To mark the Milwaukee Bucks 38-win playoff season, I’ve created a list of “38-wins-or-less” playoff teams from the 1975 to 2013 seasons, with an important caveat: I’ve excluded 11 teams that won between 35 and 38 games and made the 1984-1988 playoffs, listing only the two playoff qualifiers from those five seasons who lost so much they deserve mention. The five “exempt” seasons were the first years of the 16-team playoff format when, suddenly, only 7 of 23 NBA teams missed the post-season. Somebody had to lose in the regular season, and some of those losing somebody’s found themselves in the playoffs. Yet given the strength of the East and the fact that schedules were heavily weighted toward conference play, an eighth Eastern seed in 1986 with 35 wins may be more comparable to a 42 or 43-win (at least) team of today, not to the teams listed below.
The 1975-1983 seasons are more “apples to apples” to today’s 16 of 30 playoff format (not that ”apples to apples” ever really exist in an ever-changing league). In 1975 and 1976, 10 of 18 teams made the playoffs. After the NBA-ABA merger, 12 of 22 made the playoffs. When the Mavs were added to the league in 1980 and the conferences properly aligned, 12 of 23 made the playoffs.
League expansion began in 1988 with the addition of Miami and Charlotte, ending “the Golden Age” (1976-1988) of NBA basketball. By 1990 there were 27 teams, 16 making the playoffs, and enough expansion teams around to beat up on and keep playoff records from falling below our 38-44 cut-off.
Note that of the 13 on this list, no team other than Bob Lanier’s 1976 Pistons won its first round series.
1. 1986 Chicago Bulls (30-52). Michael Jordan broke his foot in the third game of his second NBA season and missed the next 64. He would come back to score 63 points against Larry Bird’s Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, but could not prevent a Celtics sweep. The 1986 C’s won 67 games, the third championship for the Bird-McHale-Parrish-Maxwell front court and are widely considered one of the best teams in NBA history.
This Bulls team had plenty of talent other than Jordan – forward Orlando Woolridge, guards Quentin Dailey and John Paxson, rookie Charles Oakley, big Dave Corzine at center and Hall of Fame scorer George Gervin in his final season (16.2 ppg). But Jordan’s developing Bulls had the misfortune of playing in the East, which had not only fewer teams (11) than the West (12) but three of the top four teams in basketball since 1980 – the Celtics, the Sixers and the Bucks. Between 1980 and 1987, no other team had a realistic shot at winning the East until the “Bad Boys” Pistons busted their way into the mix in 1987.
The NBA schedule was more heavily weighted toward conference play than it is now, which meant the 1986 Bulls schedule was a nightmare. They played the beasts of the East (Celtics, Bucks, Sixers and Detroit) six times each, winning just four of the 24 games. The Bulls weren’t the only team in the East hammered by the schedule. A tough, talented, Buck Williams-led New Jersey Nets team could muster only 39 wins and were swept by the Bucks in the first round. Rookie Patrick Ewing’s Knicks won 23.
Throw out the beasts of the East and two losses against Magic Johnson’s Lakers, and the Bulls won 26 and lost 30 against the league’s other 17 teams, Dominique Wilkins’ Atlanta Hawks included. Not too shabby for the very young Bulls playing without Michael Jordan.
2. 1988 San Antonio Spurs (31-51). The final season of the Golden Age – the last season of the 23-team league. The expansion to Miami and Charlotte would go into effect summer of ’88. Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics remained at the top, with the Pistons challenging and making their first NBA final. In the East, the injury-plagued Moncrief-Cummings Bucks (42-40) were still tough, yet Dominique’s Hawks were tougher. Ewing’s Knicks were able to win just 38 games. Jordan’s Bulls had their first 50-win season, but in the West the Stockton-Malone Jazz fell short with 47. Magic and the Lakers won 62 and their fifth championship.
Some of the power balance had shifted East to West with the decline of Philly and the Bucks, along with the rise of the Dallas Mavs, creating more parity between the conferences than there had been for most of the 1980s. But while most of the lower rung playoff teams of this period can’t be labelled “bad” by today’s standards, the 1988 Spurs were bad in any day. They were swept (3-0) in the first round by the Lakers.
The Spurs best player was defensive demon Alvin Robertson, who would be traded to Milwaukee in 1989 for All-Pro forward Terry Cummings. Robertson’s teammate on the Spurs, Frank Brickowski, would join him in Milwaukee in 1990, traded for Paul Pressey. Why all these trades with the Spurs? We may never know. By 1990 the Spurs had center David Robinson and were title contenders, while the Bucks were slipping into their 1990s rebuild.
3. 1995 Boston Celtics (35-47). The Celtics were rebuilding (or trying to) after the Larry Bird era, and Kevin McHale was gone by then, too. This Chris Ford-coached team featured a 35-year-old Dominique Wilkins, not flying as high as he did with the Hawks in the 1980s but scoring 17.8 ppg to lead the C’s. This was not a good team. Dumped from the playoffs (3-1) by Shaq’s Orlando Magic, who would go on to lose to Hakeem Olajawon and Sam Cassell’s Rockets in the NBA finals.
4. 2004 Boston Celtics (36-46). All that losing in the mid-1990s brought draft picks and an effort to build a contender around the would-be duo of Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce, who instead became symbols of post-Jordan Eastern Conference mediocrity. The 2003-04 season found the Celtics tearing down again and trading Walker, one of the least scrupulous shot hogs in the game. That left Pierce, listed as a shooting guard then, and boy did he ever. Pierce shot nearly 19 times per game – and missed 11 - shooting less than 30% from three-point-land and averaging 23 ppg. The Celtics fired coach Jim O’Brien after 46 games and assistant John Carroll mopped up.
These were rather dark days for the NBA. The 2004 Celtics were a bad team in an Eastern conference that had deteriorated rapidly in the early-aughts — the 4th seeded Miami Heat won just 42 regular season games. Meanwhile, Kobe and Shaq bickered in LA and guys like Walker, Pierce and the Bucks’ Michael Redd gunned bad selection shots out of isolation offenses, winning big contracts if not playoff success. Orlando Magic star Tracy McGrady was the best of this lot, and all of it was ugly basketball. But hey – former Buck Vin Baker was on this Celtics team for a few weeks in 2003. OK City center Kendrick Perkins was a rookie. The C’s were swept in Round 1 by 38-year-old Reggie Miller’s second-to-last Pacers team, about seven months before the “Malice at the Palace” in Detroit. Dark days indeed.
5. 1997 Los Angeles Clippers (36-46). Loy Vaught (who? – I can’t find a picture of him) led this team in scoring at 14.9 ppg. Forward Bo Outlaw and Eric Piatkowski led a halfway decent bench crew. Coached by Bill Fitch. The Western Conference was none too balanced in those days, as the Clippers were one of three teams from the west to make the playoffs with a losing record. The T-Wolves (40-42) in Kevin Garnett’s second year, and the post-Charles Barkley Suns (also 40-42) were the others. The Clippers were swept out of the first round by the Stockton-Malone Jazz, fated to go on to lose their first of two NBA Finals to Jordan’s Bulls.
6. 1976 Detroit Pistons (36-46). This might be getting far back — the league that existed prior to the merger with the ABA — but 1975 and 1976 get our deepest historical look because the 1971-74 playoff format allowed less than half the league to qualify (8 of 17 teams). This changed in 1975, with the addition of the New Orleans Jazz and the short-lived 10 of 18 format. In 1975 and 1976, four teams with losing records made the playoffs. But there was another playoff quirk due to the fact that the divisions of the mid-1970s mattered. Midwest Division teams the Bucks, Pistons, Bulls and Kansas City Kings played each other seven times in the season, then a total of 36 games against the nine teams in the Eastern conference and 25 games against the Pacific Division. This is as equalized as the NBA schedule ever was. To give the division schedule more weight, the top two teams in each division received a playoff bid, with the 5th conference seed going to the team with the next best record. A pretty good system if you believe that divisions should matter, which the current NBA clearly does not.
Bob Lanier’s Pistons won 40 games in the 1975 season and 36 in 1976, making them the model of mid-70s NBA mediocrity. But “mediocrity” in a mid-1970s when you had a Hall of Fame center meant that you were pretty competitive when the center was healthy. Lanier missed 18 games in 1976 and the Pistons lost 12 of those.
Detroit in 1975 had also traded star veteran guard Dave Bing (another Hall of Famer) to the Bullets for young point guard Kevin Porter, but Porter was lost to injury 19 games into the season and the Pistons struggled. Coach Ray Scott was fired and replaced by Herb Brown, and Brown found 20-year-old point guard Eric Money on his bench to fill in for Porter. Led by Lanier, power forward Curtis Rowe and Money, the Pistons won 10 of their last 13 games and nearly caught the Bucks (38-44) atop the Midwest Division. As the playoff teams with the worst records in the West, the Bucks and Pistons squared off in a best-of-three first round series.
The Bucks were in their first season after “The Trade” of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and were no match for a Lanier Pistons that had gotten its act together. Lanier and Rowe dominated the Bucks inside (a familiar story for the ever-power-forward-challenged Bucks) and Detroit took the series 2-1 in Milwaukee. The Pistons went on to lose (4-2) in the second round to Rick Barry’s Golden State Warriors, the defending champs. Lanier averaged 26.1 ppg and 12.7 rebounds, and Rowe added 15 and 8 in nine playoff games. (The 1976 Pistons really have no business being on this list, but the 1976 Bucks do — see No. 11 below – so I included both teams.)
7. 2011 Indiana Pacers (37-45). Another Jim O’Brien team, this one led by Danny Granger instead of Paul Pierce, but playing the same ugly style of 2004. This time coach O’Brien lasted to game 44 amid a lot of grumbling that he was refusing to play his younger players, Tyler Hansbrough among them. Current coach Frank Vogel did more than mop up O’Brien’s mess, as the Pacers went 20-18 the rest of the way, edging out the injury-riddled Bucks (35-47) for the final spot in the East. This was simply not a very good team until the arrival of David West and George Hill, with Vogel as the coach.
Dismissed in five games by Derrick Rose and the Bulls in Round 1. Only in the playoffs because of the Bucks bad health.
8. 1979 New Jersey Nets (37-45). From the land of the final season before the 3-point line was drawn on NBA courts comes the 1979 Nets, featuring the unstoppable mid-range post-up game of Bernard King, set to go into the Hall of Fame this year. Scoring honors on this Kevin Loughery team, however, went to John Williamson (22.2 ppg), a Net from the ABA days and one of the better long-range shooters of the time. King and Williamson didn’t have much help beyond assorted journeymen (including future shot-swatting Buck Harvey Catchings and the aforementioned Eric Money, both traded to Philly mid-season), and the Nets would sink to the bottom of the East by 1981.
Dr. J’s Sixers swept the Nets out of the 1979 playoffs, 2-0. King’s knee problems began the following season, and he was traded in preseason to Utah along with rookie … Jim Boylan … who never played an official NBA game.
9. 2008 Atlanta Hawks (37-45). The first playoff appearance for the young Al Horford-Josh Smith Hawks (featuring Joe Johnson), and it was a good one, with the Hawks pushing the “Big Three” Celtics, the 2008 champs) to seven games in the first round. Horford was 21-years-old and Smith 22, and the Hawks were on the rise, something that can’t be said about the teams on this list, 1986 Bulls excepted. The Hawks became one of ESPN’s “it” teams.
“It” was not to be. Although some remarkable good health resulted in a 53 win season in 2010, playoff success eluded them. After beating the Celtics three times in the 2008, the Hawks couldn’t win a playoff game against anybody but the Andrew-Bogut-less 2010 Bucks, who nearly bum-rushed them out of the playoffs. They made it to the second round in 2011, were out in the first again in 2012, and now 2013 is the end of the line for Smith (and Zaza Pachulia too) as the Hawks will look to build a better roster around Horford. But back in 2008, the future didn’t look anywhere near as dim as it would be for Atlanta.
10. 1980 Portland Trailblazers (38-44). This was the season the Blazers gave up on waiting for the return of Bill Walton and let him sign with the Clippers, who compensated the Blazers with players and a first round pick. Mid-season the Blazers broke off other key pieces of their 1977 championship roster. Power forward Maurice Lucas, the star of the 1977 finals, was traded for rookie forward Calvin Natt, who became the Blazers leading scorer. Hobbled point guard Lionel Hollins (now coach of the Grizzlies) was traded to Philly for a draft pick.
The Blazers were left with an interesting mix of rookies and journeyman veterans, including Kermit Washington, (notorious for “the punch” to Rudy Tomjanovich’s face) who played 80 games. None were more interesting than rookie forward Abdul Jeelani, who grew up in Racine (as Gary Cole) and played college ball at UW-Parkside. That’s right, Parkside, an NAIA school at the time. A long-armed 6’8″, Jeelani was precisely the type of productive bigger forward who fills out NBA rosters today, but the available jobs were far fewer in the early 1980s. The league expanded with Dallas in 1980 and Jeelani was picked up by the Mavs in the expansion draft, and expansion stopped there. 23 teams, 11-man rosters, poor attendance and TV ratings, Bird and Magic just getting started. These were lean times and the league was tightening its belt as it remade its image — with its talent concentrated in extreme measures at many ports of call.
Jeelani would play one season in Dallas, then take his game to Europe where he played for the better part of the decade. The 1979 Blazers bowed out to the Paul Silas-Jack Sikma-Dennis Johnson Seattle Supersonics, the eventual champs, in the first round.
11. 1976 Milwaukee Bucks (38-44). First season after the Kareem trade, the young Bucks were led by forward Bobby Dandridge, great-shooting Brian Winters and center Elmore Smith, the latter two acquired in “The Trade” along with Junior Bridgeman and big forward David Meyers. The Bucks, coached by Larry Costello, won the 1976 Midwest Division without Kareem, largely owing that to the Pistons early season troubles (see above). Kareem’s Lakers actually failed to make the playoffs despite having a better record (40-42) than both the Pistons and the Bucks. In the divisional playoff format of 1976, the Lakers had to catch Phoenix to win the fifth and final seed in the West but lost four of six to the Suns in the regular season, falling two games short.
Not a good year for Kareem or the Midwest, but the playoffs redeemed Lanier’s Pistons. Against Detroit in the first round, the Bucks opted to bomb away from the outside and, thanks to some phenomenal shooting, managed to keep it close. Winters, a 1976 and 1978 All-Star, shot 63%, averaging 27.3 ppg in the three games — without the aid of the 3-pointer. Dandridge netted 22 per game on 49% shooting and guard Gary Brokaw shot 62.2% for 21 ppg. But it wasn’t enough. Lanier and power forward Curtis Rowe owned the paint, and the Pistons won game three in Milwaukee.
This was Costello’s last full season as Bucks coach. Don Nelson, who was busy helping the Celtics win the 1976 title in his final season as a player, joined Costello’s staff for the 1976-77 season, and the head coaching job fell in Nellie’s lap early on. The Bucks went into “Green and Growing” rebuilding mode and the rest, as they say, is history. They became a perennial contender after acquiring Lanier from Detroit in 1980.
12. 1992 Miami Heat (38-44). First playoff trip for the expansion heat. Glen Rice wasn’t a 50-40-90 shooter this season (the Bird-Durant standard) but he wasn’t too far off at 47-39-84. Rice led the fledgling Heat with 22.3 ppg, getting help from center Rony Seikaly and rookie gunner Steve Smith, and the Heat would try use those three as a base to build a winner. They did not succeed. The Heat wouldn’t become a winner until Pat Riley took over in 1995 and completely overhauled the roster, including the core three. The 1992 Heat were coached by Kevin Loughery. Swept in the first round by Michael Jordan and the Bulls on their way to title No. 2.
13. 2013 Milwaukee Bucks (38-44). What will history say about this Bucks team? Their coach, Scott Skiles, quit 32 games into the season as Skiles is wont to do. The interim coach, Jim Boylan (the same Jim Boylan who was part of that 1979 Bernard King trade) played his team fast and loose and continued to develop good, young big men (Larry Sanders, John Henson). But the Bucks trio of guards shot too poorly overall and played too little defense down the stretch to avoid a first round series against the defending champs, the best team in the league. The Bucks lost 15 of their last 21 games, and few expect Boylan back as coach (Boylan was fired after the Heat dismissed the Bucks from the playoffs in a 4-0 sweep).
There are worse teams on this “38 or less” playoffs list, to be sure (Jim O’Brien’s teams come to mind), and better teams too. The common thread for these teams is that they were all in transition, most of them on the way down, not up or sideways. Those sideways teams that stayed the course, such as the 1976 Pistons and the 1992 Heat would break up their teams within three years. It will happen this summer in Atlanta. It may happen soon in Indiana, too, though not this season. History shows that mediocrity in the NBA plays itself out to sub-mediocrity, unless your Hall of Famer can stay healthy, and the Bucks don’t have one of those. They don’t even have an Al Horford or a Glen Rice, not to say that Sanders can’t get better.
The current situation says the Bucks won’t win in the long or short run with Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis and J.J. Redick’s disparate jump-shooting tendencies. Whatever happens with the rest of the Bucks roster, the series against the Heat should be the last time we see the guard trio play for the Bucks.