Sometimes weirdness creeps up on you slowly. You are aware of it, but because it happens gradually, you get used to it. But you watch what’s happening in New York, then you look at the larger overall NBA picture, and you think how strange is it that three of the greatest winners in the history of basketball had become either tolerant of or responsible for losing?
Five years after winning his 11th NBA title as a head coach, Phil Jackson has the Knicks in position to challenge the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers as the team with the worst 82-game record in NBA history.
Those 9-73 Sixers, however, found slight relief in 2011-12 when Michael Jordan’s Bobcats had a 7-59 record in a season shortened by a labor dispute. Their winning percentage (.106) was worse than the Sixers’ (.110), although who knows how many of those 16 cancelled games those meek Bobcats could have won.
And we have already covered Magic Johnson’s ideal scenario for the Lakers, which, being an unashamed career apologist for Magic, I did my utmost best to explain.
When Jack McCallum was at Sports Illustrated, he created the popular offbeat item for the weekly magazine and called it “Sign that the Apocalypse is Upon Us.” That is a perfect description for the spectacle of Michael, Magic and the Master of Zen associated with losing.
As it turns out, Jackson has been much more effective implementing Magic’s strategy than the Lakers or anyone else. With a record of 5-35 and 15 consecutive losses – including another ugly one Saturday to Jordan’s Hornets, who are not good but are better than those Bobcats – the Knicks are headed to the lottery full throttle, and trading two of their better players for a 2019 second-round pick, much to the dismay of Sheridan, has made them even worse.
Phil has much to celebrate, and in terms of his legacy, nothing to fear. He may put the worst team in history on the floor this season, but he will still have a career record of 1,155-485 and a winning percentage of .704 as a head coach. And he has those 11 rings. His reputation is secure.
Not so much for Derek Fisher. The first-year Knicks coach is being booed heavily at games and by the end of the season, he may find himself in the same sentence as Roy Rubin, and that’s not a good neighborhood. Rubin was a decent high school and college coach who took a 76ers job that better coaches had turned down and made a mess of it.
Rubin lasted 51 games and directed the Sixers to 47 losses. According to a very entertaining story in the Philadelphia Daily News, he was fired and “headed down to Florida to eventually own an International House of Pancakes, never coaching another game of basketball.”
Of all NBA coaches who have coached at least 50 games, Rubin has the worst record at 4-47.
The good news for Fisher is that he already has five victories. The bad news is that even if he doubles that and avoids being head coach of a team that either ties or becomes the worst in a full regular season, Fisher can still set a dubious record.
The worst record of any head coach who has coached an entire season was Bill Hanzlik’s 11-71 with the Denver Nuggets in 1997-98. Not far behind is Quinn Buckner’s 13-69 with the Dallas Mavericks in 1993-94.
Right now, Fisher’s winning percentage of .125 projects to 10.3 victories. And it should be noted that the Knicks, who began the season 2-1, are still playing without Carmelo Anthony, who has been in the lineup for each of those five victories. Jackson said Saturday that knee surgery is an option for Anthony.
Unlike Hanzlik and Buckner, who each lasted one season and never got another head coaching job, Fisher would seem secure because of his history and relationship with Jackson. But if he starts his coaching career with 10 or so victories in his first season, what chance will he ever have of becoming even a .500 coach?
The same applies to Brett Brown, the current Sixers coach, whose first head coaching job was with the North Melbourne Giants in Australia’s National Basketball League. Like the Knicks, the Sixers have this wacky plan of going from awful to awesome and Brown’s record is, well, down under as a result.
With 24 victories and 92 losses, Brown’s chances of having an average coaching record before being fired are about the same as Pat’s King of Steaks replacing its cheesesteak rib-eye meat with grilled kangaroo.
Some coaches manage to hang around despite poor records. Brian Winters coached parts of three seasons in Vancouver and Golden State despite winning only 19.6 percent of his games (36-148).
Sidney Lowe lasted parts of five seasons with three teams despite winning 25.7 percent of his games (79-228).
According to basketball-reference.com, there have been 110 men who have coached 300 or more NBA games. Only two of them – Tim Floyd (90-231, .280) and Ron Rothstein (97-231, .296) have won less than 30 percent of their games.
A bad early record can be reversed. After replacing Bob Hill, Gregg Popovich was 17-47 (.266) in his first season, but went 56-26 in his second. Of course, that was the year Tim Duncan joined the team and David Robinson returned after missing 76 games because of injuries the previous season.
Organizations with a drastic plan to turn losing into winning — like the Knicks and Sixers — can preach patience all they want. But more often than not, when a coach can’t win more than 20 percent of his games, his career is a short one.
Michael Jordan has made basketball decisions in Charlotte for nine years and has had six coaches. Jackson will turn 70 before next season.
We’ll see how long he stays enamored with Fisher if the losing continues and Knicks fans, who do not collectively possess the sunniest of dispositions, become even more irritable.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.
ANY TRUTH TO GLOOM AND DOOM FORECASTS FOR SPURS?
CELEBRATING NAISMITH ON BASKETBALL’S 123RD ANNIVERSARY
MAGIC, LIKE MICHAEL, HAS A COMPETITION PROBLEM
TANKING USED TO BE SO MUCH MORE FUN
LAKERS ARE ALL KOBE, ALL THE TIME
DIRK NOWITZKI-LARRY BIRD: STILL NOT A VALID COMPARISON
MICHELE ROBERTS’ POSTURING REMINISCENT OF STERN
KYRIE WILL FIND OUT THAT LeBRON IS GOOD AT SHARING
SHOULD HARDEN TRADE STILL BE CURSED FOR THUNDER?
LAKERS ARE WORTHY OF, AHEM, PRIME TIME
A 44-MINUTE GAME? WHAT WOULD WILT SAY?
SMART MONEY IS ON THE SPURS