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Mailbag: Last-Place Teams Who Beat the League’s Best

Posted by Neil Paine on April 6, 2011

Longtime BBR reader Imadogg had a great observation/question last Wednesday:

"Last night, the last place Cavs beat the Greatest Team Ever Assembled, the Miami Heat. That means this year, the Cavaliers have defeated the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, and Miami Heat... 3 of the top 6 teams in the league (record-wise, as of now), and the current 2, 2, and 3 seeds.

When was the last time this happened, that the last place team in the entire league defeated half of the top 6 teams in a single season? Maybe it happens more often than I think, but I'd be surprised."

I was finally able to research this today. First, I searched for teams ranked last (or tied for last) in the NBA in WPct. Then, I searched for teams ranked in the top 6 (again, with ties) in WPct, and counted how many different times those teams had been beaten by the last-place teams. Here's every instance in NBA history where a last-place team by WPct beat at least 3 of the top 6 teams by WPct:

Last-Place Team Record WPct Lg Tms Top 6 (& ties) Beaten Pct of Top 6
1952 Milwaukee Hawks 17-49 0.258 10 6 of 6 100%
1953 Philadelphia Warriors 12-57 0.174 10 3 of 6 50%
1954 Baltimore Bullets 16-56 0.222 9 5 of 6 83%
1955 Milwaukee Hawks 26-46 0.361 8 6 of 6 100%
1956 Rochester Royals 31-41 0.431 8 7 of 7 100%
1957 Rochester Royals 31-41 0.431 8 7 of 7 100%
1958 Minneapolis Lakers 19-53 0.264 8 6 of 7 86%
1959 Cincinnati Royals 19-53 0.264 8 6 of 6 100%
1960 Cincinnati Royals 19-56 0.253 8 5 of 6 83%
1961 New York Knicks 21-58 0.266 8 6 of 6 100%
1962 Chicago Packers 18-62 0.225 9 5 of 6 83%
1963 New York Knicks 21-59 0.263 9 6 of 6 100%
1964 New York Knicks 22-58 0.275 9 6 of 6 100%
1965 San Francisco Warriors 17-63 0.213 9 5 of 6 83%
1966 Detroit Pistons 22-58 0.275 9 6 of 6 100%
Last-Place Team Record WPct Lg Tms Top 6 (& ties) Beaten Pct of Top 6
1967 Baltimore Bullets 20-61 0.247 10 7 of 7 100%
1968 San Diego Rockets 15-67 0.183 12 5 of 6 83%
1970 San Diego Rockets 27-55 0.329 14 4 of 6 67%
1973 Philadelphia 76ers 9-73 0.110 17 3 of 6 50%
1974 Philadelphia 76ers 25-57 0.305 17 5 of 7 71%
1976 Chicago Bulls 24-58 0.293 18 3 of 6 50%
1977 New York Nets 22-60 0.268 22 4 of 6 67%
1978 New Jersey Nets 24-58 0.293 22 3 of 6 50%
1979 New Orleans Jazz 26-56 0.317 22 6 of 9 67%
1984 Indiana Pacers 26-56 0.317 23 5 of 6 83%
1985 Indiana Pacers 22-60 0.268 23 5 of 6 83%
1986 New York Knicks 23-59 0.280 23 3 of 6 50%
2002 Golden State Warriors 21-61 0.256 29 4 of 7 57%
2011 Cleveland Cavaliers 16-61 0.208 30 3 of 6 50%

Lo and behold, the 2011 Cavaliers are indeed on the list.

Notice how much harder this feat is to pull off now than in the NBA's early days, simply because the league has expanded so much. In the late 1950s, with an 8-team league, "top-6 teams" almost overlapped with "last-place teams". But the 2011 Cavs are the first team to do it in the 30-team era, and just the second in the last 25 seasons. So even in what has been a miserable season for Cleveland, they can take credit for this positive -- and rare -- accomplishment.

15 Responses to “Mailbag: Last-Place Teams Who Beat the League’s Best”

  1. huevonkiller Says:

    They beat the Lakers after losing by 55 earlier in the season. That was far more impressive.

    Still it is a matter of sample size to me, the Cavs don't have some intrinsic advantage against elite teams.

  2. Andres Reina Says:

    Very interesting. Although the Cavs have the worst record in the league they have taken down the most elite teams. I look foward to reading your next entry!

  3. Jason J Says:

    They also split their wins pre-Baron trade and post-Baron trade, so it's not like there's some key personnel issue going on here. I'd guess a mix of opponent apathy and sheer unpredictability may help.

  4. Greyberger Says:

    I can't help but think opponents overlooking the Cavs is involved here. The losing streak and the team dropping to the bottom of the league was a national story for weeks. If players and coaches prepared more for other contests it would be understandable, not that I've heard any quotes to that effect.

  5. P Middy Says:

    4th hardest SOS. Practice helps . . .

  6. Imadogg Says:

    Thanks for the research Neil... wow, the worst record of all time had 33% of it's wins against 3 of the top 6 teams haha. Now that's crazy.

  7. Ed Says:

    I appreciate Neil taking the time to research this but the Cavs only have a 1/2 game "lead" on the T-Wolves for the worst record. So they may not end up as the worst team in the league. Which would render this whole exercise pointless.

  8. BSK Says:

    To Ed's point, are the Win% calculated at the time of the game or season-to-date (which would be season-end for all but this year)? That seems to matter, since these numbers could jostle. A team may have beat an elite team mid-year only to have that team fall from their lofty perch. Naturally, that would make us cast doubt of considering them to be of elite status, but if their fall from grace was a function of injuries, it might muddy the waters a bit. Of course, any wins in the early part of the year would be equally invalid. I guess the point is that the only appropriate way to do this would be to look at end-of-year Win%, to which the Cavs are yet to necessarily achieve this.

  9. yariv Says:

    Imadogg, you might find it less crazy if you say that the worst record of all time got one third of their wins against the top third of teams...

  10. Mike Goodman Says:

    This study of course begs the question: What teams finished with the best record and managed to lose to several of the worst teams?

    I nominate the 1985-86 Celtics, that dominant Walton-backed team which cruised to a 67-15 record. Among their 15 losses, they were beaten by the 5 worst teams in the East, and twice to NJ.

    Their 15 losses came to teams averaging 38.6 wins. Avg SRS of -1.0 .

    Now these studies based on W-L records are kind of dodgy, in that a terrible team that manages to beat some great teams may improve their record to where they aren't the 'worst' team that year.

    What about a really big data dump that simply compares all team/opponent SRS and finds the least predictable results in a team's schedule? That is, the greatest average difference between expected and actual results. This would obviate the discrepancies of league size, W% vs SRS, etc.

    Maybe middling teams would have the most unpredictable results. More likely, those with great home/away disparity. I still go with the '86 Celts.

  11. Tay Says:

    All you need is the heart of a Champion!!! You can defeat anybody.

  12. steven Says:

    They also beat the Knicks 3 times.

  13. P Middy Says:

    to be fair, that was before Carmelo learned how to play defense for one game.

  14. JeremyD Says:

    You'd lose a good chunk of your results, but I think the gist of the question would be better phrased by 'How often has the worst team (by however you define worst) beaten a team in the top 1/5th of the league?'

    I think it is amusing though that from 56-58, any team that the last place team beat would have been in 'the top 6'.

  15. MikeN Says:

    Bulls are next.

    The Cavs are underperforming. They have Jamison and Williams.