The NBA Is The Best At Showing Us The Worst
8:57 AM EST on January 12, 2024
Feast your eyes on this little beauty from last night's NBA schedule.
It catches your eye in so many places, eliciting amazed mutterings like "Holy jumping Jesus!" "How does that happen?" and "No, seriously, how?" Just the notation "Scoot Henderson, minus-56" grabs your retinas and dips them in paint thinner. It is in and of itself a monumental lack of achievement, in that while plus-minus is largely dismissed as a valuable statistic, minus-56 is a standalone triumph. Only one person, Cleveland's Manny Harris, has ever had a larger plus-minus since the introduction of the statistic in 1996, and that was in a game in which the Cavaliers only lost by 55.
There is more to the game, to be sure, and by "more" we of course mean "far less," as Portland's chance of winning was declared to be zero percent before halftime—that is, before the Blazers were outscored by 26 in the third quarter. Sadly for posterity, the Blazers played Oklahoma City even through the fourth quarter, so it could not threaten the record for margin of victory, but the 11 players who played that period created a vortex of merited anonymity that may not be replicated in our lifetimes.
And for all of that magnificent hyperfutility, Portland is still no better than fifth in the race to be the worst team in the NBA. The Blazers were expected to be awful from the moment they traded Damian Lillard to Milwaukee, and they have exceeded that projection. But this NBA is unique in that there are four teams who are greater eyesores. They are likely to be among the 50 worst teams in the game's history, and that includes the 1955 Baltimore Bullets who decided after 14 games that there should not be a 15th. This is an amalgation of miserables sharing the same space in the time-space continuum unmatched in any season in anyone's history, and Portland is statistically an outlier in this group.
This is the weird underside of what is already the strangest NBA season in modern memory. The Western Conference makes less sense than it ever has, with recent also-rans Minnesota, Oklahoma City, Sacramento and New Orleans in top-six spots and playoff regulars like the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State, Memphis, and Portland in various states of inertia. The East is more normalized, with the exception of Indiana and Orlando, but the facts remain the same—the NBA in 2024 is blindfolded drunken sailors on leave.
But the most remarkable thing of all is the number of teams who are not only not good, but can be considered genuine blights on the dignity of the entertainment industry. Even allowing for tanking, which Adam Silver will never do anything about no matter how many times he attacks load management, the Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, Charlotte Hornets, Washington Wizards, and Detroit Pistons are almost uniquely skanky.
The problem in understanding the depth and breadth of this mass decomposition is that the Pistons have obscured the other four by losing 28 consecutive games and seizing the nation's imagination. Their victory over Toronto 13 days ago was celebrated as a triumph, but the six losses they have strung together since then have gone unnoted because there have been six losing streaks longer than that one. The Pistons have won five of their last 63 games going back to a double-overtime win over San Antonio last February, and entered this season with two 11-game losing streaks in their final 26 games of last year as appetizers for the hellscape of this year.
By comparison, the worst team in the NHL, the San Jose Sharks, have a 12-game and an 11-game losing streak this year, and we might have tried to make a case for them in this group if they hadn't won in Montreal last night. As it is, though, they barely rent a B&B in the distance of the NBA's bottomest feeders because while one team being terrible is normal and two is not unusual, five is remarkable. And truth be told, Memphis could conceivably join this group now that it has lost Ja Morant for the season, but to legitimately be part of the group the Grizzlies would have to go 5-40 from here until Tax Day.
Thus, as amazingly one-sided as last night's game was (fifth-most-lopsided, 27 percent shooting, no Oklahoma City player playing even half the game, blah-blah-blah-de-blah-blah), it was just part of a piece that made us imagine an in-season tournament from hell that becomes a better and better idea with each new game. Whatever else you might think about the 2023-24 NBA season, especially when the playoffs get going and the best teams are in full bloom, remember that they are all standing on the shoulders of those who came not before them but beneath them. We pay attention to the yang, but it means nothing without the yin.