The Los Angeles Clippers have made the playoffs five years in a row. Each year, they fell short of the Conference Finals.
Over the next few weeks, ClipperBlog will feature the other 17 teams to make at least five consecutive postseason appearances without reaching the Conference Finals during the streak. Eight of those 17 teams broke through and eventually made the Conference Finals before the end of the postseason streak, and two made it all the way to the NBA Finals.
But none of the previous 17 teams to make at least five consecutive postseason appearances without reaching the Conference Finals won a title before missing the playoffs first.
All of these roundups will feature the players who played at least 10,000 regular season minutes, the head coaches, and what happened to each team at the end of their run of Playoff Purgatory. We’ll circle back and relate it to the Clippers’ current situation.
Washington Bullets 1983-1988 Summary
– 1983-1984: 35-47 (8th seed), lost to Boston Celtics in 4
– 1984-1985: 40-42 (6th seed), lost to Philadelphia 76ers in 4
– 1985-1986: 39-43 (6th seed), lost to 76ers in 5
– 1986-1987: 42-40 (6th seed), swept by Detroit Pistons in Round 1
– 1987-1988: 38-44 (7th seed), lost to Pistons in 5
10K minutes: Jeff Malone
Head Coaches: Gene Shue (1983-1986), Kevin Loughery (1986-1988), Wes Unseld (1988)
The only team that won more games than the Washington/Capital/Baltimore Bullets (currently Wizards) in the 1970s were the Celtics, Lakers, and Bucks. Unlike Boston, Los Angeles, and Milwaukee, the Bullets never missed the playoffs in the 1970s, and they went to the NBA Finals four times, winning the championship in 1978.
By 1983, the Bullets had been out of the playoffs two of three years, and the only player that remained from the 1978 championship team was SF Greg Ballard. The Bullets had the 10th pick of the 1983 NBA Draft, and they selected SG Jeff Malone out of Mississippi State. Malone played behind SG Ricky Sobers as a rookie for head coach Gene Shue’s 1983-1984 team, a squad that finished 35-47. The Bullets still made the playoffs, at least, getting eliminated by the eventual champion Celtics in 4. Malone did have a memorable game-winner as a rookie against the Detroit Pistons:
The Bullets traded Sobers and the draft rights to C Tim McCormick to Seattle for PG Gus Williams, opening up a spot for Malone in the starting lineup. The Bullets would still be under .500 in 1984-1985, but they would make the postseason again. And once again, the Bullets would be eliminated in the 1st round in 1985, this time against the 76ers in 4 games.
In 1985-1986, Malone became an All-Star, leading Washington with 22.4 points per game. But the Bullets fired Shue as head coach a month before the 1986 postseason, with the team at 32-37. Shue was replaced by Kevin Loughery, who actually played for Shue in Baltimore from 1966-1971 during Shue’s first stint as Bullets head coach. Loughery had most recently coached the Chicago Bulls, who let him go after Michael Jordan’s rookie season. The Bullets closed the season 7-6 to make the 1986 playoffs, but they lost to the 76ers again in the 1st round, this time in 5 games.
The 76ers then gave the Bullets a gift in 1986, as Washington traded former All-Star C Jeff Ruland and SF Cliff Robinson to Philadelphia for C Moses Malone, PF Terry Catledge, and two 1st round picks. Ruland would play only 29 games for the rest of his career, while Malone was still an All-Star at age 31. Moses Malone and Jeff Malone would both average well over 20 points per game in 1986-1987 for the Bullets. But after a 42-40 finish, the Bullets would be swept in the 1st round by the Pistons.
Loughery would be fired after starting the 1987-1988 season 8-19, and his replacement was a slightly more prominent former Bullets player: former C Wes Unseld. Unseld was the 2nd overall pick in the 1968 NBA Draft by the Bullets out of Louisville, and the Hall-of-Famer spent his entire 13-year career with the Bullets, retiring in 1981 to move into a front office role. Unseld was an assistant coach going into the 1987-1988 season, and the Bullets responded to the coaching change, finishing the season 30-25. The Bullets were competitive in the postseason, but the Pistons knocked them out in Round 1 again, this time after 5 games.
Much like the New Jersey Nets earlier in the decade, the Bullets had five straight postseason appearances with little to show for it. In Washington’s case, they didn’t even get out of the 1st round. Also like the Nets, they went straight to hell after five straight one-and-dones, as they set a franchise record by missing the postseason eight years in a row from 1988 to 1996. Jeff Malone would continue to get buckets, but after averaging 24.3 points per game in 1989-1990, the Bullets traded him to Utah as part of a 3-team deal that saw the Bullets get 1989 1st overall pick C Pervis Ellison from Sacramento. Jeff Malone would never make another All-Star team after leaving Washington.
Unseld remained Washington’s head coach until 1994, when he resigned following the 1993-1994 season finale; Unseld stayed on as vice president. Unseld was allowed/allowed himself to miss the postseason six seasons in a row – the only other head coach in NBA history to get that kind of grace period was Golden State’s Al Attles from 1977 to 1983. And Attles not only won a championship for the Warriors in 1976, but he also tore his Achilles’ tendon trying to practice with the team in February 1980, forcing assistant Johnny Bach to finish out the season!
The worst case scenario for the Clippers would be head coach Doc Rivers as Unseld, the ex-player turned head coach trying to juggle an executive front office role. But Rivers is a much more effective head coach, and he has so much more talent at his disposal. The 1980s Bullets are probably the worst team ever to make the postseason five years in a row, and their lack of postseason success preceded the worst stretch in franchise history. No team has lost more games since 1988 than Washington.