Sometimes they lost always, such as 26 straight times for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Now the NBA's biggest losers have a chance for a huge win.
The draft lottery is Tuesday, a night some teams appeared to be aiming toward for months during a season that featured plenty of talking about tanking.
The winner gets the No. 1 pick in next month's draft, when an Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker might make this season's misery worth it.
It's a potential make-or-break night for some teams, which is why the lottery's broadcast (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) ends up as the prime-time lead-in for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals.
"To me it's part of the mystery and part of the enjoyment in seeing who's right, who's wrong," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said recently.
"Will these perceived great players coming into the draft really be in a position to turn around teams? So it's part of the fun."
The Bucks and 76ers sure are enjoying it, and they're trying to get their fans in on the good times. There's a viewing party in Milwaukee, where all fans will get a pingpong ball. The 76ers were giving away a trip to New York, where they were to be represented on stage by Hall of Famer Julius Erving.
Silver is aware of the tanking speculation and is uneasy that fans might think teams were willing to take their money without caring about winning games. But he understands that teams sometimes need to rebuild, and that may mean going straight to the bottom if they think that's the quickest route to the top.
"The jury is out on the strategy, and I think that makes for good copy as well. I'm intrigued," Silver said.
"I read both sides of it in terms of, is that the right way to build a team, what impact does it have on culture, can you rebuild a team in two years, can you rebuild in three years, what's the track record of teams trying to do that?" Silver added. "I am mindful that in a league of 30 teams that we're also selling competition on a nightly basis and I don't want to create a sense that we want to subject fans to subpar performances because, 'don't worry, it's going to be great three years from now.'"
The Bucks have a 25 percent chance to win and give incoming ownership a great welcoming gift. Philadelphia (19.9 percent), Orlando (15.6) and Utah (10.4) have the next-best chances, with longtime powerhouses Boston and the Lakers behind them after rare poor seasons.
The Lakers and Celtics are both guaranteed to have a single-digit pick this year, the first time since 1966 that will happen.
But this was a season in which, for some teams, a job well done meant doing the job poorly. After a forgettable draft in 2013, this one is considered much more promising, good enough that some teams decided if they knew they weren't going to win, they would be better off losing big.
Sixers owner Joshua Harris even called his team's season a "huge success" after its 19-63 record included a 26-game skid that matched the longest in NBA history. And the Sixers were hardly alone among suspected tankers this season.
"I thought it was pretty crazy that teams were doing that. But they're saying this is going to be one of the toughest draft classes since 2003," Indiana star Noah Vonleh said.
The 2003 class produced LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony, so if this draft really is that good, it's hard to blame any teams for trying to get to the top of it.
That so many teams may have tanked has sparked new calls to change the lottery process so as to make the strategy unappealing. Silver said it will be looked at over the summer, but as the lottery turns 30, there isn't a perfect idea for how to run it.
"I think for us, we've got to make sure we understand whether there's an aberration here because of the perception of a particular draft class, whether indeed there is a better way of doing it, because of course at the same time you want to properly align incentives," Silver said. "But the very purpose of the draft is to help the worst teams restock."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.