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.
Atlanta Hawks 1992-1999 Summary
– 1992-1993: 43-39 (7th seed), swept by Chicago Bulls in Round 1
– 1993-1994: 57-25 (1st seed), defeated Miami Heat in 5, lost to Indiana Pacers in 6
– 1994-1995: 42-40 (7th seed), swept by Pacers in Round 1
– 1995-1996: 46-36 (6th seed), defeated Pacers in 5, lost to Orlando Magic in 5
– 1996-1997: 56-26 (4th seed), defeated Detroit Pistons in 5, lost to Bulls in 5
– 1997-1998: 50-32 (5th seed), lost to Charlotte Hornets in 4
– 1998-1999: 31-19 (4th seed), defeated Pistons in 5, swept by New York Knicks in Semifinals
10K minutes: Mookie Blaylock, Steve Smith
Head coaches: Bob Weiss (1992-1993), Lenny Wilkens (1993-1999)
In late January 1992, 32-year-old SF Dominique Wilkins tore his Achilles’ tendon, prematurely ending his 10th NBA season. The Hawks would finish 38-44 and miss the postseason. Three days before the start of the 1992-1993 NBA season, the Hawks traded PG Rumeal Robinson to New Jersey in exchange for PG Mookie Blaylock and the contract of PF Roy Hinson. Wilkins would come back from the Achilles tear to drop 29.9 points per game, his most in five years. The Hawks would make the playoffs with a 43-39 record, but would be swept by the two-time defending champion Chicago Bulls in Round 1, losing each game by at least ten points. Atlanta would fire Weiss after three seasons in May 1993.
Now, let’s bring the Los Angeles Clippers into Atlanta’s 1993-1994 season. The Clippers had a chance to hire Lenny Wilkens as head coach for the 1993-1994 season, but they blew it; Atlanta would hire Wilkens to replace Weiss as head coach. The Clippers would go on to hire Weiss as head coach in July 1993.
Wilkens would coach in the 1994 NBA All-Star Game, joined by Wilkins and Blaylock, who would break through with averages of 5.2 rebounds, a career-high 9.7 assists, and 2.6 steals per game. But with a record of 36-16, the Hawks would pull off a shocking trade, sending Wilkins and a 1994 1st round pick to the Clippers for All-Star SF Danny Manning. Both Wilkins and Manning were in the final year of their contracts. But Manning was averaging 23.7 points per game for a Clippers team that would finish last in the Pacific Division. Wilkins was averaging 24.4 points per game for an Atlanta team leading the Central Division.
The Hawks would finish with 21 wins in the 30 games after the trade, and they secured the Eastern Conference’s top seed. The 8th-seed Miami Heat would steal Game 1 in Atlanta and take a 2-1 series lead. But the Hawks would beat Miami by double digits in Games 4 and 5 to advance to the Semifinals. The Pacers stole Game 1 from the Hawks as well, and would take a 3-1 series lead before upsetting Atlanta in 6. Indiana SG Reggie Miller made more threes by himself in the series (15-of-34, 44.1 percent) than Atlanta made as a team (14-of-45, 31.1 percent).
To add insult to the early postseason exit, Manning signed a one-year deal to sign with Phoenix in September 1994. Shortly after the start of the 1994-1995 season, the Hawks made a deal with 1994 1st round opponent Miami, sending PF Kevin Willis and a 1996 1st round pick to the Heat in exchange for SG Steve Smith, PF Grant Long, and a 1996 2nd round pick. While the Hawks maintained a top-five defense (Blaylock averaged 2.5 steals per game against only 2.1 fouls), the offense slipped while playing at one of the slowest paces in the league. Atlanta dropped from a 1-seed in 1994 to a 7-seed in 1995, and they were swept by the Pacers in Round 1. The Hawks would finally beat the Pacers in 5 in 1996, but the Orlando Magic beat Atlanta in 5 in the Semifinals.
In February 1996, the Hawks traded C Andrew Lang and PG Spud Webb to Minnesota for PF Christian Laettner and C Sean Rooks. In July 1996, Atlanta would pair Laettner up with Denver C Dikembe Mutombo, who the Hawks signed to a five-year deal. Laettner and Mutombo would represent a much-improved Hawks team in the 1997 NBA All-Star Game, and Atlanta would finish the regular season with 56 wins. Once again, Atlanta would lose Game 1 at home and go down 2-1 in the 1st round, this time to the Detroit Pistons. But the Hawks would rally and win Games 4 and 5 to advance to the Semifinals against the defending champion Bulls. The Hawks stole homecourt advantage from Chicago in Game 2 of that series, but the Bulls eliminated the Atlanta in 5, making it the fifth year in a row that the Hawks would make the postseason and fail to make the Conference Finals.
Smith would break through and become an All-Star with Mutombo in 1997-1998, averaging a career-high 20.1 points per game for the second straight season. But as Smith’s star went up, Laettner’s went down, as he found himself benched by time the 1998 NBA Playoffs started. A season that started 11-0 for the Hawks ended in a familiar place: eliminated in the 1st round, this time by the Charlotte Hornets.
Laettner would tear his Achilles’ tendon in September 1998 during the NBA lockout; the following January, Atlanta sent him to Detroit for C Scot Pollard and a 1999 1st round pick. The Hawks would defeat the Pistons, Laettner’s new team, in the 1st round of the 1999 NBA Playoffs. Atlanta drew the 8th-seed New York Knicks in the Semifinals. But with an opportunity to finally get to the Conference Finals, the Hawks averaged 76.5 points per game and shot 31.8 percent from the field, getting swept out of the playoffs by the Knicks.
Blaylock (32.6 percent from the field) and Smith (35.3 percent from the field) struggled in the 1999 NBA Playoffs, and both were on the wrong side of 30. The day before the 1999 NBA Draft saw Atlanta trade Blaylock and the 21st overall pick in the 1999 NBA Draft to Golden State for PG Bimbo Coles, SF Duane Ferrell, and the 10th overall pick in the draft. The Hawks would use the 10th pick in the draft to select Arizona PG Jason Terry.
The trade that sent Atlanta to hell, though, was made in August 1999. Atlanta sent Smith and SG Ed Gray to Portland for SG Isaiah Rider and SF Jim Jackson. The Hawks were taking on Rider in a contract year, and Atlanta general manager Pete Babcock acknowledged that Rider’s penchant for suspensions was a red flag.
“It was a concern,” Babcock conceded. “It’s up to him. He’s a tremendous talent. We’re not going to predetermine anything until the end of the season. Then we’ll make a decision about what’s best for our franchise.”
Rider didn’t make it to the end of the 1999-2000 season with Atlanta. After being late repeatedly all season, Rider refused to accept a three-game suspension in March 2000. The Hawks released Rider instead of suspending him, and the team finished 28-54, their worst record since moving to Atlanta in 1968. Wilkens would resign as head coach at the end of the 1999-2000 season – the first of a franchise-worst eight consecutive seasons out of the playoffs.
Just like the Hawks in 1999, the Clippers happen to have two starting guards both older than 30 years old in PG Chris Paul (31) and SG J.J. Redick (32 in June). Trading Paul and Redick now would be a very risky move for the Clippers. Atlanta showed in the 1990s that making the wrong trade can set you back for several years. No team lost more games from 1999 to 2007 than the Hawks.