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.
New York Knicks 1987-1992 Summary
– 1987-1988: 38-44 (8th seed), lost to Boston Celtics in 4
– 1988-1989: 52-30 (2nd seed), swept Philadelphia 76ers, lost to Chicago Bulls in 6
– 1989-1990: 45-37 (5th seed), defeated Celtics in 5, lost to Detroit Pistons in 5
– 1990-1991: 39-43 (8th seed), swept by Bulls in 1st Round
– 1991-1992: 51-31 (4th seed), defeated Pistons in 5, lost to Bulls in 7
10K minutes: Patrick Ewing, Gerald Wilkins, Mark Jackson
Head Coaches: Rick Pitino (1987-1989), Stu Jackson (1989-1990), John MacLeod (1990-1991), Pat Riley (1991-1992)
While the NBA was sharply rising in popularity in the mid-1980s (and while the New Jersey Nets were in Playoff Purgatory), the New York Knicks were 🚮🔥🚮🔥🚮. The Knicks were never very good after the NBA-ABA merger, but in 1984-1985, they fell all the way off with a 24-58 record. Fortunately for them, there was a lottery in 1985.
The Knicks would select Georgetown C Patrick Ewing first overall in the 1985 NBA Draft, and with their 2nd round pick, the Knicks would take Chattanooga SG Gerald Wilkins with the 47th pick in the Draft. Ewing and Wilkins would be rookie starters for head coach Hubie Brown in 1985-1986, but Brown led the NBA’s worst offense, as the Knicks finished 23-59. That was the worst record in the league, but the Knicks weren’t lucking out in the 1986 Lottery, as they got the 5th pick and drafted SF Kenny “Sky” Walker. (So basically, if you think the 1985 Lottery was fixed but don’t say anything about 1986, have a seat somewhere.)
The Knicks would then make some really strange trades. In late October 1986, the Knicks would trade a 1987 1st round pick and a 1988 2nd round pick to Chicago for C Jawann Oldham. Oldham, then 29, would play only one 776-minute season with the Knicks. That 1987 pick would be 8th overall. But then, the Knicks would trade their own top-3 protected 1987 1st round pick and a 1990 2nd round pick to Seattle for 30-year-old PG Gerald Henderson and a 1987 1st round pick that originally belonged to Milwaukee.
The 1986-1987 season was another Knicks disaster. Brown was fired in December, with the team at 4-12. Brown had tried playing Ewing at PF, while Bill Cartwright was at C. Bob Hill took over, but the Knicks finished 24-58, tying the Nets for the 2nd-worst record in the league behind the 12-70 Los Angeles Clippers. Wilkins, brother of Dominique, finished last in the 1987 Dunk Contest. Rough year all the way around.
Once again, the 1987 lottery didn’t work out for the Knicks. The Spurs would get the 1st pick and take C David Robinson. The Nets would get the 3rd pick and take SG Dennis Hopson. The Knicks … would watch the SuperSonics get the 5th pick and the Bulls get the 8th pick. Seattle would take SF Scottie Pippen, the Bulls would take C Olden Polynice, and the Knicks would watch in hindsight horror as the Bulls and SuperSonics swapped Polynice and Pippen for what essentially cost the Bulls only a 1989 2nd round pick… The one they got from the Knicks in the Oldham trade.
The Knicks, who fired Hill and GM Scott Stirling after the 1986-1987 season, had to wait until the 18th pick in the 1st round. New York didn’t have a head coach or GM. They would take St. John’s PG Mark Jackson, pleasing the crowd after they chanted “We Want Mark!”
The Knicks decided to fill their general manager vacancy first, hiring Al Bianchi in July 1987. Shortly afterwards, New York went with 34-year-old Providence head coach Rick Pitino in July 1987, despite Pitino signing a 5-year contract extension months earlier to stay in school.
Sorry, this was pre-#PitinoGame. Pitino was more like Brad Stevens in 1987, right down to abandoning the Cinderella school that signed him to a major contract extension and overseeing a turnaround in short order. The 1987-1988 Knicks finally got a healthy season from Ewing, who had missed 51 games combined over his first two NBA seasons. While Ewing was an All-Star, Jackson arguably achieved a more impressive feat: he became the 1988 Rookie of the Year. Jackson still has the rookie record for most total assists (868) and assists per game (10.6), and he also had a team-high 205 steals for a New York defense that led the league in forced turnovers.
Pitino’s 1987-1988 team entered their final game of the regular season in a four-way tie for the last two playoff spots in the East with Philadelphia, Washington, and New York’s opponent, the Indiana Pacers. The Knicks would hold on to win at Indiana, clinching a playoff spot while eliminating the Pacers. New York would lose in 4 to the Celtics, but things were finally looking up for the Knicks.
The following season, Ewing would be joined in the All-Star Game by Jackson, while the Knicks would improve their offense by taking and making more threes than anyone else in the league. The Knicks’ “Bomb Squad” made 386-of-1,147 three-pointers in 1988-1989; for context, the Knicks made 152 more threes than the Los Angeles Clippers attempted that season. The Knicks would finish 52-30 and earn their first division title in 19 years. The 2nd-seed Knicks swept the 76ers in the 1st round, and had homecourt advantage in the Semifinals against the Chicago Bulls. But Michael Jordan averaged 35.7 points per game as the Bulls beat the Knicks in 6.
All of New York’s progress in two years came undone when Pitino left the Knicks for Kentucky’s head coaching job. There were rumors of Pitino and Bianchi not being on the same page. But Pitino was ready to return to the college game, while Bianchi promoted 32-year-old assistant Stu Jackson to be Pitino’s replacement. Apparently, Stu Jackson got the head coaching job over a candidate who was also considered in 1987: Chicago assistant Phil Jackson. Phil Jackson would be promoted to Bulls head coach a day after the Knicks promoted Stu Jackson.
The Knicks would head into the 1990 NBA Playoffs on a 6-15 slide to close the regular season. Mark Jackson would lose his starting job for the playoffs to veteran Maurice Cheeks. The Knicks would go down 2-0 in the 1st round after allowing a postseason record 157 points in Boston. But Ewing would score 33, 44, and 31 points in Games 3, 4, and 5, respectively, to lead the Knicks past the Celtics and onto the defending champion Detroit Pistons in the Semifinals. Detroit would beat the Knicks in 5 and repeat as NBA champions, while Stu Jackson planned to start Cheeks over an unhappy Mark Jackson going into the 1990-1991 season.
New York started the 1990-1991 season 7-8, and Stu Jackson was replaced as head coach by John MacLeod, who previously coached in Phoenix and Dallas. Unfortunately for MacLeod, his former associate from Phoenix Bianchi would be fired in early March of 1991. New York would slip to a 39-43 record, and they met the top-seed Bulls in Round 1. Chicago blasted the Knicks by 41 points in Game 1 before sweeping the Knicks out of the playoffs. MacLeod would resign, which saved new Knicks president Dave Checketts from firing him.
The Knicks stopped messing around in June 1991, prying former Los Angeles Lakers head coach Pat Riley from NBC with a five-year deal.
“It won’t be easy. But I don’t like losing. I don’t accept losing. And I don’t want to be a part of losing,” Riley said.
Riley won four championships with the Lakers in the 1980s. But his Knicks team would be considerably slower and more physical than those Showtime teams. Mark Jackson would be restored to the starting lineup after New York traded Cheeks to Atlanta, and except for one game where Jackson’s wife gave birth, Riley would have the same starters for every game: Jackson, Wilkins, SF Xavier McDaniel, PF Charles Oakley, and Ewing. The Knicks would have the NBA’s second-best defense, and they would win 51 games, meeting up with the Pistons in Round 1. New York would beat the Pistons in Game 5 to set up a rematch with the Bulls in the Semifinals. The Knicks would take Game 1 in Chicago, and force a Game 7 against the defending NBA Champions. Each of the first five games of the series was decided by less than ten points, then the Knicks beat the Bulls 100-86 in Game 6, becoming the first team to break 100 in the series. But the Bulls destroyed the Knicks in Game 7 110-81, marking the fifth season in a row that the Knicks would make the playoffs but fail to reach the Conference Finals.
Ewing turned 30 years old on August 5, 1992. Three days later, he would win an Olympic gold medal with the Dream Team in Barcelona. The following September, New York’s core of Ewing, Jackson, and Wilkins would be broken up by a 3-team trade involving the Clippers.
New York sent Jackson and a 1995 2nd round pick to the Clippers, while sending a 1993 1st round pick to the Orlando Magic. The Magic sent C Stanley Roberts, who had to approve the deal, to the Clippers. The Clippers sent a 1994 1st round pick to Orlando. The Clippers sent the Knicks former lottery bust SG Bo Kimble, SF Charles Smith, and PG Doc Rivers. To make it all work, the Knicks had to let Wilkins go; he would sign with 1992 Eastern Conference Finalist Cleveland.
With former Clippers Smith and Rivers in the starting lineup, Riley’s 1992-1993 Knicks took off. New York had the league’s best defense, finished the season 60-22 (tying a franchise record), and earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The Knicks would beat the Pacers in 4, then knock off the young Charlotte Hornets in 5 to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 19 years. The two-time defending champion Bulls awaited the Knicks, but New York would take advantage of their top-seed and win the first two games of the series at Madison Square Garden. The Bulls evened the series at 2-2 headed into Game 5 in New York. The Knicks hadn’t lost a home game since late January, winning 27 in a row including the playoffs. But then this happened:
The Knicks would get back to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1994 after dropping the Nets in Round 1 and then finally beating the Bulls in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Knicks would go down 3-2 to the Pacers before coming back to win another Game 7 to reach their first NBA Finals in 21 years. The Knicks would take a 3-2 series lead against the Rockets with the series headed back to Houston for Game 6.
But All-Star SG John Starks would have his three-pointer blocked by Houston C Hakeem Olajuwon, and then Starks would shoot 2-for-18 in a Game 7 loss in Houston. The Knicks would be without Rivers, who tore his ACL in December 1993. Ewing would never play in the NBA Finals again.
The Clippers hired Rivers for the same reason the Knicks hired Riley. And right now, former top overall draft pick Blake Griffin is at the same stage in his career as former top overall draft pick Ewing was in 1992: entering his 8th season in the league following five consecutive postseasons without making the Conference Finals. Riley got the Knicks to the next level after New York traded point guards. Would a Chris Paul trade net similar results for the Clippers?
Of the 17 teams before the Clippers to make the playoffs at least five years in a row without appearing in the Conference Finals, these Knicks would be the team that came closest to winning a championship before missing the playoffs first.