Rare company: Suns could have NBA’s worst record in back-to-back years
The Phoenix Suns are going through a historical stretch of basketball. And not in a good way.
At the All-Star break, the Suns are 11-48, the worst record in the NBA. This comes one season after finishing with the fewest wins in the league at 21-61.
If Phoenix was to keep this pace and have the NBA’s worst record in back-to-back years, it would be one of three teams in the past 25 years to do so.
How did the two teams who finished last in back-to-back years, the Chicago Bulls and Vancouver Grizzlies, perform after hitting rock bottom? Not great.
During the 10 seasons that followed the first year of each teams’ NBA-worst back-to-back, the Bulls and Grizzlies combined for eight playoff berths and one playoff series win.
Here are detailed looks at both teams’ runs after bottoming out, focusing on roster construction to keep our time short.
2000-02 Chicago Bulls
Let’s go back two years, first.
The Bulls jumped two spots in the 1999 NBA Draft Lottery and picked Elton Brand No. 1 overall.
Brand was terrific in his debut season, averaging 20.1 points and 10.0 rebounds to win co-Rookie of the Year. The issue was that Brand and another 20-year-old going by the name of Ron Artest were asked to lead the group after post-dynasty holdover Toni Kukoc was traded at the deadline for John Starks and a 2000 first-round pick.
The Bulls went 17-65 that 1999-00 season. Chicago dropped two spots in the lottery and picked Marcus Fizer one spot ahead of Rookie of the Year Mike Miller. Fizer only lasted in the league for six seasons while Miller was a crucial role player for 15. Whoops!
They made up for that by trading back one spot, from seventh to eighth, to acquire the rights to Jamal Crawford (good!) for Chris Mihm (bad!).
Ron Mercer and Brad Miller were the team’s big free agent additions, and the Bulls won a franchise-low and league-low 15 games the following 2000-01 season.
With Brand continuing his strong production in year two, the Bulls decided it was a good idea to deal him for the No. 2 overall pick in the 2001 NBA Draft, Tyson Chandler.
They also drafted Eddy Curry with the fourth selection (after dropping two spots in the lottery), giving them two players straight out of high school playing the same position. Jason Richardson and Shane Battier, who had long-time careers as NBA wings, were the two picks after Curry. Ouch.
Midseason, the Bulls dealt Mercer, Miller and Artest to Indiana for veterans Jalen Rose, Travis Best and Norman Richardson.
Brand went on to make the All-Star team in his 2001-02 season for the Clippers while the Bulls tied with the Golden State Warriors for the worst record in the NBA: 21-61. Chandler and Curry each averaged fewer than seven points a game, as you might expect from raw project centers.
The Bulls stayed put at No. 2 in the 2002 NBA Draft Lottery and selected promising and seasoned Duke point guard Jay Williams.
Led by Rose, free agent addition Donyell Marshall and the developing fivesome of Crawford, Curry, Chandler, Fizer and Williams, the Bulls improved to 30 wins for the 2002-03 season.
One week before the 2003 NBA Draft, the moment that skewed this group downward was Williams being seriously injured in a motorcycle accident that ended his career. With the seventh pick, the Bulls picked his replacement, Kirk Hinrich.
Oh, and that slight growth in a win total by acquiring win-now pieces in Rose and Best had them miss out on a top-five of the draft including LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. So perhaps there’s another timeline where Williams and the Chicago product Wade (or James or Anthony or Bosh) are leading the Bulls back to prominence. That’s rough.
Heading into the 2003-04 season, the Bulls would hope the third season for Chandler and Curry would bring their emergence. Unfortunately, Curry had conditioning issues while Chandler’s back continued to give him problems. Meanwhile, Artest made his first All-Star team with the Pacers, and Miller made his second.
Crawford led the Bulls in scoring, Rose was traded to Toronto and the Bulls regressed to 23 wins.
In the offseason, Fizer wasn’t brought back while Rose and Crawford were traded. Things turned around the 2004 NBA Draft, however, and a young group led by Hinrich, No. 3 pick Ben Gordon, Curry and seventh overall pick Luol Deng won 47 games (Editor’s note: Here is where we remember the Suns owned the No. 7 pick and traded the rights to Deng for Jackson Vroman, the 31st pick, a conditional future first-rounder and cash).
Chandler re-signed in the offseason, but Curry’s health issues brought on a clash with the front office and his eventual departure to the Knicks in a trade.
Ultimately, the Bulls would continue shuffling that group over the years. Chandler was traded after the team signed an aging Ben Wallace to a big-money deal, Gordon left in free agency and the team traded LaMarcus Aldridge on draft night for Tyrus Thomas (Whoops! Part 2).
Long story short: The Bulls drafted three big-time young talents out of the losing, but all three had very underwhelming careers in Chicago for various reasons. Meanwhile, they traded three young players who became All-Stars in that time window.
1995-97 Vancouver Grizzlies
This one’s gonna be a lot more simple to explain.
As an expansion team during a not-so-talented draft, the Grizzlies’ first pick in the expansion draft was Greg Anthony. Anthony was a fine player in his day but not someone who should be a team’s first, second or sixth option.
Oh, and they got screwed in the 1995 NBA Draft. Because rules are rules or whatever, the expansion agreement for the Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors excluded them from landing a top-five pick, placing them sixth and seventh in the draft order, respectively.
The top five selections in that 1995 NBA Draft? Joe Smith, Antonio McDyess, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett. Garnett, most notably, went one spot before Vancouver’s sixth overall pick, Bryant “Big Country” Reeves.
In their inaugural 1995-96 season, the Grizzlies were the worst team in the league at 15-67.
Even as the Grizzlies were able to get prime young talent in Reeves and their next first-round pick Shareef Abdur-Rahim, they couldn’t bring in the veterans or some of that young talent successfully because of the newness of the situation in having Canadian NBA teams. Because, seriously, imagine turning down living in Vancouver? Madness.
In a theme of this look-back, draft and lottery luck was not in Vancouver’s favor. Abdur-Rahim had his moments in the league but the next three selections after him were Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen and Antoine Walker. The Grizzlies also dropped two spots in the lottery from number one, which was the year Allen Iverson went at the top spot.
Due to more questionable rules of the expansion, the Grizzlies and Raptors were both not allowed to pick No. 1 overall in the 1996-98 NBA Drafts. The Raptors won the lottery in 1996, as did the Grizzlies in 1998, but both were bumped down a spot because of the ruling.
Abdur-Rahim was the leading scorer the next year, averaging 18.7 points a game as a rookie and earning a First Team All-Rookie nod. Reeves produced as well, with 16.2 points and 8.1 rebounds a night, but with their two best players at 20 and 23 years old, the Grizzlies went 14-68 and were the worst two years in a row.
In the 1997 NBA Draft Lottery, Vancouver dropped three spots and picked Antonio Daniels. Tim Duncan was the first pick to the San Antonio Spurs and Chauncey Billups was third to the Boston Celtics.
The franchise-changing talent was there with the likes of Allen, Billups, Duncan, Garnett and Iverson, but the Grizzlies couldn’t get lucky and were put in a terrible position because of the expansion rules.
Even after selecting the ever-solid Mike Bibby in the 1998 NBA Draft at the second pick following a 19-win season, the Grizzlies could never turn it around by acquiring the right pieces around the young talent they were accumulating.
Steve Francis proved the difficulty in getting players to come to Vancouver true in 1999. He requested a trade from the Grizzlies after being picked second and got his wish.
The Grizzlies wouldn’t win more than 30 games until the 2003-04 season, a 50-spot led by Pau Gasol.
Long story short: Vancouver needed all-time great young talent given their situation and in another reality, they got it if they had better fortune in the lottery with rules that didn’t set them up for failure.
How do the Suns stand in comparison?
Considering the dozens of circumstantial variables in those two instances, it’s tough to say.
What we can say is the Suns have the young talent to win in the future.
Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, whatever comes of the Suns’ upcoming first-round pick and the other pieces should yield enough talent that projects a handful of playoff berths and a couple series wins, at least.
With that being said, the Suns could have their hiccups along the way that foreshadows similar disaster as the Bulls and Grizzlies.
The point guard trade deadline fiasco in 2016 and the 2016 NBA Draft are all major losses.
There are more recent ones along the way like the veteran additions of Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson during the no-point-guard season of 2018-19 (THIS IS A THING THAT HAS HAPPENED!) and the Suns’ passing on a potentially transcendent player in 2018 for Ayton — the last of which is far too soon to call but not looking so great. How about picking the wrong year to be last again for the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery, one that doesn’t even give the team with the worst record the outright best odds for a chance at Zion Williamson?
Once we have 15 years of hindsight, we’ll see where the Suns wind up if they do indeed land in the gutter two years in a row.