A 30-win season is certainly not good by any standard, but John Kuester‘s 2010-11 record as coach of the Pistons is pretty run of the mill as far as bad seasons go.
But when you combine the record the tumultuous nature of the season — the team in flux because of uncertain ownership, the alleged player boycott in Philadelphia, the banishment and then reinstatement of Rip Hamilton — Kuester had a really bad season.
A few times this season, especially around the time the boycott happened, I wrote that the extent of the insubordination of players seemed unprecedented. I decided to try and search around for some other coaching seasons that can compete with Kuester’s for overall disastrousness. Now, this isn’t just about wins and losses. I could simply list the coaches of the teams with the worse individual records and call it a day. I’m looking for seasons that saw coaches deal with unbelievable amounts of off-court stuff that helped torpedo their seasons. Here were the examples that stuck out most in my mind, but feel free to add your additions in the comments. I think Kuester’s has to be near the top of the list, because mutinies are just so crazy to think about, but I don’t think anyone can touch the gentleman who leads off this group.
P.J. Carlesimo, Golden State Warriors, 1997-98
Carlesimo was easily the first name that came to mind when thinking about the absolute worst seasons a coach could have. I’m sure everyone knows what happened between Carlesimo and Latrell Sprewell, but for those who weren’t following the NBA in 1997, here’s a refresher:
"Three days after being fined for missing a team flight and arriving late to Salt Lake City the night before a game, Latrell Sprewell let Golden State Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo know that it was best to leave him alone.“I don’t want to hear it today,” Sprewell said after Carlesimo asked him to throw crisper passes during a practice.Tensions had been boiling between the two. Three weeks earlier, Carlesimo yanked Sprewell from a game against the Los Angeles Lakers, calling him a joke, because Sprewell was laughing in the huddle during a timeout. The Lakers held a big lead at the time.Today, Carlesimo was warned by Sprewell not to approach him. When the coach ignored the caveat, Sprewell grabbed Carlesimo by the throat for 10-15 seconds before the other players stepped in. About 20 minutes later, Sprewell returned to throw punches at the coach. He landed a glancing blow."
That happened in Carlesimo’s first season as Warriors coach, a season in which he won just 19 games. Even with the unprecedented alleged mutiny Kuester faced this season, I don’t think any coach will ever “top” the overall wretchedness of Carlesimo’s 1997-98 season.
Rick Carlisle, Indiana Pacers, 2004-05
Miraculously, this team managed to win 44 games and win a playoff series. Those things are a testament to Carlisle’s coaching. But if it weren’t for one of the ugliest night’s in NBA history in November 2004, this team was capable of so much more.
This, of course, is the season that the Palace brawl helped dismantle a Pacers team that was young and talented enough to be a legit threat to Detroit’s spot atop the Eastern Conference. After losing to Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals the previous season, the Pacers added Stephen Jackson to an already talented core group that won 61 games the year before. Then, of course, the brawl happened, Indiana lost Ron Artest for the season and Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal for huge parts of it. Carlisle and the Pacers were so desperate for bodies while coping with the suspensions that they even brought in Michael Curry and started him in seven games. Other names who saw action on that team were Britton Johnson, Tremaine Fowlkes (Hey! Another former Piston!), Eddie Gill, John Edwards (not to be confused with this guy) and Marcus Haislip.
Carlisle deserves tremendous credit for molding this team in the face of great turmoil into a scrappy bunch that held things together until O’Neal and Jackson got back. But the pre-Brawl Pacers were talented, young at key positions, good defensively and deep. They appeared to primed for many years of contending for titles. During this season, their window was slammed shut shockingly.
M.L. Carr, Boston Celtics, 1996-97
Boston had four players who started at either power forward or center at different points in the season and shot 44 percent or worse: Antoine Walker (42 percent), Frank Brickowski (43 percent), Dino Radja (44 percent) and Alton Lister (41 percent). But it was all for Timmy.
In one of the most blatantly obvious incidents of tanking in NBA history, the league’s flagship franchise, coached by the team’s general manager M.L. Carr, trotted out the likes of Stacy King, Marty Conlon and Todd Day, among others, increasing the odds the Celtics would win the lottery and nab Tim Duncan to give them their much-needed interior presence.
Instead, Boston ended up with the fourth pick, taking Chauncey Billups, who new coach Rick Pitino gave up on after half a season. Walker became the anchor of their interior by proudly chucking up 3-pointers at about a 30 percent clip for the next decade or so. And Carr, who now had the distinction of overseeing the worst season in Boston Celtics history, was re-assigned to the Celtics corporate development office and later oversaw a WNBA team in Charlotte.
Frank Hamblen, Los Angeles Lakers, 2004-05
After the 2004 Pistons effectively ended the Lakers mini-dynasty in the early 2000s, Shaq was traded, Phil Jackson retired while roasting Kobe Bryant in a book on his way out and the Lakers turned to respected former Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich to take over the Bryant-led version of the operation.
Rudy T quit halfway through the season, however, with the Lakers at an OK 24-19 mark. Then Frank Hamblen took over and went 10-29 the rest of the way.
Hamblen was just an interim guy, but I don’t think anyone expected the bottom to quickly fall out on the Lakers like that. So what went wrong? Other than re-adjusting to life without Shaq and Jackson while Bryant was finding his way as a team leader (a road that was bumpy for him for a couple of years), the fact that Chucky Atkins led the team in minutes played was a good indicator of why L.A. didn’t win more. At least they got Andrew Bynum out of it with their lottery pick, though.
Ron Rothstein, Detroit Pistons, 1992-93
Rothstein’s 40-42 record is mediocre, but he was in over his head when he moved from the broadcast booth on local Pistons games to the sidelines.
In his lone season coaching the team, Rothstein only had to deal with following in the footsteps of legendary Chuck Daly. Daly’s shadow still looms large as the greatest coach in the history of the organization and one of the greatest coaches of all time, so imagine taking over the year after he left. Daly’s departure also gave Rothstein another headache: minus Daly, Dennis Rodman’s mentor and father figure, Rodman became increasingly erratic and difficult to deal with. In February of that season, Rodman was discovered sleeping the Palace parking lot with a gun.
On the court, the team also suffered an identity crisis, moving away from its defensive roots. The Pistons had brought in offensive-minded players like Orlando Woolridge and Brad Sellers the previous season to try and add new life to the veteran team. It predictably didn’t work out well. Sellers was gone before the season started and Woolridge was traded during Rothstein’s first season for Alvin Robertson (Robertson was dumped the following season after he attacked director of player personnel Billy McKinney). More finesse players like Terry Mills and Gerald Glass also joined the roster under Rothstein and didn’t really mesh with the old guard. Veteran players like Bill Laimbeer and Mark Aguirre began to show their age, as did Isiah Thomas, who only shot 42 percent from the field (a career low) and 30 percent from three that season.
The bottom didn’t fully fall out until the next season when Thomas suffered what turned out to be a career-ending injury, Laimbeer retired just 11 games into the season and Rodman was traded for Sean Elliot. But the Pistons were well on their way to the bottom during Rothstein’s only season as coach.