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.
Denver Nuggets 1985-1990 Summary
– 1985-1986: 47-35 (3rd seed), defeated Portland Trail Blazers in 4, lost to Houston Rockets in 6
– 1986-1987: 37-45 (8th seed), swept by Los Angeles Lakers
– 1987-1988: 54-28 (2nd seed), defeated Seattle SuperSonics in 5, lost to Dallas Mavericks in 6
– 1988-1989: 44-38 (6th seed), swept by Phoenix Suns
– 1989-1990: 43-39 (7th seed), swept by San Antonio Spurs
10K minutes: Fat Lever, Alex English
Head Coach: Doug Moe (1985-1990)
So far in the Playoff Purgatory series, every team featured was just beginning their playoff streaks. In this case, we begin to look at a team that reached its apex in the postseason, and spent five years failing to get back. The 1984-1985 Denver Nuggets finished the season with a division title, and they made it to the Western Conference Finals, where they stole home court advantage from the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 2. But the 1985 Nuggets lost both Games 3 and 4 at home, and the Lakers blasted them to elimination with a 153-109 Game 5 blowout.
That 1984-1985 season was PG Fat Lever’s first with the Nuggets. He joined forces with SF Alex English and head coach Doug Moe, and the 1984-1985 season was the fourth straight year in the playoffs for Denver.
In 1985-1986, the Nuggets failed to repeat as division champs, but the defense improved to a top-10 level for the first time under Moe. Denver was regularly the league’s leader in pace under Moe, and before Lever arrived, the defense was always in the bottom-3 in the league. Lever’s ability to get multiple steals per game helped the Nuggets defense, while Lever’s ballhandling helped contribute to the league’s best turnover differential in 1985-1986. Meanwhile, English held his usual spot in the top-10 scorer’s bracket, averaging a career high 29.8 points per game in 1985-1986. The Nuggets would beat the Trail Blazers 3-1 in the 1st round, but the Rockets would defeat Denver in the Semifinals 4-2.
The Nuggets lost starting PF Calvin Natt to a torn Achilles’ tendon in the 1986-1987 season opener, and despite another All-Star season from English, the team slipped to a 37-45 record. Denver met the Lakers in the 1st round of the 1987 NBA Playoffs and were wiped off the floor, losing by a combined 82 points in the sweep.
Denver bounced back in 1987-1988. A November trade to acquire PG Michael Adams from Washington allowed Lever to move to SG, and both Lever (4th in NBA with 223 steals) and Adams (T-8th with 168 steals) helped lead the Nuggets in steals. In addition to the thievery, Lever averaged 18.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 7.8 assists per game en route to his first All-Star selection. Lever is the only player in NBA history with multiple seasons of at least 200 steals to go with at least 18.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 7.0 assists per game – and the only other players to do it once are Hall-of-Famers Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.
The 1987-1988 Nuggets defense was the best it ever was under Moe, and English was still around to drop 2,000 points at age 34. The Nuggets won 54 games and the Midwest Division, earning Moe Coach of the Year honors. The Nuggets beat Seattle 3-2 in the 1st Round, but after taking a 2-1 lead against the Dallas Mavericks, Denver lost Lever to a knee injury for the last three games and lost the series to Dallas in 6.
The Nuggets continued their fast-paced formula into the 1988-1989 season, with English making his 8th (and final) All-Star appearance as well as dropping at least 2,000 points for the 8th straight season. But the Nuggets were swept out of the playoffs by the Phoenix Suns.
By 1989-1990, the Nuggets were getting old. No one would be older than English, who turned 36 in January 1990 and needed 16.2 shots per game to average 17.9 points per game. That’s not a bad figure for most players, but English was the league’s leading scorer of the 1980s. 1989-1990 was the first time in ten years that English didn’t drop 20 a game. Lever would assume control as the team’s leading scorer, but despite another All-Star appearance, Lever’s 18.3 points per game would be his lowest figure in four seasons. And for the first time under Moe, the Nuggets weren’t the NBA’s fastest team anymore, as the Golden State Warriors led the NBA in pace for the 1989-1990 season. The Nuggets made the playoffs in 1989-1990, but they were swept again, this time by the San Antonio Spurs.
Winning only two playoff series in five years and being swept three times in four years brought sweeping changes to the Nuggets. The player moves made sense.
First came the trade of Lever to the Dallas Mavericks prior to the 1990 NBA Draft; the Nuggets would receive a 1990 1st round pick (9th overall) and a 1991 1st round pick from Dallas. The Nuggets would then package their original 1990 1st round pick (15th overall) and the Dallas pick in a deal with Miami to get the Heat’s 1990 1st round pick (3rd overall). The Nuggets would use the 3rd overall pick on PG Chris Jackson out of Louisiana State (Jackson would later be known as Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf).
In August 1990, the Nuggets saw English join Lever in Dallas via free agency. Now, things did not work out for Dallas at all, as they went 28-54 in 1990-1991. It was the start of a ten-year postseason drought for the Mavericks, one that saw English done after one season while Lever failed to play 3,000 total minutes for Dallas in his four seasons there due to injury.
But the Nuggets would then fire Moe in September 1990 after he led them to the postseason nine straight years; Moe had three years left on his contract. The move to replace Moe came as a part of a greater shift in the organization, as ownership and management had changed hands over the previous year. Moe’s replacement would be Paul Westhead, who won an NBA championship with the 1979-1980 as Lakers head coach but would be fired in 1981 by the Lakers and in 1983 by the Chicago Bulls. Westhead, who was head coach at Loyola Marymount when they were breaking all kinds of scoring records, promised to take it to the extreme in Denver.
“In college, my team scored as many as 181 points in a game,” Westhead said. “Now we have eight more minutes. You haven’t seen anything yet.
The 1990-1991 Nuggets did have the fastest pace in NBA history, and they did lead the NBA in points per game with 119.1. But while the offensive efficiency was bottom-10, the 1990-1991 Nuggets had the league’s worst defensive efficiency, which translated to the most points per game ever allowed in a season: 130.8. The Nuggets once gave up 173 points to the Suns, and they found a way to lose a game despite scoring 158 points in regulation!
The Nuggets would finish 20-62 in 1990-1991, and they would miss the playoffs from 1990-1993. The 1980s were a distant memory.
While the Nuggets did well to sell high on Lever, they got too old and their head coaching change didn’t work out at all. Could the Clippers get multiple 1st round picks for someone like Chris Paul? Maybe they could look into it. But for all of the trolls that feel like owner Steve Ballmer should step in and remove head coach Doc Rivers, heed the warning of the Nuggets. Dissatisfaction with the head coach is one thing, but getting a subpar replacement at head coach can set a team back for years.