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.
Houston Rockets 1986-1991 Summary
– 1986-1987: 42-40 (6th seed), defeated Portland Trail Blazers in 4, lost to Seattle SuperSonics in 6
– 1987-1988: 46-36 (6th seed), lost to Dallas Mavericks in 4
– 1988-1989: 45-37 (5th seed), lost to SuperSonics in 4
– 1989-1990: 41-41 (8th seed), lost to Los Angeles Lakers in 4
– 1990-1991: 52-30 (6th seed), swept by Lakers
10K minutes: Hakeem Olajuwon
Head Coaches: Bill Fitch (1986-1988), Don Chaney (1988-1991)
To fully understand the craziness that was the Houston Rockets in the 1980s, you’d have to go to the start of the decade. In 1980-1981, the Rockets were 40-42 and the 6th (and last) seed in the West. Those Rockets, led by C Moses Malone, would upset the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in Round 1. The Rockets would go on to win Game 7 against the San Antonio Spurs in the Semifinals to set up a Western Conference Finals between the 5th seed Kansas City Kings, who also finished 40-42!
The Rockets went on to beat the Kings in 5 before losing to the Boston Celtics in the 1981 NBA Finals. The following season, Malone would be named the NBA MVP, though the Rockets would be eliminated in the 1st round of the playoffs. The Rockets let Malone walk to Philadelphia in September 1982, receiving C Caldwell Jones and a 1983 1st Round pick that was originally Cleveland’s.
Houston was hot garbage in 1982-1983. While Malone repeated as NBA MVP for the 1983 champion 76ers, the Rockets were 14-68. They had the top pick in the 1983 NBA Draft, as well as the 3rd pick due to Cleveland’s 23-59 record. Virginia 7’4″ C Ralph Sampson went first overall, while Louisville SF Rodney McCray went third. Houston also hired head coach Bill Fitch in 1983, who won the 1981 NBA championship with Boston.
The Rockets tanked in 1983-1984, C Elvin Hayes’ final NBA season, losing 27 of their last 36 games. Houston won the coin flip, allowing them to select first in back-to-back drafts. They took C Hakeem Olajuwon, and that would be it for coin flips – the Rockets pretty much forced the NBA into a lottery system. The Rockets weren’t going to be participating in the 1985 Draft Lottery after establishing Sampson and Olajuwon as the Twin Towers. Houston made the playoffs in 1984-1985, losing in Round 1 to Utah. But in 1985-1986, Houston upset the defending champion Lakers in the Western Conference Finals before losing again to the Celtics in the 1986 NBA Finals.
There was a reason for optimism in 1986. After all, Sampson and Olajuwon were young, 7-foot All-Stars. But as Jonathan Abrams wrote in 2012, these Rockets were The Greatest Team That Never Was.
Houston’s 1986-1987 season was derailed in January when SGs Mitchell Wiggins (father of Timberwolves SF Andrew Wiggins) and Lewis Lloyd were banned from the league for two years after testing positive for cocaine. The Rockets had to release PG John Lucas the season before so that Lucas could get help, robbing Houston of their starter going into the 1986 playoffs. While Olajuwon and Sampson were both selected as All-Stars for 1986-1987, Sampson missed a chunk of the season to undergo left knee surgery. Sampson made it back for the postseason, and the 42-40 Rockets were able to upset the Portland Trail Blazers in Round 1. But despite unexpected homecourt advantage as a 6th seed in the Semifinals, Houston was upset by the 7th seed Seattle SuperSonics, who were 39-43 in the regular season.
That would be Sampson’s last All-Star season, and his last postseason appearance in Houston. The Twin Towers would be broken up in December 1987, as Sampson was traded to Golden State with SG Steve Harris in exchange for 1987 All-Stars PG Sleepy Floyd and C Joe Barry Carroll. Houston made the trade despite signing Sampson to a six-year deal two months earlier. Floyd and Carroll would never make another All-Star team, with Carroll leaving Houston in a November 1988 trade. And after the Rockets lost to the Mavericks in the 1st Round of the 1988 Playoffs, Fitch was gone too, fired after getting on the bad side of the wrong guy: Olajuwon.
“If they make mistakes, he (Fitch) takes them out,” Olajuwon said. “I was driving by a church today. I saw a message: ‘He who never makes mistakes never makes discoveries.'”
The Rockets went from a head coach and personnel director with a ring in Fitch to a former head coach during the Los Angeles Clippers’ worst season in franchise history: Don Chaney. The Rockets hired Chaney after he spent the 1987-1988 season with the Atlanta Hawks; Chaney’s previous season as a head coach saw the Clippers finish 12-70 in 1986-1987. Olajuwon would put up crazy numbers in 1988-1989, leading the NBA in rebounds for the first time (13.5 per game) while becoming the only player in NBA history to record more than 200 steals and 200 blocks in the same season. However, the Rockets failed to get out of the 1st Round, losing again to the SuperSonics.
1989-1990 would be another special season for Olajuwon, as he would record a career-high and league-leading 14.0 rebounds and 4.6 blocks per game. But the Rockets were only 41-41, and the top-seeded Lakers beat them in 4.
In January 1991, Olajuwon was elbowed by Chicago Bulls C Bill Cartwright and suffered a broken orbital bone of his right eye. The Rockets actually did well in Olajuwon’s absence, going 15-10 before Olajuwon’s return to the lineup in late February. The Rockets then won 20 of their last 27 games after Olajuwon returned, with Houston ranking 2nd in the NBA in defensive efficiency. But the Lakers swept the Rockets in a 1st Round that saw Houston SG Vernon Maxwell take 11 more shots than Olajuwon, while scoring only 56 points on those 56 shots. It marked the fourth straight 1st Round exit for the Rockets, and the fifth year in a row that Houston made the playoffs without getting to the Conference Finals, following the 1986 NBA Finals run.
The Rockets got off to a 26-26 start in 1991-1992, and they fired Chaney, replacing him with assistant Rudy Tomjanovich. At the same time, Olajuwon was disgruntled. He missed seven games with an irregular heartbeat and would be suspended by the team over issues regarding a hamstring injury. The Rockets would go only 2-10 without Olajuwon, and they would miss the 1992 NBA Playoffs by a game.
Olajuwon was a top overall pick that demanded a trade by the end of his 8th NBA season. The Clippers have a franchise player entering Year 8 in Blake Griffin. Griffin has an early out in his deal following 2016-2017; if the Clippers get off to a middling start next year, would they blink and trade him and/or replace the head coach?
Here’s an interesting quote, by the way, from then-Knicks president Dave Checketts in 1992 about why the Rockets trading an unhappy Olajuwon would be, “a huge mistake” for Houston:
“If you trade him for, say, Stanley Roberts and Danny Manning, I mean, you become the Clippers.”