From 50 Wins to 50 Losses

After yesterday’s 19-point loss to the Chicago Bulls, the New York Knicks are now 21-39 and almost a sure bet to lose 50 games.

This disaster of a season follows a 54-win campaign in 2012-13, and as I mentioned on Twitter this morning that would put the Knicks in rarefied air:

I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at the NBA teams that went from 50 wins one season to 50 losses the next.

1960-61 St. Louis Hawks: 51-28
1961-62 St. Louis Hawks: 29-51

What Happened?

The 1960-61 Hawks lost in the NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics, but the next season was a disaster, as the club lost 51 games and went through three head coaches in the process.

Lenny Wilkens had a solid rookie season for the Hawks in 1960-61 (4.9 WS, .123 WS/48), but in 1961-62 he played in just 20 games while fulfilling his military commitment to the U.S. Army.

Meanwhile, Hall of Fame center Clyde Lovellette was limited to 40 games thanks to a foot injury suffered in early January.

And as luck would have it for the Hawks, Wilkens’ service and Lovellette’s injury were timed such that the pair played just one game together all season (on February 3), and it turned out to be the only game Lovellette appeared in from January 5 through the end of the season.

St. Louis was also hurt by an uncharacteristically down season from all-time great Bob Pettit, who fell from 14.9 WS and .237 WS/48 in 1960-61 to 11.5 WS and .168 WS/48 in 1961-62.

The Next Season

The Hawks rebounded nicely in 1962-63, finishing 48-32 in the regular season before losing to Lakers in seven games in the Western Division finals.

1979-80 Atlanta Hawks: 50-32
1980-81 Atlanta Hawks: 31-51

What Happened

After winning the Central Division title and finishing with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference in 1979-80, the Hawks fell all the way to 8th place in the conference in 1980-81. Head coach Hubie Brown was fired with just three games remaining in the season.

Tree Rollins, who had been fantastic in 1979-80 (9.2 WS, .208 WS/48), missed 42 games due to a knee injury.

And Dan Roundfield, Atlanta’s All-Star power forward, missed 19 games in 1980-81. The Hawks were especially bad without Roundfield in the lineup, finishing just 2-17 in the games that he missed.

The Next Season

Atlanta returned to the postseason in 1981-82 with Kevin Loughery at the helm, but at 42-40 they were the final team to qualify for the playoffs and were bounced in the first round by the Philadelphia 76ers.

1993-94 Golden State Warriors: 50-32
1994-95 Golden State Warriors: 26-56

What Happened?

Despite being the second-youngest team in the NBA, the 1993-94 Warriors won 50 games and qualified for the playoffs*. But things fell apart in 1994-95, as head coach Don Nelson was fired halfway through a 56-loss season.

* They managed to do this without the services of All-Star point guard Tim Hardaway, who missed the season with a knee injury.

Chris Webber had an impressive debut season in 1993-94, winning the NBA’s Rookie of the Year Award while averaging 17.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game.

However, Webber and Nelson did not see eye-to-eye on the best way to use Webber.

Nelson had a propensity to use smaller lineups, which meant that the 6’10” Webber often played extended minutes at the center position. Webber — a great passer with good ball-handling skills for someone his size — did not see himself as a classic post player and grew irritated with Nelson’s use of him.

Unfortunately for the Warriors, Webber’s contract had a one-year escape clause, which he threatened to exercise after concluding that he could no longer play for Nelson.

Without Webber, who was holding out for a trade, the Warriors actually started the 1994-95 season with five wins in their first six games.

On November 19, an end to the impasse between the Warriors and Webber was reached when Webber was dealt to the Washington Bullets for Tom Gugliotta and three first round draft picks.

Golden State’s record eventually reached 7-1, but then the bottom fell out: 22 losses in the next 25 games, a stretch that included losing streaks of 10 games and eight games.

While losing Webber obviously hurt, the poor play of star shooting guard Latrell Sprewell did not help matters.

Sprewell went from 8.0 WS and .108 WS/48 in 1993-94 to 2.0 WS and .034 WS/48 in 1994-95, and on top of that he missed 13 games.

The club also missed the services of forward Billy Owens, who had been traded for Rony Seikaly in the offseason.

Owens was solid if unspectacular the season before (5.7 WS, .099 WS/48), but Seikaly was a disaster, missing 46 games and playing poorly when he was on the court (0.7 WS, .032 WS/48).

The Next Season

With Rick Adelman at the helm, Golden State jumped to 36 wins in 1995-96 but finished in ninth place in the conference, three games out of the final playoff spot.

1995-96 San Antonio Spurs: 59-23
1996-97 San Antonio Spurs: 20-62

What Happened?

The Spurs finished with the second-best record in the Western Conference in 1995-96, but Hall of Fame center David Robinson played just six games in 1996-97 as San Antonio staggered through a 62-loss season. Head coach Bob Hill was fired after just 18 games and replaced by Gregg Popovich*.

* The Spurs winning percentage under Popovich was just .266, by far the worst of his career. His second-worst mark was .610 in 2009-10.

Robinson had been a force in 1995-96 — he finished second in the NBA in both win shares (18.3) and win shares per 48 minutes (.290) and was runner-up in the MVP voting — and his loss was a death blow to the Spurs.

“The Admiral” hurt his back in the preseason and did not make his first appearance until December 10. Just six games later, on December 26, Robinson broke his foot in a loss to the Heat and missed the remainder of the season.

As if Robinson’s injury wasn’t bad enough, forward Sean Elliott missed 43 games due to tendinitis in his right leg.

Elliott had been an All-Star in 1995-96, averaging a career high 20.0 points per game with a true shooting percentage of .585 TS%, the second best mark of his career.

But Elliott struggled in 1996-97, no doubt due to the tendinitis, averaging .051 WS/48, the second-worst rate of his 12-year career.

The Next Season

The Spurs won the NBA Draft lottery and selected Tim Duncan. The combination of Duncan and a healthy Robinson proved to be one of the best post combos of all time, and the Spurs improved by 36 wins, at the time an NBA record.

2009-10 Cleveland Cavaliers: 61-21
2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers: 19-63

What Happened?

LeBron James.

The Decision.

Comic Sans.

You know the rest.

The Next Season

The Cavaliers were still one of the worst teams in the NBA, but they did win more games in the 66-game, lockout-shortened season (21) than they did in 2010-11.

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