Hope for the Worst NBA Teams
Things look up for two of the squads, as the Wizards employed a top pick to gain two solid rotation players while the Clippers used the top pick to snag a fine young star-in-waiting. The Kings remain in unfortunate limbo. But all told, how do rancid teams bounce back from awful seasons? Can fans of losers expect better things quickly, or is the upswing normally protracted?
Since 1980 (and omitting the lock-out shortened 1998-99 season), 42 teams have had seasons of less than 20 wins. On a seasonal basis, we expect one or two such losers (some 5% of teams win fewer than 20 games). I looked at these losing teams to explore how long is usually takes to get above water.
I looked at the 10 seasons following each of 25 of the 42 sub 20-win seasons registered since 1980. I made a few adjustments. In cases where a team won, say, 19 games one season and 17 the next, I omitted the former to focus on the true low spot. While the 50-game 1998-99 season is included in the 10-year outlooks, I did not select the teams who registered the equivalent 12 or less wins that weird season, because it was, well, a weird season. When two 10-year spans overlap substantially (you'll find this with the Clippers and Bulls), I omitted the span which began with the higher win total. And of course, I did not include last season's three sub 20-win teams.
Each colored line represents the 10 years following a franchise's really bad, 19-wins-or-less season. The y axis represents wins. In the case the 1998-99 season falls into the 10-year span, I extracted the 82-game equivalent win total. A few of the lines came up in a bad color, but the average -- represented by big black dots -- is the most important part.
As you can see, most teams do not stick around the deep cellar for long: the average win total for teams following a 19-wins-or-less season is 26.9 wins. If you consider teams with records that fall between 38-44 and 44-38 to be average, then it takes (on average) sub 20-win teams only four years to get to that level. One team -- the Mavericks -- took some eight seasons to get from awful (11 wins in 1993) to better than .500 (53 wins in 2001). Every other sub 20-win team got there more quickly.
But it's not all roses. A team winning 26.9 games is still pretty bad. (And a bit magical, really.) Only one of the 25 teams went from less than 20 to at least 41 wins -- a .500 record -- in one season. That was the Miami Heat, who won only 15 games in 2008 but racked up 43 (earning the fifth seed in the East) last year.
And that's what Washington is shooting for: the Wizards have an aged core, little promising youth beyond JaVale McGee -- there's no reason to wait! (And the talent, if it fits together, is commensurate to an above-average team.) The Clippers have two contending teams, an older edition led by disappointing Baron Davis, Chris Kaman and Marcus Camby, and a young promising version centered around Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon. (Believe it or not, Al Thornton, a 2007 draft pick, is basically right in the middle here.) The Clippers could go either way (attempt to contend or way for percolation) -- I have a feeling the first half of this season will affect the decision greatly.
The Kings ... well. Hmph. The most sunny optimists would point to Kevin Martin's injury-ravaged 2009, point to Dwyane Wade's injury-ravaged 2008, admit Martin is not Wade but is still damn good, burn a few roosters in the name of Tyreke Evans and All That Is Holy, and mark them down as Heat 2.0. Realists might instead start the countdown for 2016. Those '93 Mavericks were just as bad as these Kings, weren't they?