How bad a team is — in linear terms — is relatively easy to measure. The 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers are the sine qua non of awful by most standard measurements; their 9-73 win-loss record earned them the nickname the “Nine and 73ers” (which is pretty good, as far as nicknames go). But although their season was shortened by the lockout, the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats were demonstrably worse than those Sixers with a winning percentage of .106 to Philly’s .110.
But Charlotte that year was awful by design. Whether or not you want to label it tanking, the roster was not built to win games, having lost its best players from the previous season in Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson and leaning heavily on Kemba Walker in his rookie year. So they were terrible, but were they disappointing?
Disappointment is a little slipperier because it has to do with expectations. You could call what happened to the Los Angeles Lakers last year disappointing because they had bet heavily on not only Dwight Howard but also Steve Nash and the return of Pau Gasol to a more suitable role to keep them at or near the top of the Western Conference. Their final record of 45-37 might have seemed disappointing, but it actually outperformed their expected (or Pythagorean) W-L record (according to Basketball-Reference) of 44-38. They were, more or less, who their on-court play said they were: a team struggling with lingering injury issues and still relying on Kobe Bryant to carry them.
So yes, they were disappointing based on the imprecise but certainly overenthusiastic way the team was talked about before the season, but those were feelings, not numbers.
For cold, hard, numbers-based disappointment, they don’t come much more disappointing than the 2013-14 Minnesota Timberwolves.
There are, of course, the familiar stats to cite: 1-15 in games decided by five points or fewer, 1-10 in games to get over .500. And there is the oft-cited fact that the Wolves are (as of this writing and, again, according to Basketball-Reference) in the top ten* in the league in both offensive and defensive rating (points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions, respectively).
* B-R and NBA.com use slightly different ways of defining offensive and defensive rating, and NBA.com puts the Wolves at 10th in ORtg and 12th in DRtg, but for the sake of historical comparison, we’ll use B-R’s numbers here.
Looking at those offensive and defensive ratings in the context of history is where it begins to get truly impressive (or depressive, depending). The Wolves are the ONLY team in NBA history to have an offensive rating of more than 108 (theirs is 108.2) and less than 105 (104.4) and have a losing record. Their Pythagorean win-loss record right now, based in points scored versus points allowed, is 33-20, while their actual win-loss record through 53 games is 25-28, good for a winning percentage of .472.
This gap can be explained by the record in close games, and often has. Had they gone 8-7 in those games instead of 1-15, they’d be at 32-21 and very close to that Pythagorean win-loss record. But this isn’t about diagnosing what’s wrong with the Wolves: it’s about putting it in historical context.
The team with the next worst winning percentage to post those offensive and defensive rating benchmarks were the 1994-95 Chicago Bulls, who finished with a winning percentage of .573 (which is pretty far above where the Wolves are currently). By the end of their season, their offensive rating was 109.5 and their defensive rating was 104.3. (It was, of course, a slightly different time: league average for both those ratings in 1995 was 108.3, whereas it’s 105.8 this season.) Like the Wolves, their Pythagorean W-L (54-28) was better than their actual record (47-35), but their record was still good enough to get them into the playoffs as the fifth seed. They beat the Charlotte Hornets in the first round and then were bounced by the Orlando Magic in the second.
Here’s where it gets interesting: Through 53 games, the Bulls’ 26-27 record that year was almost the same as the Wolves’ this year. Two games later, they hit their low point of 26-29, giving them a winning percentage of .473 — identical, for all intents and purposes — to Minnesota’s right now. But they finished the season on a 21-6 run. What happened?
Simple: Michael Jordan.
Jordan came out of retirement against the Indiana Pacers in the team’s 66th game (which they lost in overtime, actually) and powered them through the stretch and into the playoffs. At least, that’s how the story goes.
But in those ten games between their nadir at 26-29 and Jordan’s return, the team actually pulled off an impressive 8-2 run without Jordan. At the 66 game mark, the Bulls offensive rating stood at 107 and their defensive rating at 101.8. So while their offensive rating improved with Jordan, their defensive rating actually got worse. Jordan helped sustain that run, of course, but it began even before he got back, at just about the point the Wolves are right now.
Even the lowly 1973 Sixers experienced a kind of mini-Renaissance just past the midway point of their season. They began the season 4-47 under coach Roy Rubin, giving them an unfathomably awful winning percentage of .078 through 51 games. But after Rubin was canned and replaced by player Kevin Loughery they nearly doubled that percentage, going 5-26 (.161) for the rest of the year.
The prescription seems clear: Bring back Michael Jordan from 1995 and make Kevin Love head coach and the Wolves should be, well, at least not the most disappointing team in history.