The NBA does something strange: They consider Cleveland's 24-game losing streak in 1982 to be the all-time record even though the thing was accomplished over two seasons. That year, the Cavaliers lost lost their last 19 games of the 1981-82 season, and their first five of the1981-82 season.
Don't get me wrong -- that was a spectacular streak and a spectacular wreck of a team. What makes the thing even better is that the Cavaliers broke the streak against a terrible Golden State Warriors team at home, but they needed overtime to do it. And they promptly lost seven more in a row, which means the Cavs were a Warriors regulation shot away from losing 32 in a row. I was a big Cavaliers fan at the time, and I remember just how bad those teams were. People called them the Cadavers, and rarely has any insulting nickname fit better. But it wasn't their awfulness that made them stand out. It was their purpose. They seemed determined to rid themselves of any player that showed even the vaguest spark of talent.
The 1981-82 team had Bill Laimbeer, Mike Mitchell, Scott Wedman, James Edwards. That is not great, admittedly. But maybe with those four, a bunch of role players (something the Cavaliers did not lack -- 23 different players wore a Cavs uniform that season) and some intensity, you could at least make things respectable. Those Cavaliers were the arch-enemy of respectability, of course, and so they traded away all four within two years. It was that systematic purging of anything resembling aptitude that made that team, in my opinion, unique in NBA history. Mike Mitchell was my favorite player at the time, for lack of options. He was a turnover machine, which was a special feat because almost never passed the ball. His defense was often purely theoretical. But he could put the ball in the basket. This was too much for Cleveland. He was traded before the streak began for Ron Brewer, Reggie Johnson and cash. Especially, cash.
Bill Laimbeer -- by far the best player on the team, though to be fair the Cavaliers seemed hopelessly unaware of it at the time -- was traded for Phil Hubbard, Paul Mokeski and for first and second round draft picks. With those picks, and I swear this is true, the Cavaliers took John Bagley and Dave Magley. Yes. Bagley and Magley. It's like Dr. Seuss was running the organization.
Even so, even as gloriously bad as the those Cavaliers teams were, I don't think you should count a losing streak over two seasons. A two-year losing streak is an oddity, might make for an interesting bar bet, but it's not continuous. To me the longest losing streak in NBA history is 23 games, and for the next few days it will be held by the expansion 1995-96 Vancouver Grizzlies and the 1997-98 Denver Nuggets.
Both those teams were ghastly, of course. The Grizzlies actually won their first two games of the season -- they won at Portland to kick off the franchise's history, and then won their first home game in overtime against a dreadful Minnesota team. At that point, they lost 19 games in a row. They played above themselves for a little while after that, winning 8 of 30, three of those wins in overtime. Then they lost six in a row. Then they beat Sacramento and went into their 23-game free fall. That Grizzlies team, even looking back had no real bright spots. Their best player was probably Greg Anthony, and with all due respect you can really be only so good when your best player is Greg Anthony. Heck, he was the third or fourth best player on his best college team, and that team lost to Duke.
The Nuggets lost the first 12 games of the season. After two nondescript weeks, they lost their 23 in a row. After a nondescript three weeks, they lost 16 more in a row. That Nuggets team was so depressing, I get sad just going back and looking at their roster. Their best player really and truly might have been Anthony Goldwire who started two games for the rest of his NBA career. Their leading scorer was one of my favorite NBA guys, Johnny Newman, who was already on his seventh team.
Yes, those teams were bad, and they are deserving of the consecutive loss record. Or they were worthy of it. This year's Cleveland Cavaliers have lost 21 games in a row. They have not even forced overtime.* They should tie the Vancouver/Denver consecutive-loss record Friday at Memphis. They should break it at home against Portland on Saturday. They should lose by roughly 75 points next Monday at Dallas to break what the NBA considers the official record. And from there, the ground's the limit.
*This Cavaliers losing streak is already the longest regulation streak in NBA history -- that is nobody has lost 21 consecutive games without at least forcing overtime once.
Of course, they don't have to tie or break the record at all. A few well-placed shots, a burst of inspiration, it's not impossible that they will beat Indiana at home on Wednesday. But it's pretty close to impossible. That's because this Cavaliers team is playing worse than any team ever. The thing began on Dec. 2, when they played an impossibly overhyped game against the Miami Heat and the best player in Cleveland Cavaliers history LeBron James. There's no need to go over the James saga again, at least not now. It's just worth saying that the air was charged that night, and at that point the Cavaliers were wearing the impostor clothes of the overmatched-but-scrappy underdogs. They had won seven of 18 games, including an opening night shocker against the Celtics. it did not seem impossible going in that the Cavaliers could win the game on adrenaline and karma. It soon proved to be impossible. The Cavaliers embarrassed themselves both on the court and off, losing by 28 and chumming it up with LeBron during breaks in the action. Two nights later they lost at Minnesota (Minnesota!) by 34. That was in the midst of a 10-game losing streak, the losses by an average of 17.5 points.
The Cavaliers somehow beat the Knicks 109-102 in overtime on December 18. That, of course, was their last win. But it isn't just losing -- they have been getting annihilated night after night after night. They have lost by eight points or more in 19 of the 21 losses -- the only two close games include a one-point loss against the unbearably bad Minnesota Timberwolves and a two-point loss at the unbearably bad New Jersey Nets.
Other than that, it's freak show. They lost by 28 at Denver, by 22 at Utah, by 18 at Golden State, by 17 at Boston. Of course, they lost by 112-57 at Los Angeles, which set all sorts of records. At one point in that game, the score was 92-41, and as my friend Stone says, it's is likely that at no other point in NBA history has a team ever led another team 92-41, not ever, not even for one possession.
This Cavaliers team is awful, no question about it. And they've lost Anderson Varejao for the season and Mo Williams for some indefinite period of time -- those were probably their two best players last year with the exception of that guy named LeBron.
But I think there's something else going on here too. I think teams, collectively, can start to believe in a narrative. Teams can start to believe "nobody beats us at our place" or "we are great at making comebacks" or "we're better conditioned and will win in the fourth quarter." I'm not saying that a bad team can believe itself into being good, or even that the power of belief is quantifiable. But I do think that in the razor thin margins that separate the most talented players and their teams, there is something real about narrative, something about what a team believes about itself.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, with LeBron James, had the best record in the NBA each of the past two seasons. Players like Varejao and Williams, Antawn Jamison, Anthony Parker, Daniel Gibson, J.J. Gibson were part of that. Were they going to be bad this year without James? Of course. But it seems to me that after they were humiliated by James and the Heat in front of their home fans, a narrative was established: This Cavaliers team was hopeless. They were simply the wreckage left behind The Decision. There was no point in fighting the inevitable. And the inevitable has happened.
The immediate future of this Cavaliers team looks bleak. Monday night, the Cavs played at Miami, and everyone knew they would lose, and they were down 35-20 after one quarter. They were outscored 51-33 in the second half, even though LeBron played halfheartedly and Chris Bosh was more or less sleepwalking. The Cavs lost by 27, but the score was literally whatever Miami wanted the scored to be -- the Heat could have won by 60. The reality is that a team starting Manny Harris, J.J. Hickson, Ramon Sessions and Christian Eyenga isn't going to win often. Give that team a reason to fail, and history can happen.