-season sample -relative to the regular season – is too small.

Regardless of where you fall in this debate (although I still can’t see why this is a debate), for the worst teams we don’t have a playoff system.  All we can look at for these teams is efficiency differential.

And what is the efficiency differential story?  To answer that question, we turn to Table One. 

Table One: The Worst NBA Teams from 1973-74 to 2006-07

Table One lists the worst NBA teams – for each franchise — from 1973-74 to 2006-07.

Five of these worst – the Jazz, Heat, Hornets, Magic, and Bobcats – were expansion teams.   The Raptors and Grizzlies offered their worst marks within three years of entering the league. Beyond these seven, every other team was established in the league before offering their worst performance. 

It’s interesting to note that none of these worst performances occurred in 2006-07.  The most recent (before this year, which I will get to in a moment), were the performances offered by the Knicks and Blazers in 2005-06.  In 2004-05 we see two more worst editions (Atlanta and the aforementioned Bobcats) and in 2002-03 the Cavaliers achieved historic badness.  Other than these teams, every other franchise offered their worst in the 20th century.

The Almost All-Time Worst

At least, that would be the story before this year.  In 2007-08, three teams reached historic lows.  Before I get to those, let me comment on a few teams that came close.

The Heat offered a -9.26 differential in 2007-08.  This mark is not quite as bad as what Miami posted their first two years in the league.  But such a mark is quite below the worst Miami offered since these first editions.

The Clippers – with a differential of -7.63 – were also quite bad in 2007-08.  But that’s n0where near the worst in franchise history.  Seven times – yes, seven times – the Clippers have actually done less; with the -11.89 mark of the 1999-00 Clippers still leading the way (or following the furthest behind).

Minnesota is not quite as bad as the Clippers, but the T-Wolves still have problems.  In 2007-08 the T-wolves had a mark of -7.12.  This was the fifth time in franchise history that Minnesota was below the -7 mark.  What do all of these teams have in common?  None of them employed Kevin Garnett.  With KG the T-Wolves had a positive differential in eight of twelve seasons.  Without KG the T-Wolves never had a positive differential.

What’s interesting about Minnesota is that of all the expansion teams over the past three decades, Minnesota was easily the best.  In its expansion year the T-Wolves had a differential of -4.43.  The next year Minnesota got better.  But then in 1991-92 the T-Wolves got very bad.  And they stayed very bad until Garnett came to town.   After twelve years the T-Wolves saw KG leave, and as noted, the badness returned.

Three Historic Bad Teams

Okay enough on the almost bad.  Which three teams were historically bad in 2007-08?

Forgetting the Plot in Seattle

The first of the worst is the Seattle SuperSonics.  Over the past three decades the Sonics only posted a mark below -4 in one season, and this occurred in 1984-85 (-5.30).  This year – perhaps the last year in Seattle Sonics history – obliterated the previous low.  Led by Kevin Durant (have I mentioned that he really wasn’t the best rookie?), the Sonics offered a -8.74 differential.  Such a performance brings to mind the movie Major League.  But unlike that movie, no one told the Sonics players about the plot midway through the season.

Not Boring in Milwaukee

Before the season started I argued that Milwaukee was most boring franchise in the NBA.  In essence, the Bucks in recent years have never been that good and never that bad. 

In 2007-08 the Bucks shed the boring label.  With a differential of -7.25, the Bucks reached historic lows.  Now if I were petty, I would note that I predicted this outcome before the season started.  But since I am not, I won’t (although you can click on the link and see that I did).

Isiah’s Farewell

Previously I noted that the Knicks posted their franchise worst performance in 2005-06.  Actually this was incorrect.  In 2007-08, the Knicks posted a mark of -6.90.  In defense of Isiah, there have been 63 teams that offered even less than the latest edition of the Knicks.  Of course, none of these teams were in New York and none of these teams spent as much money as Isiah.

So there you have it: The worst of the worst.  The three teams that have reached historic lows are each making major changes.  Both New York and Milwaukee have fired their coach and general manager.  Seattle, at the moment, is keeping the leadership together.  Seattle, though, is trying to change cities. 

One could argue that a larger market could give a team more revenue, and this revenue could be used to purchase better talent.  This link – as the payroll-wins relationship suggests – is not that strong. Still, location can matter some. 

The Sonics, though, are not moving to a larger market.  They are just moving to a different market.  And I really can’t see how that is going to help this team play better. I sense that Oklahoma City fans are not going to be too excited about getting an NBA team when they finally see the sorry team they have acquired.

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.