The NBA is historically a league of haves and have-nots.
With only five players on the court at a time and the ability to control who has the ball, one player in basketball has always mattered more than one player in any other major team sport. Often NBA teams have either a few of the elite players in the league or they’re doing everything they can to get them.
And in a salary-capped league, teams that don’t have enough premier players have difficulty getting role players to join as well. All of a sudden, not having a good-enough top player can make it harder to get role players without overpaying.
It’s all part of the reason there have been so many awful records in an NBA regular season compared to some other sports.
In MLB history, the worst winning percentage in the modern era (since 1901) belongs to the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics, who won 23.5% of their games. Comparatively, the NBA has had 36 teams win 20% or fewer of their games since 1946 (the formation of the BAA, which merged with the NBL in 1949-50 to become the NBA).
With the Dallas Mavericks and Philadelphia 76ers making two appearances in the top 10, here are the worst of the worst regular seasons by winning percentage – so forgettable they became unforgettable. (Consider them the polar opposite of the teams that finished with the best records in NBA history.)
1. 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats (7-59, .106)
The best thing you can say about the 2011-12 Bobcats? They started 1-0.
It was downhill from there.
Charlotte lost 16 games in a row from mid-January to February, and it wasn’t even the worst losing streak of the season – the team ended on a 23-game losing streak to narrowly claim the lowest winning percentage.
Fortunately for Bobcats fans, this was a lockout-shortened season and teams played only 66 games.
Gerald Henderson led the Bobcats in scoring at just 15.1 points per game, and Corey Maggette, who shot under 40% from the field, was second at 15.0.
Kemba Walker’s rookie season was rough, as he shot under 40% as well and averaged 12.1 points per game. He’d eventually emerge into one of the better players in franchise history, so Charlotte fans have at least one diamond in the rough from arguably the NBA’s worst team.
2. 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers (9-73, .110)
The 1972-73 76ers are in the mix for worst team, as they hold the record for most losses in an NBA regular season with 73. Unlike the Bobcats in 2011, the Sixers didn’t give fans false hope at the start, losing 15 straight games right out of the gate. It was one of four different losing streaks of at least 13 games that season.
Philadelphia was led in scoring by Fred Carter, who averaged 20.0 points per game, and he also led the qualified players in assists per game at 4.6. Fortunately for Carter, better things were to come, as he stuck with the team long enough to be there for the turnaround, as the 1976-77 team went all the way to the NBA Finals behind Julius Erving.
3. 2015-16 Philadelphia 76ers (10-72, .122)
The 2015-16 76ers came dangerously close to matching the 1972-73 version in infamy with 73 losses.
This season started even worse with 18 straight losses. After finally securing a win, the Sixers lost 12 more in a row for a 1-30 start.
Surely, there was never talk of the NBA playoffs.
The team didn’t have a single qualifying player score more than Robert Covington’s 12.8 points per game. Jahlil Okafor averaged 17.5, but only played in 53 games.
With five games to go, Carl Landry had a 22-point, nine-rebound game to lead Philly to a 107-93 win over the New Orleans Pelicans, who were missing several key players. It guaranteed the Sixers would avoid tying the franchise and league record for the most losses ever.
4. 1947-48 Providence Steamrollers (6-42, .125)
If you can’t remember the heyday of the Providence Steamrollers, it’s hard to blame you. The franchise only existed for the three seasons of the BAA prior to the NBL merger, and “peaked” in its first season at 28-32. Unsurprisingly, the Steamrollers were one of two teams that did not make it to the merger.
Their second season in 1947-48 was the worst, as their six wins mark the lowest total in a season in BAA/NBA history. As long as the league sticks with 82-game seasons, it will be hard to match or go under the record low.
Kenny Sailors led the Steamrollers with just 12.7 points per game on 30.0% shooting. That may seem like a low shooting percentage, but it was the best among the 11 players who played at least 15 games.
It would sound strange today, but Sailors went on to make All-BAA the following season. After the Steamrollers folded, he joined the Denver Nuggets for the 1949-50 season.
T5. 1992-93 Dallas Mavericks (11-71, .134)
If you think the 2015-16 76ers came close to 73 losses, look at what the Mavericks did to end the regular season in April 1993.
With two games remaining, they sat at 9-71. But Jim Jackson exploded for 32 points to help the Mavericks get a 103-100 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves to avoid the 73 losses with only one game left.
Then, for good measure, the Mavericks held Hakeem Olajuwon in check in the season finale and knocked off the 55-win Houston Rockets, 128-123, allowing a season of lowlights to end on a high note.
There weren’t a lot of great times before that, though. Derek Harper, who was named to two NBA All-Defensive teams in his career, led the team in scoring at 18.2 points per game and shot 39.3% on 3-pointers.
It was the third straight losing season for the Mavericks, and the streak continued until 2000-01, when Dirk Nowitzki led them to the first of 11 straight 50-win seasons.
T5. 1997-98 Denver Nuggets (11-71, .134)
Five seasons after the 1992-93 Mavericks, the Nuggets also had just 11 wins on the season.
The Nuggets started 2-38, including a 23-game losing streak from mid-December to January. They then won three of seven to raise the win total a bit, but proceeded to lose another 16 games in a row. A win in the penultimate game of the season gave them 11.
Johnny Newman led the team in scoring at 14.7 points per game, and LaPhonso Ellis was close behind at 14.3. Bill Hanzlik was fired after his first season, and never got another head coaching job, giving him the worst record over a full NBA season.
T7. 1986-87 Los Angeles Clippers (12-70, .146)
The Clippers have had some rough seasons in franchise history, and the low point for wins came in 1986-87.
The “other” team in L.A. looked respectable to start the campaign, going 3-3, but it got ugly after that, culminating in a 14-game, season-ending losing streak.
Mike Woodson, now known more for his coaching career, paced the Clippers with 17.1 points per game.
Marques Johnson, a three-time All-NBA standout, was expected to lead the team, but had a career-threatening injury when he ruptured a cervical disc after playing only 10 games. He missed the next two seasons as well, and only played 10 more games in his career.
T7. 2009-10 New Jersey Nets (12-70, .146)
In one of the Nets’ last seasons in New Jersey, they didn’t do much to inspire the locals to come to games.
The Nets featured an exciting young center in Brook Lopez, who averaged a team-high 18.8 points per game. Other than Lopez and Devin Harris, the team struggled to get much offense, averaging just 92.4 points per game, which ranked last in the league.
The Nets dropped their first 18 games – 16 before the team fired coach Lawrence Frank, and two more under interim coach Tom Barrise. Kiki Vandeweghe took over and won his first game, but the good times didn’t last, as he went 12-52 overall.
The Nets were not content to be bottom dwellers forever and made an aggressive move the following season to acquire Deron Williams from the Utah Jazz. It took a few years, but the Nets rose in the standings and made it back to the playoffs in 2012-13.
Unfortunately for fans in New Jersey, it was in the first year in Brooklyn.
T9. 2004-05 Atlanta Hawks (13-69, .159)
Some teams just have a lot of players at the wrong points in their careers. The 2004-05 Hawks were one of these teams.
Antoine Walker led them in scoring at 20.4 points per game, but was sent back to the Boston Celtics shortly before the NBA trade deadline. Former All-Star Kenny Anderson was in the last season of his career, while younger players Boris Diaw and Josh Smith weren’t yet ready to contribute in a meaningful capacity.
The coach of these Hawks? Mike Woodson, the same man who lived through the 1986-87 Clippers season.
Woodson survived the dreadful season and went on to coach two Hawks’ teams with winning records in 2008-09 and 2009-10.
T9. 1993-94 Dallas Mavericks (13-69, .159)
The Mavericks are lucky the 76ers exist. Otherwise, people might talk more often about how crazy it is the franchise has two seasons with 13 or fewer wins.
Unlike the Sixers, though, the Mavs’ seasons came back-to-back. New coach Quinn Buckner was unable to get much more out of the team than the previous year, even with the addition of All-Rookie team member Jamal Mashburn.
The team had a 20-game losing streak early in the season and started 2-39. Despite a better second half, Buckner was let go in his first season.
It was a dark decade for the Mavericks, but that turned into a really successful 2000s.
So, if you are a fan of a team that finds itself on pace for a place in this awful record book, remember there’s probably success on the horizon. You might see it once the fog clears.