With only a few games to go, the East is staging its usual crapfest for the eight seed. The Knicks appear to be surging (relatively speaking), while the Hawks, who were once 25-21, have gone 7-21 since that point. This leaves us with the Knicks at 33-43 with six games left against only playoff teams and the Hawks at 32-42 and eight games left, only four of which are with playoff teams.
So who will win this battle? This is a hard race to handicap because there are so many variables. Let’s breakdown the facts:
-Atlanta has a better SRS rating (-1.60 vs. -1.92 for the Knicks).
-New York has a slightly better point differential (35-41 versus 33-41 for Atlanta)
-New York has a much better recent track record (as mentioned Atlanta is 7-21 since February 1 and New York is 14-16).
-Atlanta doesn’t have Al Horford.
-Despite New York’s theoretically harder schedule, they play some teams that may be locked into playoff spots or have some incentive to lose now to avoid Miami in the second round (Washington, Toronto, Chicago, and Brooklyn).
-New York desperately wants to make the playoffs to: (1) make James Dolan happy for a fleeting moment, (2) hope Carmelo Anthony ends the year with a decent taste in his mouth before free agency, and (3) to avoid the embarrassment of giving a lottery pick to Denver from the Carmelo trade. Meanwhile, Atlanta is pretty blah about the whole idea of making the playoffs and may actually want the higher draft pick more than getting two home playoff games to the silent Atlanta crowds.
-The Knicks have legitimately better players than Atlanta at this point. Melo is obviously the best and Tyson Chandler, and even Amare Stoudemire are playing well. Without Al Horford, Atlanta has one above average player in Paul Millsap and scores of average players.
Trying to sift how two not very good teams will do over a few weeks stretch is far from an exact science. Putting it all together, however, it does seem that Knicks are going to somehow pull this thing out. They have been much better lately than Atlanta and have incentive to keep winning.
This exercise also enables us to review the oft asked question, is this year’s eight seed in the East, the worst ever? It looks like that isn’t quite the case. Assuming the Knicks can go 4-4, they should go 37-45, which is bad but the worst. In fact, last year’s Milwaukee team was only a little better at 38-44. Let’s do our updated review of the worst eight seeds since the NBA playoffs went to eight teams per conference. We’ll take a stroll through any eight seeds that couldn’t muster at least 40 wins and revel in the mediocrity:
-2012-13 Bucks (38-44, -1.82 SRS): A team going nowhere, led by Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, this inefficient offensive team somehow made the playoffs with a decent defense and were promptly swept by Miami. Not sure after watching this why Herb Kohl felt it was absolutely necessary to aspire to the same result in 2013-14 but, fortunately for Bucks fans, Milwaukee just wasn’t good enough to do a repeat.
-2010-11 Indiana Pacers (37-45, -1.38 SRS): Frank Vogel took over for Jim O’Brien in the middle of the season and they ended strong (20-18 with Vogel after a 17-27 start). Some of the parts of the better Pacers were there (Roy Hibbert and Paul George were young and not as good) and the team was led by Danny Granger. They played tough defense and actually won a game against the Bulls in the first round.
-2008-09 Pistons (39-43, -0.36 SRS): The ugly end to the Pistons’ nice run of the early 2000s. The Pistons were obviously declining but Joe Dumars made things go faster. Detroit was 4-1 when he decided it was time to flip out Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson. At the time, it was clear that Billups was more reliable (and better) than AI and that Iverson did not fit with Rip Hamilton anyway. The end result was a mediocre team that was swept by the LBJ Cavs.
-2007-08 Hawks (37-45, -2.23 SRS): The more things change, the more they stay the same. This was another poor Hawks team trying to sneak into the playoffs. Their coach was the same Mike Woodson who is trying very hard to knock out the 2013-14 Hawks. In the case of the 2007-08 Hawks, they are not quite as bad as the stats say. They had some good young players (Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford, and Marvin Williams, Josh Childress) and a vet point in Mike Bibby. Atlanta was breaking a streak of futility the stretched back to 1999 and the youngsters actually took KG’s Boston Celtics to the brink in the first round. It was a strange series, with eventual title winner Boston winning its four games by margins of 23, 19, 25, and 34 but losing three close games. The series was flukey but this Atlanta team ended up being the core of a decent run in Atlanta.
-2003-04 Celtics (36-46, -1.99 SRS): Boston was coming off a nice two year run in the playoffs with the Paul Pierce, Antoine Walker, and trinkets. In 2001-02, out of nowhere, Jim O’Brien took Boston to the Conference Finals and then to the second round in 2002-03. Still there was a sense that this was not a great team and Danny Ainge, who was hired after the 2002-03 season, slowly took apart the core. Antoine Walker was traded to Dallas before 2003-04 and then, mid-way through the season, Ainge traded O’Brien favorites Eric Williams and Tony Battie. O’Brien was angry and, perhaps sensing he wasn’t Ainge’s choice anyway, resigned while the team was 22-24. John Carroll came in and finished up the year 14-22, which was enough to play the Jermaine O’Neal/Ron Artest Pacers and get swept.
-1996-97 Clippers (36-46, -2.66 SRS): The Clippers did nothing really well but were coached by Bill Fitch and didn’t make too many mistakes. Fitch took undrafted point Darrick Martin, who had previously been a backup for horrible Minnesota and Vancouver teams, and somehow made him into a decent starter (10.9 ppg, 4.1 apg, 16.9 PER). The rest of the roster was filled with scores of decent players (Brent Barry, Lamond Murray, Loy Vaught, Eric Piatkowski, Bo Outlaw, Rodney Rogers, Malik Sealy), most of whom were acquired through years of decent drafting. At the time, it did not feel like this team should be in the playoffs, and I remember thinking that this might be the worst playoff team I’d ever seen in terms of pure lack of talent. The Clipps would not have made the playoffs in a normal year but the bottom of the conference had the usual 1990s fodder and this was also the season David Robinson got hurt (paving the way for them to tank for Tim Duncan). The Clippers were swept out by Utah in the playoffs.
-1995-96 Kings (39-43, -2.62 SRS): This Sacramento team was also uninspiring and not much better than the 1996-97 Clippers. Sacramento did have an actual All-Star in Mitch Richmond, though, which puts it a peg above the Fitch Clippers. The front line was also not terrible (Olden POlyinice, a young Brian Grant, and Walt Williams). The point guard situation was a disaster and they were forced to go with rookie Tyus Edney (12.7 PER), when the only alternative was Bobby Hurley, who started 22 games but clearly could not play (6.5 PER and 28% shooting from the field). Surprisingly, the Kings actually competed with a great Sonics team in the playoffs, losing 3-1 and being in most of the few games.
-1994-95 Celtics (35-47, -1.92 SRS): This Celtic team is not quite as bad a team as the record indicates. They did have late model Dominique Wilkins, Sherman Douglas, Dee Brown, Rick Fox, Dino Radja, and a young David Wesley. Still, this was a worse idea than it looked. M.L. Carr decided to rebuild after the Bird-McHale years with a 35-year old Dominique? Oy…Carr couldn’t even tank correctly. The Celts could score (13th) but were a poor defensive team (20th) and had a faulty foundation. They competed well against Shaq/Penny Orlando in the playoffs but lost. After the season, Wilkins did the Celtics a favor by walking away from his ridiculous contract to play in Europe. Carr responded by taking the money he had committed to Wilkins and giving it to Dana Barros. Man, those were bad times in Boston.
-1992-93 Lakers (39-43, -1.20 SRS): A sad team and a sad time. This was part of the foundation of the old Showtime Lakers but without Magic Johnson, who abruptly retired the season before. A.C. Green, Vlade Divac, James Worthy, Byron Scott, and Sam Perkins were all still around but, instead of Magic, the point was journeyman Sedale Threatt. It wasn’t just that Magic was missing either. Scott and Worthy were in their early 30s and had been declining since the late 1980s and were not average-ish players. The Lakers competed hard and almost upset the 60-win Charles Barkley Suns in the playoffs. Still, it was clear that the Lakers didn’t need vets like Green, Worthy, Scott, or Perkins and the team was going to have to rebuild.
-1991-92 Heat (38-44, -3.94 SRS): The win-loss record is decent for a bad eight seed but, beyond the raw numbers, the stats despise this team. Miami had the lowest SRS of any of the bad eight seeds we reviewed, and the point differential is that of a 30-52 team. It’s not clear why the team is quite that bad because the core is okay (Glen Rice, Rony Seikaly, Grant Long, and Steve Smith). Despite the young talent, they couldn’t guard anyone (25th out of 27 teams) and they had the luck of being on the wrong side of the worst blow out in NBA history that season, when the Cavs beat them 148-80. By the way, if you are a big believer in momentum that blowout might convince you otherwise. Miami came into the game having won three straight (including one over the same Cavs) before getting eviscerated by 68. The day after the blowout, the Heat beat Indiana in overtime. Weird. In any event, the Heat snuck into the playoffs and were swept by the MJ Bulls.
-1990-91 Knicks (39-43, -0.44 SRS): Not really a terrible team but here because they couldn’t muster 40 wins (our minimum standard to avoid the list). They had Patrick Ewing in his prime, who is probably the second best player ever on a bad eight seed team (see below for 1985-86 Bulls) and there were some other decent pieces here (Charles Oakley). Offense was the bigger issue since Maurice Cheeks, Gerald Wilkins, and Kiki Vandeweghe couldn’t really shoot. In the playoffs, Michael Jordan spent the games putting on huge highlight dunks on Ewing. Afterward, the Knicks brought in Pat Riley and the good times rolled for the next decade.
-1988-89 Trailblazers (39-43, 0.92 SRS): This is the best of the worst. They are one of only two teams in this group with a positive SRS number and outscored opponents, projecting to a 45-37 record. The Blazers had the core of the Terry Porter/Clyde Drexler squad of the early 1990s but weren’t quite good yet. In fact, the Blazers had won an average of 52 games the prior two seasons. Coach Mike Schuler got off to a 25-22 start, underperforming expectations. On January 16, 1989, Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated wrote an article about the Blazers titled “Is Anybody Happy Here?” The article was ostensibly sympathetic to Schuler but notes that he couldn’t stand Kiki Vandeweghe’s defense/rebounding and that Clyde Drexler did not appreciate Schuler’s intense style. Drexler is quoted saying: “[i]t’s not just that Mike and I are different. It’s that we’re total opposites. It was hard for us right from the beginning, and I’d say it’s getting worse, not better. The Kiki thing is part of it, but there are lots of other things, too. [When asked if he wanted to be traded, Drexler says] If the situation doesn’t improve, yes, I’d say so.” The article also quotes Jim Paxson as mostly blaming Drexler but noting that: “A lot of mistakes Mike makes are because of overkill—too many team meetings, scouting reports, practices [for example, the Blazers worked out on Thanksgiving Day], that kind of thing. That can work against a player like Clyde, who’s very instinctive in what he does on the court.”
Regardless of the sympathetic portrayal, the Blazer lost five in a row after the article came out and went 2-7 in the month after the article. Schuler was then let go for assistant Rick Adelman. Adelman had even worse results (14-21) and Portland was swept by the Lakers in the playoffs. The number suggests that this team could’ve been better but this was clearly a team in flux. Adelman was retained and the Blazers would make the Finals the next season but 1988-89 was a tough season for Portland.
-1987-88 Knicks (38-44, 0.14 SRS): Just so you know, expansion does not always cause terrible teams. The 1987-88, the year before expansion, featured a very weak bottom rung in the East. The top four teams won 50 games or more but the Buck and Cavs were (the five and six seeds) both won only 42 wins. Even worse, the Bullets landed a seven seed going 38-44, while the Knicks, with the same record, got the eight seed. The Knicks were actually a fun team though. They had a young Patrick Ewing, rookie of the year Mark Jackson, and rookie coach Rick Pitino and his full court press system. The Knicks started out 4-12 but turned it around and finished up 34-32, beating the Pacers in the last game of the season to make the playoffs (they were tied with the Pacers for that spot). The Knicks even gave the Larry Bird Celtics a little tussle in the playoff before losing 3-1. As a post script, the Pacers nabbed the second overall pick after missing the playoffs by a game and drafted Rik Smits. The Knicks, if they had that pick, probably would’ve taken Mitch Richmond, who could’ve helped them in the 1990s.
-1987-88 Spurs (31-51, -5.02 SRS): Winner! You can’t get much worse than this. This uninspiring squad was even worse than its record (they were outscored at the rate of a team that was 29-53). The team could score a bit but was terrible defensively. The component parts weren’t awful. They had a good young backcourt in Johnny Dawkins and Alvin Robertson, and some guys who could score (Mike Mitchell, Frank Brickowski, Walter Berry) but were outsized up front. The Spurs had very little competition though, as the Suns were next closest to the eight seed (28-54) but had been eviscerated by a drug scandal. Below that were the Kings (24-58), Warriors (20-62), and Clippers (17-65), all of whom were at low ebb points. The Spurs were swept by the Lakers 3-0, but kept the final game close.
-1986-87 Nuggets (37-45, -1.14 SRS): This team was straight out of the Doug Moe high paced offense. They were first in pace and 8th in offense (and 15th in defense). Alex English scored 28.6 ppg in this environment and Fat Lever pumped out 18.9 ppg, 8.9 rpg, and 8.0 apg. It wasn’t a terrible team but definitely .500ish at best. The stats were also obviously a bit inflated (Darrell Walker and Bill Hanzlik scored double figures for crying out loud). Denver was swept out by the Lakers.
-1985-86 Bulls (30-52, -3.12 SRS): Another vestige of the 1980s was lack of competitive balance. The Bulls were bad but there was plenty of stink to go around. Both the East and West had three playoff teams with less than 40 wins (the Bullets were the worst six seed ever that season with a 39-43 record). This Bulls team is the one where Michael Jordan broke his foot and was replaced with a broken down George Gervin for most of the season. The Bulls featured one of the truly terrible defensive lineups: Kyle Macy, Gervin, Orlando Woolridge, Sidney Green, and Jawann Oldham. Not surprisingly, the Bulls were the worst defensive team in the NBA that season. This was a bad team and the record was the worst of any playoff team since the expansion to eight teams per conference. Even so, you can’t call them the worst. Jordan’s presence, even for a few moments, raises them a little higher than they would be otherwise. MJ came back for the playoffs and had that legendary 63-point game against the Celtics, before getting swept. The most interesting thing about this team, to me, was Gervin. He scored 16 ppg and was still effective defensively. When Jordan went down, he scored well (he even had a 45-point game) but MJ’s return kicked him to the pine and he only played 11 minutes in the playoffs before ending his NBA career.
-1985-86 Spurs (35-47, -2.05 SRS): As noted above, this isn’t even the worst Spurs playoff team ever. The Spurs had been formidable the few years prior but George Gervin was gone and the rest of the old core (Artis Gilmore and Mike Mitchell) had slowed down a bit from its prime. Gervin was replaced by Alvin Robertson, a good player but not someone who could score like the Ice Man. Like most eight seeds in the 1980s, the Spurs were swept by the Lakers. In case you are wondering, the Lakers did not lose a game to an eight seed until 1989-90.
-1984-85 Cavaliers (36-46, -2.27 SRS): This was George Karl’s first coaching gig and all he had was World B. Free and mediocrity (Roy Hinson, Phil Hubbard, John Bagley, Mel Turpin). Karl recovered from a 2-19 start (!) to rally for the eight seed. They even won a game against the Celtics in the first round. The story goes that the young Karl (33 at the time) wanted to turn Free into an all-around player and benched Free late in games for defensive purposes. Free then got hurt after an 0-9 start and the team was 2-19 by the time Free returned. Karl told Free to just start chucking like usual. Free was placated by Karl’s realization that there was absolutely no way to change Free’s game and Free made peace, saying that “[i]t takes a hell of a man to admit that he’s wrong.” Karl would continue to fight the star system everywhere else he went, usually to more affect. While we can appreciate not wanting a stagnant selfish offense, taking shots away from Free for the rest of these guys was probably not a good idea at that time (this idea works much better when your lineup is Payton, Hawkins, Schrempf, Kemp, and Perkins).
-1984-85 Suns (36-46, -2.34 SRS): Another strange team. They were a top defense (6th) but couldn’t score (19th). There was plenty of talent on the roster (Larry Nance, Alvan Adams Jay Humphries, and Maurice Lucas) but Walter Davis only played 23 games and was replaced by rookie Mike Holton who was terrible offensively (8.9 PER). The Suns were the victim of yet another Laker sweep in the first round.
-1983-84 Bullets (35-47, -2.36 SRS): The first eight seed was among the worst. The Jeff Ruland/Rick Mahorn front court was tough but, other than Ruland, no one could score. Frank Johnson, Mahorn, Greg Ballard and Rickey Sobers were not guys who could really create offense for themselves. They did hang tough with Boston in the playoffs, actually taking a game.
-1983-84 Kings (38-44, -1.62 SRS): The last Kansas City Kings playoff team. This non-descript team had some okay players and quite a few future coaches (Reggie Theus, Mike Woodson, Billy Knight) and leading scorer Eddie Johnson. They didn’t do anything particularly well and were swept by the Lakers.
In the end, we see that the Hawks and Knicks of 2013-14 are nowhere near the worst of the bad eight seeds. They are just your typical bad eight seed, no more no less.