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April 1, 2010
Worst of the Worst
Where do the Nets fit?

by Bradford Doolittle

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What exactly is a schneid? Why do people want so badly to get off it?

You hear it all the time in sports. So and so "got off the schneid." This means that that they did something for the first time in a long time, perhaps ever. According to phrases.org, the term is a German word taken from gin rummy: "... to get 'schneidered' is to lose all the hands in a game, and pay double (or some larger-than-usual amount). Thus, if you've lost a few hands in a row, and your opponent(s) are in danger of getting to the winning total, you're delighted to win one hand, to 'get off the schneid.'"

So there you go. In the NBA, the Nets got off a rather large schneid on Monday, when they beat the short-handed Spurs for their 10th win of the season. That ensured New Jersey of a win total better than the all-time league nadir of nine, set by the '72-73 76ers. Twitterverse erupted in Fred Carter homages from coast to coast.

While the 76ers hold the record for most losses of the season, that's not quite the same thing as declaring them the worst team of all-time. We know that there can be a lot of noise in a team's won-loss record, caused by luck as much as anything else. Don't misunderstand--no team can "luck" their way to 73 losses, but within bounds, that total can be deceiving. We know that point differential has a higher correlation with postseason success than raw won-loss record, though the two categories obviously go hand-in-hand. So it goes to follow that we'd be better off judging the actual "worst" teams based on point differential. Ah, but there's a problem.

Team              W   L   PCT     PF     PA   DIFF
2002-03 Nuggets  17  65  .207   84.2   92.4   -8.2
1990-91 Nuggets  20  62  .244  119.9  130.8  -10.9

These are two of the worst Denver Nuggets teams in franchise history. (The 1997-98 version was even worse.) The '02-03 team was outscored by 8.2 points per game and lost 65 games. In '90-91, Denver lost "only" 62 games, but the point differential was a staggering -10.9. The difference of course was pace. The '90-91 Nuggets averaged 113.7 possessions per game. (That crazy Paul Westhead.) The '02-03 team averaged 91.0 possessions. Under such wildly different styles of play, point differentials are skewed.

Team              W   L   PCT     PF     PA   DIFF  PWIN
2002-03 Nuggets  17  65  .207   84.2   92.4   -8.2  17.5
1990-91 Nuggets  20  62  .244  119.9  130.8  -10.9  18.7

We can resolve the issue of game pace by using the Pythagorean formula to estimate what a team's win total should have been based on how many points it scores and allows. Here you see that doing just that allows us to slot these teams more accurately than either raw wins or point differential. We could also opt for tempo-free stats but doing so would limit us to the era in which we can estimate possessions. We don't want to go that route.

There are other possible adjustments we could make if we were being more scientific, but that we'll leave aside for now. First, the relative season-to-season strength of the league could be measured, though I'm not sure of the best method for doing that. In 1973, there were only 17 teams in the NBA, plus another 10 teams in the ABA. At the same time, international players hadn't made their mark in America 37 years ago, but are present on almost every team's roster today. However, the popularity of basketball is at an all-time peak, in the U.S. and abroad, and world population has exploded by around 66 percent. For now, we'll just assume that a team's Pythagorean win total is a reasonable estimate of the team's strength within the league in which it competed. We're also ignoring strength of schedule, which has a minimal effect on a team's bottom line.

With that little windup out of the way, let's move on to the chart of the 25 teams with the lowest single-season Pythagorean win total.

Rk  Season    Tm  W  L    W-L%     PF     PA   DIFF  PWIN  P+/-
1   1992-93  DAL  11  71  .134   99.3  114.5  -15.2   9.8  +1.2
2   1997-98  DEN  11  71  .134   89.0  100.8  -11.8  12.2  -1.2
3   1999-00  LAC  15  67  .183   92.0  103.5  -11.5  13.2  +1.8
4   1982-83  HOU  14  68  .171   99.3  110.9  -11.6  14.4  -0.4
5   1972-73  PHI   9  73  .110  104.1  116.2  -12.1  14.5  -5.5
6   1988-89  MIA  15  67  .183   97.8  109.0  -11.2  14.7  +0.3
7   1996-97  VAN  14  68  .171   89.2   99.4  -10.2  14.8  -0.8
8   1995-96  VAN  15  67  .183   89.8   99.8  -10.0  15.2  -0.2
9   1999-00  CHI  17  65  .207   84.8   94.2   -9.4  15.3  +1.7
10  1970-71  CLE  15  67  .183  102.1  113.3  -11.2  15.5  -0.5
11  1986-87  LAC  12  70  .146  104.5  115.9  -11.4  15.6  -3.6
12  2005-06  POR  21  61  .256   88.8   98.3   -9.5  15.9  +5.1
---------------------------------------------------------------
13  2009-10  NJN  11  71  .135   91.3  101.0   -9.7  16.0  -5.0
---------------------------------------------------------------
14  1995-96  PHI  18  64  .220   94.5  104.5  -10.0  16.1  +1.9
15  2004-05  ATL  13  69  .159   92.7  102.5   -9.8  16.1  -3.1
16  2002-03  CLE  17  65  .207   91.4  101.0   -9.6  16.2  +0.8
17  1987-88  LAC  17  65  .207   98.8  109.1  -10.3  16.4  +0.6
18  2000-01  CHI  15  67  .183   87.6   96.7   -9.1  16.4  -1.4
19  1997-98  GSW  19  63  .232   88.3   97.4   -9.1  16.6  +2.4
20  1997-98  TOR  16  66  .195   94.9  104.2   -9.3  17.4  -1.4
21  2002-03  DEN  17  65  .207   84.2   92.4   -8.2  17.5  -0.5
22  2009-10  MIN  14  60  .189   98.1  107.6   -9.5  17.6  -3.6
23  2000-01  GSW  17  65  .207   92.5  101.5   -9.0  17.6  -0.6
24  1989-90  MIA  18  64  .220  100.6  110.3   -9.7  17.7  +0.3
25  1994-95  MIN  21  61  .256   94.2  103.2   -9.0  17.9  +3.1

In terms of PWIN, this year's Nets are merely middle of the pack in terms of the worst of the worst. In fact, I want to call your attention to the right-most column in the chart. That measures the team's PWIN versus its actual win total. A positive number in this column means that a team won more games than their point differential suggests it should have. In other words, not only did the '92-93 Mavericks lose 71 games, they should have won only 10. Well, 9.8 if you want to get nitpicky. The teams with the largest negative figures were the most unlucky. On this list, only those historic Fred Carter Sixers were more unlucky than this year's Nets. (By the way, the 11-71 record used for the Nets prorates their record based on the 10-64 mark they sported after beating the Spurs on March 29.)

The Nets record has been skewed by an unbelievable record of 1-13 in games decided by five points or less. If lady luck had fallen New Jersey's way this season, it could easily have 16 or 17 wins by now. That might not be enough to keep fans from wearing bags over their heads at the Izod Center, but it would have at least staved off the Fred Carter references. As for Carter's Sixers, they lost 16 of their 21 games decided by five points or less. If it'd been more lucky, Philly would have won 15 or 16 games. But, then again, who would remember them now?

After putting these numbers together, I'm ready to declare the '92-93 Mavericks as the worst in NBA history, which is remarkable considering that they weren't an expansion team. The season after that, Dallas lost another 69 games. This season completes a decade in which the Mark Cuban-owned Mavericks have been a model of consistency, with 50 or more wins in each season. Older NBA fans will also remember how quickly the team rose to prominence after coming into the league in 1980. Dallas made the playoffs in its fourth season and five of the next six seasons after that, a stretch that included a seven-game loss in the 1988 Western Conference finals. Age and Roy Tarpley's drug expulsion sunk that team and the 1990s were a grim time for a Dallas NBA fan.

But in cautionary tales there is often hope. A decade after losing those 71 games, Dallas was back in the conference finals. New Jersey/Brooklyn fans hope it doesn't take that long, but at least it's heartening to know they shouldn't have to wear those bags forever.

You can follow Bradford on Twitter at twitter.com/@bbdoolittle.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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