Heavens Forfend! A Team with a Losing Record Is in the Playoffs! Everybody Freak Out!

There seems to be some hand wringing in certain quarters about the Pacers making the playoffs this year.  Much of this centers around the Pacers’ losing record and the thought that more “deserving” teams in the Western Conference will be sitting on the sidelines come next week.

Well, it is certainly true the Pacers will finish with a losing record, and it’s equally true that certain teams in the West — most notably the Houston Rockets — are almost certainly better teams than the Indiana Pacers.  These are the (largely) undisputed facts of the case.

Unfortunately, I don’t care.

These facts don’t really matter.  The facts that matter are the NBA Playoff rules, the NBA Conference and Divisional alignments, and where teams fall within them.

‘Twas always thus, and thus always will be.

The Rockets are not the first NBA team to watch teams with worse records make the playoffs ahead of them, and they will not be the last.  The Pacers aren’t the first team with a losing record to make the playoffs, and they certainly won’t be the last.

In fact, the 2011 Indiana Pacers will be the 87th (that’s 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 — I’m going to go get a beer now, so count to yourself …



… I’m back — 85 – 86–  87) team with a losing record to make the NBA Playoffs.

Roughly one out of every eight playoff teams in the history of the NBA have had losing records.  In the 61 seasons of NBA Basketball (including this one), there have been 43 years with at least one “losing” team in the playoffs.  There have been more seasons with multiple sub-.500 teams in the playoffs (24) than seasons where all of the teams were at or above .500 (18).

Indiana is quite probably the worst team in the field of 16 this year, but they aren’t anything approaching the worst team ever to make the playoffs.  If the Pacers don’t win another game, there will still have been 32 playoff teams with the same or worse record.  If they win one more, that number increases to 47.  If they get to 39 wins, then it’s 62.

There has never been any tradition dictating that only winning teams make the playoffs.  In fact, there were losing teams in the playoffs for 21 of the first 22 years in the existence of the Association.  The longest run of all .500+ playoff teams was 1998 through 2003, and those years saw probably the lowest quality of play in my lifetime.

As we’re all reminded each March, the NBA playoffs are  much better suited to actually crown the “best team” as Champion than a one-and-done tournament.  This is practically inarguable.  The series structure and the length provides a crucible that weeds out virtually all flukes and pretenders.  That the current system for determining the 16 participants in the postseason tournament has some flaws in how it picks the 15th or 16th best team in that grouping does not detract from it one iota.

When playing any game, you are bound by a set of largely arbitrary rules.  Sometimes those rules work perfectly, and sometimes they have unintended consequences.  This is the nature of all things arbitrary.  There are some consequences that need to be changed — even if they’ve been true for years.  This just isn’t one of them.

Great Moments in Loser Playoff History

  • The 2008 Atlanta Hawks were 37-45, but they took the eventual champion Boston Celtics (featuring the newly-created “Big Three”) to seven games in their first round series.
  • The  1986 Bulls entered the playoffs at 30-52 (.366).  Only three teams in the history of the NBA made the playoffs with a worse winning percentage.  Still, without them making it, we don’t get 63 points from Michael Jordan and a classic 135-131 double overtime Celtic win over the Bulls.  We don’t get to see — as Larry Bird said — “God disguised as Michael Jordan.”
  • There have been three losing teams that actually made the finals – the 1957 St. Louis Hawks (34-38), the 1959 Minneapolis Lakers (33-39), and the 1981 Houston Rockets (40-42).
  • Those 1981 Rockets defeated the 40-42 Kansas City Kings in the Western Conference Finals, then took Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics to six games in the NBA Finals.  Those Rockets were led by Moses Malone, and there have been fewer bigger badasses than Moses was in the early-to-mid-80’s.
  • The 1953 Baltimore Bullets have the ignominious honor of having the worst record ever for a playoff team: 16-54.  On an 82-game season, that would translate roughly to 18 wins.  Cleveland and Minnesota each have 17 wins with two games to go, so…yeah.

Behold: a picture of (most likely) dead Yankee fans. Seeya in the playoffs.

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Tags: 2011 Playoffs

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