by Doobie Okon
It takes a truly special team to take home a title such as ‘Worst NBA Team of the Decade.’ Special in the sense that we’re not talking about a team over a specific year; what this moniker rewards is one franchise’s total futility across an entire decade. And a team needs to be epically horrible — on the court, off the court, in management, coaching, drafting — just an all around special kind of bad.
After extensive looks through the standings, stats, division finishes, playoff appearances, draft choices, et cetera…five frivolous franchises stand out for their lengthy dwellings in the NBA’s gutter. And the hard part in choosing who’s truly the worst is that each brings a unique contribution to the argument. (Note: The Charlotte Bobcats will not be included in the conversation as they were an expansion team in 2004 and thus haven’t even played the full decade.)
For instance, the Atlanta Hawks, yes those same Atlanta Hawks that started this year 11-2, have the lowest winning percentage among all teams in the last 10 years at 36.8 percent (not including the current season). In other words, they have lost the most games of any franchise since ‘99-00. Five-hundred and eighteen Ls. Ouch. And Atlanta indeed has made the postseason the last two seasons, but this includes a 2007 eighth seed appearance with a 37-45 record. I’ve said it before — gotta love the East. (Although, the Hawks did almost pull off the first-round upset over the Celtics, who would then go on to the title.) So while the Hawks continue to gradually improve with a strong nucleus, I cannot ignore the nine sub par-to-embarrassing seasons the Hawks experienced this decade.
But Atlanta did begin rebuilding their team in 2004 when they hired a fiery Larry Brown protégée in Mike Woodson and also smartly drafted Josh Smith, who I believe is vastly underrated amongst NBA stars. A year later, they traded for Joe Johnson, currently 10th in the NBA at 21.5 ppg, and took a chance on a young freshman Tar Heel, Marvin Williams. And from there, the Hawks have transformed themselves into contenders and might become a class of the NBA in the upcoming decade. So, alas, the Atlanta Hawks dodge the bullet.
The Memphis Grizzlies pose an interesting case. Get this — out of the five squads, the Grizz have posted the most above-.500 records in the last 10 seasons: three. Yet despite averaging 48 wins from 2004-2006, their win totals the other seven years read: 24, 22, 22, 28, 23, 23 and 22. Do the math, and the Grizz only have six fewer losses than Atlanta. And worse off, even with three postseason appearances since 2000, tied for the most amongst the five candidates, they have the least amount of playoff victories of all NBA franchises in that span — the ol’ goose egg. Zero. Swept in the first round three straight years by three different teams. In fact, Memphis hasn’t won a single playoff game in its entire 15 years of existence — dating back to its days in Canada.
The Grizz caught a stroke of bad luck right before the ‘06-07 season when their star 7-footer, Pau Gasol, went down with a broken foot in the FIBA World Championship as a member of the Spanish team — and with that, also took all of the Grizzlies’ recent success, momentum and hopes down with him. Memphis has plummeted to the bottom since then, and Gasol just won a ring with the Lakers after being traded to L.A. in 2008. Poor Grizz. So with the three strong years and the whole Gasol ‘tragedy,’ I say to the Memphis organization: You’re pretty god-awful, but have managed to ever-so-slightly elude the title of Worst NBA Team of the 00s.
On a side note: When all is said and done, what are we supposed to call this decade? the zeroes? the oughts? noughts? nils? zilts? zilches? And what about the next decade for that matter? I don’t know. It’d really help with this whole ‘decade’s best’ tribute. Anyway, back to the debate…
While California might house the defending champs, two of its hoops residents are immersed in failure. Not only are The Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors tied for the least amount of playoff appearances in the 00’s at one — their inferiority is best described by the fact that the Clips have clinched postseason berths in only four seasons (’92, ’93, ’97, ’06) since they moved to Los Angeles in 1984, while G.S. has made it only six times (’87, ’89, ’91, ’92, ’94, ’07) in the last 32 years. So don’t get it twisted — these two have been dancing with demons for much longer than the last 10 seasons.
What’s amazing about the Clippers is that since 2000, they’ve practically only had two head coaches, Alvin Gentry and Mike Dunleavy (Dennis Johnson replaced Gentry for the final 24 games of the ’02-03 season). So say what you want about owner Donald Sterling, but he has shown loyalty in an era where losing springs uncountable coaching moves in all sports.
Now, it did take the Clips all decade to get back to the top — of the draft board, that is. And with the first overall pick in the 2009 draft, they selected Blake Griffin who will hopefully change the franchise’s fortunes when he returns from a knee injury in January. But let’s revisit the last time the Clippers had a number one overall draft choice — 1998 when L.A. chose Michael Olowokandi. While Olowokandi eventually proved to be one of the biggest busts in NBA history, a handful of players from that draft have enjoyed flourishing careers: Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki, Mike Bibby, Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter. And it’s a shame that the Clippers didn’t manage to draw the first pick the year before, as they’d be still enjoying one Timmy Duncan who has won four championships with the Spurs. That kind of a nightmarish draft pick in Olowokandi will set a team back one, two, five or maybe 10 years.
Since Olowokandi left the Clippers as a free agent in 2003, recent drafting has improved with the core of Griffin, Chris Kaman, Eric Gordon and Al Thornton being established. So we’ll see how this team really stacks up when fully healthy. And although there’s no lack of effort — the Clips have made numerous moves involving big names this decade, Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, Baron Davis, Sam Cassell, Andre Miller, Lamar Odom, etc. — it just hasn’t quite panned out for Los Angeles’ little brother. Brand was supposed to be the savior at PF, but instead his L.A. days have proved responsible for sparking his current injury-riddled career that’s only continued in Philadelphia.
The Warriors, while mirroring the the path of the Clippers this past decade, have instead tried out seven different head coaches since PJ Carlesimo started the ’99-00 season at the helm. Golden State tried to build a young team around Jamison and Gilbert Arenas in the early part of the decade, but fell short to the Western elites who were just simply better, and thus had to completely rebuild when Chris Mullin took over executive decisions in 2004.
And if the Warriors want to hang their hats on something — it’s that they haven’t been as dismal as other teams have been since 2002, when they went 21-61. Last year’s 29 total victories were the lowest since that abysmal year — but the Warriors have at least enjoyed an offensive resurgence the last four seasons under Don Nelson, averaging well over 100+ ppg in that span. Defensively, though, the Warriors continue to be among the worst in the League and thus the reason they’re even in this conversation.
But as the envelope opens to reveal the winner of ‘Worst NBA Team of the Decade,’ the two Cali cousins can breathe a huge sigh of relief…
…because in the end, this distinguished honor actually goes to one of the NBA’s most historic staple franchises: the New York Knickerbockers.
To be fair, the Knicks have the highest winning percentage (42.4 percent) of the five teams during the decade and also match match Memphis with three postseason appearances. But the number are deceiving, my friends, so look a little deeper. First of all, New York sported a winning record only twice in the 10-year span, and it was the first two years (’99-00 and ’00-01). Since then, they haven’t sniffed a .500 mark and that includes ’03-04 when they snuck into the playoffs as a seven-seed with a 39-43 record. There, the Nets easily handled the Knicks in four games, so that postseason appearance doesn’t even seem legitimate. Take away the first two years, and the Knicks have been irrelevant in the last eight seasons.
Aside from the numbers, the many front office moves, draft picks and trades have been all harshly criticized. Head coach Jeff Van Gundy stepped down in the middle of the ’01-02 season, while the Knicks attempted to spark the post-Ewing era by acquiring Howard Eisley and Shandon Anderson for big money. The season finished tumultuously as both players turned out to be huge busts and therefore a trend with the Knicks began which really hasn’t ended yet: New York seemed to be declining the more they raised their payroll, most evident by the ’05-06 season where they finished 23-59, good for the second worst in the League with the highest paid players. A true recipe for disaster.
And if there are two names that truly epitomize the Knicks’ lengthy swoon, it’s got to be Isiah and Stephon.
If a team is going to be the worst of the decade, then their embarrassing exploits are probably publicized more often than not. And Isiah sure led a circus act the last three years he was affiliated with the Knicks. He had off-court issues — the sexual harassment suit with Anucha Sanders, the strange hospitalization saga with him and his daughter in October of last year — as well as one of the worst approaches to building a team in recent memory. He continually traded for ‘names,’ guys like Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph who had serious health and attitude concerns. Of course, both deals were unfortunate for the Knicks, as Thomas cost New York a multitude of draft picks in the last five years because of his front-office moves. Tons of expensive yet overrated players, like Steve Francis, Jerome James, Jalen Rose and others made their way through the Big Apple on account of Thomas, and even these acquisitions often included veterans with bad contracts that Isiah was more than happy to take on.
Bottom line: Isiah Thomas dug the Knicks a hole so deep that it’s still unclear when they’ll be good enough to even contend for a .500 record. And there’s no better example of this then one Mr. Starburst, er, Starbury.
First of all, the Marbury trade that Isiah Thomas concocted is a joke in itself. The ramifications of the move still aren’t known yet, as the Utah Jazz will receive the Knicks 2010 first round pick based on the Marbury deal that was done six years ago. And by the way, Isiah, ever hear of lottery protection? Wow.
But aside from all of that, Stephon Marbury’s time in a Knicks uniform transformed him from a superstar into a bench player with a nasty attitude. Oh yeah, did I mention he’s a complete nut-bar too? I used to love the younger version of Marbury; he was always a little wanna-be Iverson, but was no doubt talented. Once a lightly-tattooed All-Star who consistently put up 20 and 8 for the Nets, Suns and even the Knicks for a year, fallouts with management led Starbury to the bench and thus he eventually took a hiatus from basketball to focus on his internet career: Get it, Steph. Get itt. Ugh, Yeaaa…Go boy, Shake it… Watch all of his videos if you can, by the way. It’s pure entertainment.
Now, Thomas did indeed bring in Nate Robinson, Wilson Chandler and David Lee through the draft, but the Knicks have struggled in putting a semblance of a playoff team around these cogs. Now Marbury’s out of basketball this year doing god-knows-what. Thomas is coaching Florida International University. Randolph’s gone. Jamal Crawford’s gone. Channing Frye is having success in Portland. And the Donnie Walsh era hasn’t started with much promise either.
Walsh took over for Thomas in the front office and hired Mike D’Antoni as head coach before the ’08-09 season. I can’t tell you how much I still disagree with this move. D’Antoni coached an explosive Phoenix Suns team for four years – a team that had speed, shooting and an offensive core that could score on anyone and make their coach look like a genius. Not only is there no Steve Nash or Amar’e Stoudemire on the Knicks, the defensive side of the basketball is what Walsh should be focused on to start the rebuilding process. Yet the Knicks remain horribly inefficient on ‘D,’ giving up the third-most points last year as well as this current season.
Drafting hasn’t been much better, as the Knicks picked Jordan Hill this year and passed on one Brandon Jennings. Hill will probably serve as a role player during his career while Jennings could grow into a superstar.
Because of the financial trouble the Knicks have immersed themselves in during this decade, they’ve been trading away all valuable assets to clear up cap-space for the big 2010 free agency bowl. So the question must be posed: What if the Knicks don’t sign LeBron or DWade? Sure, there are tons of other big names set to be on the market this coming summer, but I don’t even think that LBJ could help turn this current Knicks squad around.
So while Atlanta might have worse numbers than New York during the last ten seasons, the Hawks are on an exponential rise while the Knicks are still in the middle of its downward spiral. Thus, in all good conscience, I cannot hand this blemished title to a team headed in the right direction. Not to mention that beyond these past ten years, the Knicks haven’t won an NBA championship since 1973. But let’s take it one step at a time…
And even though the Knicks still ranked in the top ten in attendance this entire decade (except ’06-07), the fans have been ‘rewarded’ with a consistently pitiful product on the court. Thus, the enormous pressure of the New York sports market coupled with the long championship drought only helped make this decision easier.
Congratulations New York Knickerbockers: You are the worst team of the decade. Raise your glasses, I guess?
For more Decade Awards, check out the archive.