Making the playoffs is an accomplishment for any sports team. The chance to play for the championship is what every team aspires for. However, not all teams that made the playoffs were good.
In the history of the NBA, there were teams with losing records who made the postseason. This happened especially during the league’s early days where there were only a few teams and only two per division would not make the playoffs. Likewise, there were bad teams during the modern era that made the playoffs.
Let’s take a look at the worst playoff teams in the history of the NBA:
1996-97 Los Angeles Clippers
After moving from San Diego in 1985, the Clippers made back to back playoff appearances in 1992 and 1993. That was followed by a three year period where they won only a total of 73 regular-season games. Then in 1997, they went 36-46 and pulled off a surprise.
The teams signed Darrick Martin and former all-star big man Kevin Duckworth during the offseason but after losing Brian Williams to free agency, the Clippers were expected to hit rock bottom again. However, Loy Vaught and Malik Sealy led this team to 36 wins and despite finishing in 5th place in the Pacific Division, the Clippers made the playoffs where they were immediately swept by the Utah Jazz in the first round.
2003-04 Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics are the most successful franchise in NBA history with most championship wins. But after the Larry Bird era, Boston had a period of drought. But Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker to the men in green back to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2002 where they lost to the New Jersey Nets. Since then, they’ve missed the playoffs only three times.
In 2003, Boston started the season with a 22-24 record which prompted head coach Jim O’Brien to resign. John Carroll replaced him but the Celtics lost 12 out of their first 13 games under Carroll. But after Danny Ainge said that the team was better off missing the postseason, they went 9-5 in March and made the postseason despite finishing 4th in the Atlantic Division with a 36-46 record. They were swept by the Pacers in round one.
1985-86 San Antonio Spurs
The 1985-86 season was the Spurs’ 19th year as a franchise, 13th in San Antonio, and their 10th in the NBA. This was also their first year without superstar George “The Iceman” Gervin. The Iceman had been with the Spurs since 1974 but was traded to the Chicago Bulls during the offseason.
Alvin Robertson had a spectacular second season as he won both Most Improved Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors for the Spurs. San Antonio had a good start and they were 30-26 at one point. They lost 21 out of their last 26 games to finish the season at 35-47 but still made the playoffs where they were swept by the Los Angeles Lakers 0-3.
1994-95 Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics suffered a tragedy in 1994 when Reggie Lewis died of cardiac arrest. They went 32-50 that year and didn’t qualify for the postseason. The following year, Boston signed an aging Dominique Wilkins, Pervis Ellison, and David Wesley. Wilkins led the team in scoring at 17.8 points per game while Eric Montross had a solid rookie year and made the all-rookie team.
They struggled most of the season but eight out of their last 12 regular-season games to finish with a 35-47 record and make the playoffs. Boston defeated top-seeded Orlando in Game 2 of their first-round series to take home-court advantage. However, Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway led the Magic to back to back wins in Games 3 and 4 to put away the Celtics.
1962-63 Detroit Pistons
The Pistons opened the season with a 0-7 record but they managed to pick up wins behind Bailey Howell and Don Ohl. Rookie Dave DeBusschere also had a good season as he made the All-Rookie first team at the end of the season. The Pistons weren’t consistent enough and they finished the season with a 34-46 record.
This is a fascinating case because back then only three teams from each conference made the postseason and Detroit was one of those from the East. In the postseason, the St. Louis Hawks beat them in Games 1 and 2 but the Pistons stormed back to take Game 3. They fought hard in Game 4 but eventually lost.
1966-67 Chicago Bulls
The 1966-67 Chicago Bulls were one of the worst playoff teams in the history of the NBA but let us not forget the fact that it was their inaugural season in the league. So despite being on this infamous list, the Bulls should be given credit for making the postseason in their first-ever season in the NBA.
The Bulls had long losing streaks of eight and nine games during this season and they finished with a record of 33-48. They didn’t make much noise in the playoffs too as the Bulls were swept by the St. Louis Hawks in their first-ever appearance in the NBA playoffs. However, this was not the worst Bulls team to make the postseason.
1987-88 San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs drafted David Robinson with the #1 overall pick of the 1987 NBA Draft but he didn’t play right away because of his obligation to serve the U.S. Navy. Two seasons earlier, the Spurs made the playoffs with only 35 regular-season wins. They beat that mark by making the 1988 playoffs with a record of 31-51.
The Spurs were so bad that they finished 13 games behind the 7th seeded Seattle SuperSonics and they were seven games off the playoff pace in the East. If the Spurs played on the other Conference, they would’ve finished next to the bottom. But the West wasn’t as mighty as it is right now so San Antonio became one of the worst playoff teams in the history of the NBA.
1985-86 Chicago Bulls
Michael Jordan was already in Chicago during this period but he was a one-man show and the Bulls were known as the Jordanaires. They made the playoffs in MJ’s rookie season with a record of 38-44 and lost to the Bucks in four games during the postseason. The following year, Chicago lost Jordan for most of the season with a broken foot. They finished at 30-52 but still made the playoffs as the #8 seed in the East.
MJ returned in the postseason and looked good as ever. He set the playoff record for most points in the playoff, a record that still stands today, by scoring 63 points against the Boston Celtics in Game 2 of their first-round series. The Bulls ended up getting swept by Boston though.
1967-68 Chicago Bulls
Okay, so the Bulls have the habit of making the playoffs with poor regular-season records. But this was the worst of them. Chicago made the postseason during their inaugural season with 33 wins. They barged into the playoffs again during their sophomore year and were even worse at 29-53, 4th in the Western Division.
Bob Boozer was the main man in Chicago and he was surrounded by a bunch of role players. But because there were only six teams per conference at that time and four teams would advance to the playoffs, a bad team was bound to make the playoffs and during this season, it was Chicago. This team lost to the Lakers in the West Division semifinals 1-4.
1952-53 Baltimore Bullets
The 1952-53 season was Baltimore’s 6th in the NBA and the team was led by Hall of Famer Don Barksdale. They are considered the worst team in the four major professional sports leagues in North America to qualify for the playoffs and with a win percentage of .229, that tag in undeniable.
The team got swept in the playoffs by the New York Knicks and they never made the postseason again until the franchise folded in 1955. The Bullets were 16-54 that season but because the Philadelphia Warriors were worse with 12 wins, they made the playoffs. Their prize, however, is the record for worst team to ever make the NBA playoffs and that is a record that may never be broken.