How many NBA teams with losing records reached the playoffs? originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
It doesn’t take much to advance past the regular season in the NBA these days.
For decades, just over half the league moved on to the playoffs with eight teams from each conference in the mix. There are still 16 actual playoff spots, but the addition of the play-in tournament has given more teams an opportunity to reach the postseason.
For the last two seasons, the number of teams still alive after the regular season jumped to 20. With two-thirds of the league reaching the play-in or playoffs, there are bound to be some squads with losing records.
It’s one thing to make the playoffs as a losing regular season team. It’s another to do something once they’re there. In most cases, those teams are merely a stepping stone for the actual contenders.
The New Orleans Pelicans will look to buck that trend. After beating the San Antonio Spurs in the No. 9-No. 10 play-in game, the Pelicans have a chance to earn the No. 8 seed. They need to beat the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday first, though. And if they win? They will be met with a first-round series against the No. 1 seed Phoenix Suns.
Before the Pelicans fight to keep their season alive on Friday, let’s look back on prior sub-.500 teams to reach the playoffs:
How many teams with losing records have made the NBA playoffs?
Since the field expanded from 12 teams to 16 in 1984, 47 teams with a losing regular season record have reached the NBA playoffs.
After a four-year drought with no such team from 2016 to 2019, four have pulled it out over the last two postseasons. The Brooklyn Nets, Orlando Magic and Portland Trail Blazers all reached the Bubble playoffs in 2020. The Blazers needed to win a play-in game over a sub-.500 foe, the Memphis Grizzlies, to secure that playoff berth.
The 2020-21 Washington Wizards also needed to win a play-in game to reach the playoffs. After finishing the regular season as the East’s No. 8 seed with a 34-38 record, Washington lost to the Boston Celtics in a game for the No. 7 spot and secured its playoff spot with a play-in victory over the Indiana Pacers.
If the Pelicans beat the Clippers on Friday, they will become just the second Western Conference team with a sub-.500 record to reach the first round since 1997.
What is the worst regular season record for a playoff team in NBA history?
Of the 47 teams with losing records to reach the playoffs, nine of them had win percentages below .450. Here’s a look at the teams with the worst records to play in the postseason dating back to 1984:
1. 1985-86 Chicago Bulls, 30-52 (.366)
2. 1987-88 San Antonio Spurs, 31-51 (.378)
T-3. 1983-84 Washington Bullets, 35-47 (.427)
T-3. 1985-86 San Antonio Spurs, 35-47 (.427)
T-3. 1994-95 Boston Celtics, 35-47 (.427)
T-6. 1984-85 Phoenix Suns, 36-46 (.439)
T-6. 1984-85 Cleveland Cavaliers, 36-46 (.439)
T-6. 1996-97 Los Angeles Clippers, 36-46 (.439)
T-6. 2003-04 Boston Celtics, 36-46 (.439)
T-10. Four teams, 37-45 (.451)
Has a team with a losing regular season record ever won an NBA playoff series?
Unsurprisingly, it’s tough for a team with a losing record to win a playoff series. After all:
1. It’s in the name – teams with a losing record lose.
2. Not only does the competition get stiffer in the playoffs, but these teams with losing records were immediately met with top seeds in the first round of the playoffs.
That said, there is one squad that overcame a losing record in the regular season to make an actual postseason run.
The Seattle SuperSonics went 39-43 (.476) during the 1986-87 season before upsetting the Dallas Mavericks 3-1 in the first round. The Sonics weren’t done there, either. They beat the Houston Rockets 4-2 in the West semis before getting swept by the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers in the conference finals.