Roundtable: The worst NBA team I ever covered
The Philadelphia 76ers lost their 26th straight game Thursday, tying the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers for the longest losing streak in NBA history. With historic futility in the news, we paneled seven SI staffers to pick the worst NBA team they ever covered as a beat or feature writer.
Phil Taylor: 1995-96 Dallas Mavericks
I have written about teams with worse records than the 1995-96 Dallas Mavericks, who finished 26-56, but never one whose season went so sour so quickly. When I caught up with the Mavs they had played only 18 games, yet they had already been through a 1-11 slump, two of their stars -- Jamal Mashburn and Jim Jackson -- were feuding with each other over shots and stats, forward Roy Tarpley had been suspended for repeated substance-abuse violations, backup center Donald Hodge had been arrested for marijuana possession and half the team had suffered food poisoning during a Miami road trip.
They also had a coach, Dick Motta, who spoke with absolutely no filter in describing how awful his team was. I remember interviewing him while he was walking on a treadmill at the team's practice facility, candidly discussing the Mavs' shortcomings. About the roster, which had a severe drop-off in talent after Jason Kidd, Jackson and Mashburn, Motta said, "We're the three J's and the CBA."
Publicly, Mashburn and Jackson tried to downplay their mutual jealousy, but Motta wouldn't play along. "They won't pass to each other, won't speak to each other," he said. I asked him if there was any chance they could patch up their differences, and he replied: "I guess if there could be peace in the Golan Heights and peace in Belfast, anything's possible."
When I mentioned that Jackson and Mashburn insisted they had no problems with each other, Motta referred to Tarpley, who had said the alcohol in his latest failed blood test had come from an over-the-counter flu medication. Could the rumors of Jackson-Mashburn tension be untrue? "Yeah, right," Motta said. "And Roy Tarpley's only been drinking NyQuil."
Motta had said during preseason that he would be "ecstatic" if the Mavericks won 35 games. After about a month, he lowered his goals even further. Given directions to the team Christmas party, he said, "Maybe we can get there without getting lost." But it was too late. Those Mavs already were.
Jon Wertheim: 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers
One of the truisms of the NBA: You do not want to cover a mediocre team. Good teams? Sure, you risk your season bleeding into late June. But there's the whiff of success, an upbeat optimism, a professionalism, a sense of relevance. (Plus, play your cards right and there be might a book in it.) Bad teams, though, can be just as fun, flush with vital elements for storytelling. Conflict, discontent, drama and dysfunction infect the entire franchise. Often, there are even firearms.
I suppose that if I could have covered one team, it would have been the Chicago Bulls of the mid-1990s. But my second choice would be the 1972-73 Philadelphia Sixers, a mesmerizingly lousy collective whose 9-73 campaign still didn't quite describe the dimensions of their awfulness. You might say that this team prefigured the current 76ers.
For starters, the 1972-73 Sixers hired a coach, Roy Rubin, only vaguely familiar with NBA players, including his own. "It was a joke, like letting a teenager run a big corporation," Fred Carter, the team's leading scorer (20 points per game), told SI. "We had Hal Greer [a Hall of Fame guard] on that team, and Rubin had no idea who he was. After we went 4-4 in the preseason, Rubin said, 'I don't think Boston will be so tough.' We just looked at each other and laughed."
The Sixers lost their first 15 games. "We were the league's universal health spa," Carter said. "If teams had any ills, they got healthy when they played us." Halfway through the season, an otherwise forgettable loss to the Detroit Pistons was made memorable when Rubin attempted to substitute for forward John Q. Trapp. Although Rubin would deny it, legend has it that Trapp refused to come out and then instructed Rubin to look behind the bench. When the coach turned around, one of Trapp's consorts supposedly opened his jacket and showed Rubin his handgun. With Trapp still in the game, the Sixers lost 141-113, pushing their record to 3-31.
At the All-Star break, Philly was 4-47 and axed Rubin. Kevin Loughery became a player-coach. (One of Loughery's first moves was the release John Q. Trapp.) Rubin moved to Florida and bought an International House of Pancakes franchise. Fittingly, the Sixers closed the season by dropping their final 13 games, the last of which was a 115-96 loss to Detroit before 1,937 fans in Pittsburgh.
The bad times didn't last. The Sixers encroached on mediocrity following year, going 25-57. Where's the fun in that?
Chris Ballard: 2008-09 Golden State Warriors
The 2008-09 Golden State Warriors were not one of the worst teams in NBA history. They were not even one of the worst teams in Warriors history, for that is a debate one could hold deep into the night. (See below for one candidate.) But they exuded their own special brand of awfulness.
Part of it was the context. Only two years earlier, they were the "We Believe Warriors," upsetting the Mavs in the first round and providing us with the gift of Baron vs. Kirilenko. As a Berkeley-based writer, I was at that clinching game against Dallas and it remains one of the most electric sports moments I've ever witnessed, a long-suffering fan base embracing a seemingly impossible moment.
Even a season prior, Golden State had at least been good, winning 48 games behind Davis and Co. And then it all fell apart. In less than a year, the Warriors went from promising to promise-less, Don Nelson from a genius to a tired old man playing out the string.
During that sad season, the Warriors' leader in minutes played was Kelenna Azubuike, who started a total of 33 games in the rest of his NBA years combined. He was followed, in order, by Stephen Jackson, Jamal Crawford, C.J. Watson, Andris Biedrins, Ronny Turiaf, Corey Maggette, Anthony Morrow and Anthony Randolph, a veritable murderer's row of, well, utility players and guys who never reached their potential.
In a year's time, the Warriors would at least begin losing in more interesting ways, with Monta Ellis at full health and a rookie named Stephen Curry tearing up and down the court. But for that one season, they were a team without hope. I remember attending games and wondering what the hell had happened. All the good locker-room mojo was gone. The fans had reverted to their natural state of despondency. There were no stories to be written anymore.
Lee Jenkins: 2003-04 New Jersey Nets
By no metric were the 2003-04 New Jersey Nets a bad team. They went 47-35. They won the Atlantic Division. They made the second round of the playoffs.
But they were a disappointing team, having reached the Finals the previous two seasons, and they packed so much drama into such a condensed period that I actually thought it would be easier to cover the Mets. The '03-04 Nets were my first beat for The New York Times. They lost a game at Memphis by 47 points, after which coach Byron Scott screamed at the players, or so I thought I heard through the locker-room door. Turned out it was actually Jason Kidd screaming at Scott.
They nearly brawled at a practice when Alonzo Mourning, having just recovered from kidney disease, told Kenyon Martin he could not lead the team from the trainer's room whining about his ankle. "My kidney, my kidney," Martin replied, and Mourning charged at him. They signed Eddie Griffin, who left after less than three weeks, requiring treatment for substance abuse and depression.
After a 21-point loss at Miami, I asked Scott in a press conference if he was still getting through to players. "I don't know," he said. "That's a question I can't answer." Three days later, he was fired, despite owning consecutive Eastern Conference titles. Two weeks after that, I took the Mets' beat and went to spring training, for the dawn of the Kazuo Matsui era. The '04 Mets lost 91 games, including 16 of 17, and fired Art Howe.
Ben Golliver: 2011-12 Portland Trail Blazers
The 2011-12 Portland Trail Blazers won 42 percent of their games, which isn't terrible, but the overall dysfunction, both on and off the court, makes them a worthy "Worst Team" pick. Their troubles began almost as soon as the lockout lifted. President Larry Miller, a former shoe executive with limited basketball experience, was the chief decision-maker, as the organization was operating without a full-time general manager for no good reason. Miller opened the season by calling a press conference to announce that oft-injured guard Brandon Roy could compete for a starting spot; then, just a few days later, he reversed course by announcing that Roy would be released via the amnesty clause, as the former All-Star had suddenly decided to retire because of ongoing knee problems. Throw in the loss of Greg Oden to another knee-related setback and a heart scare for LaMarcus Aldridge, and the preseason couldn't have been any shakier.
Once the games began, Portland initially looked all right, but it wasn't long before stern coach Nate McMillan and out-of-shape point guard Raymond Felton began butting heads. A controversial goaltending call during a heartbreaking loss to the Thunder was the death blow: The defeats started mounting afterward, and the Blazers went south fast. A brutal 121-79 loss to the Knicks that was way, way uglier than the 42-point margin of defeat indicated, spelled the end for McMillan. At a hastily called press conference to announce the firing, Miller admitted to reporters that the coach had lost his locker room. The spiral continued from there, as Miller and interim GM Chad Buchanan pulled the plug on the season by dealing veterans Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby at the trade deadline.
The remaining roster went 1-9 to close out the season, a stretch marked by increasing tension between Felton, the local media and a disappointed fan base. Even the team's television crew, known for its enthusiastic and unwavering support of the organization, speculated about Felton's future during a broadcast. Felton responded to the deafening criticism by giving out his home address during a memorable postgame interview, challenging his critics to address him face-to-face. Within months, he would be New York's problem, thanks to a sign-and-trade deal with the Knicks.
Perhaps the best way to view the 2011-12 Blazers is by looking at how quickly they brought about major, institutional changes. Miller departed stage left during the offseason, making way for the hirings of a new president, a new GM and a new coach. The roster pieces began turning over at a record pace: Within 18 months, only three players remained from that ill-fated group. This was a thorough, professional scrubbing that even Winston Wolfe could appreciate.
Joan Niesen: 2011-13 Minnesota Timberwolves
I hate using the word "worst." I want to say "unlucky" or even "cursed." "Injured" or even "completely broken," but really, it's "worst." The Minnesota Timberwolves have the longest active playoff drought in the NBA, dating to 2004, and I had the pleasure of covering them for two of their 10 -- and counting -- seasons sans playoffs, from 2011-13.
Granted, I missed the worst of the worst. That came in 2009-10, when the team won just 15 games and then followed up with 17 the next year. I started on the beat immediately after, at the same time as Rick Adelman and Ricky Rubio arrived, and so there was hope for the first time since the team acquired Kevin Love in a draft-night trade in 2008.
That made it even worse.
There was Rubio's ACL, Love's broken hand and what seemed like a million other injuries. I learned what knuckle push-ups are, and why NBA players shouldn't do them. I watched perhaps the worst GM performance of the 21st century, as David Kahn puffed out his chest and drafted the documents that will likely see Love bolt for greener -- and warmer -- pastures as soon as his deal ends a summer from now, unless of course he's traded.
The most demoralizing part, though, was the basketball, because it was a tease. Over those two years, Rubio and Love, the two stars who were supposed to push the team to relevance, played together for about 15.5 seconds. (OK, it was more like 600 minutes, but it felt like far less.) Flashes of the offense that's powered Adelman's teams to the playoffs in 16 of his 23 seasons as a head coach were just that: flashes. They lasted a few days, a week at most. Love, Rubio and Nikola Pekovic looked like a group the team could build around, before Love got tired of losing, Rubio forgot how to shoot and Pekovic's body began to nag at him every other week.
After the worst games, they'd get mad. Rubio especially. "I hate losing," he'd repeat, over and over in his Spanish accent, and what made it worse was that had a million things not broken down, they could have won -- certainly not a championship, probably not even a conference title, but at least a playoff series.
Brad Weinstein: 2000-01 Golden State Warriors
The first Golden State Warriors team I covered won 19 games, fired its coach, used 32 starting lineups, employed a club-record 23 players (Bill Curley! Sam Jacobson! Jamel Thomas!) and openly speculated about a curse to explain its injury luck during the 1999-2000 season.
The second team was even worse.
The 2000-01 Warriors couldn't even wait for the offseason to start booking tee times. Its putative leader was stripped of his captaincy for skipping a February practice in San Antonio to play golf and reacted by saying, "I would do it again."
The Warriors were even terrible at scheduling team meetings. Golden State held one after a 122-91 loss at Portland in March. The next night, the Warriors fell behind 43-13 in the first quarter against the Lakers. Who closes the locker-room doors ahead of a game against the defending champions? Grievances are to be aired before facing another hapless rival so that when the team inevitably looks more competitive, angle-starved, deadline-impaired beat writers like me can pinpoint the "galvanizing effect" of the get-together. A win-win for everyone.
"Win-win" was the extent of the Warriors' second-half success under Dave Cowens: They went 2-32 after the All-Star break, and by the end of their 17-65 season (the worst in the franchise's Bay Area history) their lineup would have made even Sam Hinkie blush: a starting unit of Antawn Jamison, Erick Dampier, Adonal Foyle, Vonteego Cummings and Chris Porter, with a bench of Corie Blount, Chris Garner, Paul McPherson and Adam Keefe.
Unlike Hinkie's Sixers, though, this wasn't a team built to crumble. In fact, before the season, the Warriors spent $38 million on a power forward who averaged 15.6 minutes the previous year. The front office viewed Danny Fortson as part of the solution, along with young lottery picks Jamison and Larry Hughes (a celebrated acquisition in February 2000), but the rebounding ace was finished after six productive games (16.7 points, 16.3 boards) because of a stress fracture in his foot. That was the prelude to another season of injury-related roster churn and bemusement from a beleaguered coach. When the Warriors signed center John Coker from the CBA in December, one of 22 players to see action for them, Cowens offered this ringing endorsement: "I don't know what he looks like. I didn't even know the CBA was playing yet."
One winner did emerge from the wreckage, though. In January, newly signed Warriors forward Chucky Brown set a record by appearing in a game with his 11th different team. "It might not be the record I wanted, but it's the record I'll take," Brown said. "Maybe it will get me into the Hall of Fame."
Your 2000-01 Warriors: Hall of Fame worthy in their own way.