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.
Utah Jazz 1983-1991 Summary
– 1983-1984: 45-37 (2nd seed), defeated Denver Nuggets in 5, lost to Phoenix Suns in 6
– 1984-1985: 41-41 (6th seed), defeated Houston Rockets in 5, lost to Nuggets in 5
– 1985-1986: 42-40 (5th seed), lost to Dallas Mavericks in 4
– 1986-1987: 44-38 (4th seed), lost to Golden State Warriors in 5
– 1987-1988: 47-35 (5th seed), defeated Portland Trail Blazers in 4, lost to Los Angeles Lakers in 7
– 1988-1989: 51-31 (2nd seed), swept by Warriors
– 1989-1990: 55-27 (4th seed), lost to Suns in 5
– 1990-1991: 54-28 (5th seed), defeated Suns in 4, lost to Trail Blazers in 5
10K minutes: Mark Eaton, Thurl Bailey, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Darrell Griffith, Rickey Green
Head Coaches: Frank Layden (1983-1988), Jerry Sloan (1988-1991)
In 1983, the Jazz entered their tenth NBA season, and fifth in Utah after moving from New Orleans in 1979. The Jazz had never made the playoffs, and they lost at least 50 games in each of the first four seasons in Utah. With the third pick in the 1982 NBA Draft, the Jazz selected SF Dominique Wilkins out of Georgia – only to trade him to Atlanta for SG Freeman Williams, SF John Drew, and a “substantial undisclosed cash payment.” The 1983-1984 schedule featured 11 home games in Las Vegas, Nev., a sign that Utah may not have a team for very long.
But head coach/general manager Frank Layden had been stockpiling assets through the dark times. Going into 1983-1984, the team had three-time All-Star SF Adrian Dantley, former CBA cast-off PG Rickey Green, 1980 No.2 overall pick SG Darrell Griffith, 7’4″ C Mark Eaton, and 1983 7th overall pick rookie PF Thurl Bailey.
Dantley made another All-Star team in 1984, leading the league with 30.6 points per game. Dantley was joined in the All-Star game by Green, who led the league in steals for a second straight season. Eaton led the NBA in blocks with 351, while Griffith set what was a league record at the time with 91 made three-pointers. The Jazz improved 15 games from the previous season to finish 45-37, not only securing the first playoff berth in franchise history, but winning the division title to secure the 2nd seed in the West!
The Jazz were down 2-1 in their 1984 1st round series against the Nuggets, facing elimination in Denver, when Denver Post writer Woody Paige said that the Jazz had no heart. The Jazz would win Game 4 in Denver, and eliminate the Nuggets (and Paige) in Game 5 to advance to the Western Conference Semifinals. The Jazz would beat the Suns in Game 1 before losing three straight, including a heartbreaking Game 4 overtime loss after Green blew a potential game-winning layup. The Jazz would eventually lose to the Suns in 6, but the team finally emerged as a legitimate franchise after a successful 1983-1984 season, starting a streak of 20 straight postseason appearances.
Oh, but like the Portland Trail Blazers, the accomplishment of making the playoffs would soon be tempered with the inability to succeed there.
The 1984 NBA Draft did bring the Jazz a future legend. Despite already having an All-Star PG in Green, Utah used the 16th pick in the draft on PG John Stockton, the first Gonzaga alum ever to play in the NBA. Stockton would back up Green as a rookie, and despite poor rebounding and a struggling offense due to Dantley missing 27 games, the Jazz would make the 1985 playoffs behind the league’s top defense. The Jazz went into Houston and beat the Rockets in a Game 5 to advance to the Semifinals, where a rematch with the Nuggets awaited them. But the Jazz lost Eaton to a knee injury during the Game 5 win, and Eaton missed the 2nd round of the playoffs, where the Nuggets eliminated the Jazz in 5.
With the Jazz being the worst rebounding team in the West in 1984-1985, the team drafted PF Karl Malone out of Louisiana Tech in 1985. The 1985-1986 season was a transitional one for the Jazz. Griffith broke his left foot and would miss the entire 1985-1986 season. After starting 0-2, Green and Bailey would be replaced in the starting lineup by Stockton and Malone. While Malone would remain a starter for the rest of his career, Green regained the starting role from Stockton by midseason. The Jazz would still have a top-3 defense, but the offense continued to struggle, and Utah would finish 1985-1986 with a 42-40 record. To make matters worse, Dantley, who feuded with Layden over the previous two seasons for issues that included but weren’t limited to Dantley’s contract, missed the playoffs with “back spasms” that Layden thought Dantley could have played through. The Dallas Mavericks eliminated the Jazz in the 1st round, and Dantley would be traded the following August with two future 2nd round picks for SF Kelly Tripucka and C Kent Benson.
In 1986-1987, Green would re-establish himself as the team’s starting PG, while Malone had the first of what would be 17 consecutive seasons averaging at least 20 points per game. Eaton led the league’s best defense, while Bailey, Stockton, and Griffith (back from injury) came off the bench. The Jazz would finish 44-38, and had a 2-0 lead on the Golden State Warriors with homecourt advantage. But postseason injury would hit the Jazz yet again, as Green injured a hamstring in Game 2. With Stockton taking over in the lineup, the Warriors would overcome the 2-0 deficit and send the Jazz home early, winning the series 3-2.
The Jazz entered the 1987-1988 season trying to use the Green-Griffith-Bailey-Malone-Eaton starting lineup. But after losing the third game of the season to the Los Angeles Clippers, a team that had lost 16 games in a row dating back to the previous season, Layden shook up the starting lineup. Stockton was a starter for good now, while Bailey and Griffith would play off the bench. The Jazz would have the league’s best defense yet again, and Malone became an All-Star for the first time, averaging 27.7 points and a career-high 12.0 rebounds per game. The Jazz would finish 47-35, and they defeated the Trail Blazers in Round 1 to set up a Semifinals matchup against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. Utah would take a 2-1 series lead and force the Lakers to play a Game 7, the first in Jazz franchise history. But the Jazz would come up short, losing Game 7 109-98 to the defending and eventual NBA champions. It would be the fifth season in a row that Utah would reach the playoffs but fail to make the Conference Finals.
In that Game 7 loss to Los Angeles, Green and Griffith couldn’t even get off the bench. Both would be left unprotected ahead of the 1988 NBA Expansion Draft for the new Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets. Green was selected by the Hornets, but Griffith went unselected, and he regained his starting spot in 1988-1989. After starting the 1988-1989 season 11-6, Layden resigned to the front office, putting assistant Jerry Sloan in place as head coach. Sloan would lead Utah to a 40-25 finish and a division title, while Malone would be joined in the 1989 All-Star Game by Stockton and Eaton. Stockton led the NBA with 13.6 assists and 3.2 steals per game, while Eaton recorded his sixth straight season with at least 300 blocked shots. Despite all of that, the Jazz were swept out of the playoffs by the 7th-seeded Warriors.
Sloan’s first full season in Utah, 1989-1990, resulted in another milestone for the Jazz: a franchise record 55 wins. Griffith would move back to the bench, while Stockton and Malone turned in All-Star seasons once again. But in a deciding Game 5 at home against the Suns, the Jazz blew a 10-point 4th quarter lead and lost the series after Phoenix PG Kevin Johnson’s game-winner.
Stockton would pass for 1,164 assists in 1990-1991, an NBA record that still stands. The Jazz would win another 54 games, and in 1991, they would defeat the Suns in a 1st round rematch. But they were eliminated in 5 by the Trail Blazers in the Semifinals, marking the eighth year in a row that the Jazz would make the playoffs without advancing to the Conference Finals.
The Jazz opened the Delta Center (now known as Vivint Smart Home Arena) in time for the 1991-1992 season. It made it clear that the Jazz would not be leaving Utah. There would be some players leaving Utah, though. After 11 seasons, the Jazz released Griffith. And after a 7-6 start to the 1991-1992 season, Bailey was traded to Minnesota along with a 2nd-round draft pick in exchange for SF Tyrone Corbin. Eaton would be the last link to that 1983-1984 Jazz team that made the playoffs for the first time. But Stockton and Malone were in their primes, and Sloan finally got the Jazz offense to measure up to their defense in 1991-1992. Utah would defeat the Clippers in a deciding Game 5 of the first round, and then they would beat the Seattle SuperSonics in 5 to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. The Jazz would be eliminated by Portland in 6.
The Clippers have their own Stockton, Malone, and Eaton in Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. Before the arrival of Paul, the Clippers had won only one playoff series in franchise history. Five years after the arrival of Paul, the Clippers Big 3 has failed to reach the Conference Finals. But look at the Jazz. Malone and Stockton joined a team filled with playoff-tested veterans before assuming control of the team. They even went through a coaching change like the Clippers, with Sloan taking over for Layden. Stockton and Malone’s first six seasons as teammates resulted in only two playoff series victories! But the Jazz kept their All-Stars together and moved the other pieces around, finally breaking through to the Conference Finals in Stockton and Malone’s 7th year together. Paul is a little older now than what Stockton was in 1992, but Griffin and Jordan are younger than Malone and Eaton were. The Jazz eventually figured it out, laying a relatively successful blueprint for the Clippers to follow.