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.
Phoenix Suns 1993-2001 Summary
– 1993-1994: 56-26 (3rd seed), swept Golden State Warriors in Round 1, lost to Houston Rockets in 7
– 1994-1995: 59-23 (2nd seed), swept Portland Trail Blazers in Round 1, lost to Rockets in 7
– 1995-1996: 41-41 (7th seed), lost to San Antonio Spurs in 4
– 1996-1997: 40-42 (7th seed), lost to Seattle SuperSonics in 5
– 1997-1998: 56-26 (4th seed), lost to Spurs in 4
– 1998-1999: 27-23 (6th seed), swept by Trail Blazers in Round 1
– 1999-2000: 53-29 (5th seed), defeated Spurs in 4, lost to Los Angeles Lakers in 5
– 2000-2001: 51-31 (6th seed), lost to Sacramento Kings in 4
10K minutes: Jason Kidd
Head Coaches: Paul Westphal (1993-1996), Cotton Fitzsimmons (1996), Danny Ainge (1996-1999), Scott Skiles (1999-2001)
The Phoenix Suns lost the 1993 NBA Finals to the Chicago Bulls in Paul Westphal’s first season as an NBA head coach, but other than losing PF Tom Chambers to free agency and SF Richard Dumas to suspension, the bulk of the team was back after winning an NBA-high 62 games. That included PF Charles Barkley, the 1992-1993 NBA MVP. By September 1993, Barkley was hosting Saturday Night Live with musical guest Nirvana.
The Suns had to settle for the 3rd seed in 1993-1994. Barkley and PG Kevin Johnson were All-Stars for a team that was average defensively, but had the NBA’s highest scoring offense (108.1 points per game). The Suns swept the Golden State Warriors in Round 1, which was a little bit of revenge for Barkley after getting dunked on by Golden State rookie C Chris Webber earlier in the season.
The Suns went into Houston for Games 1 and 2 of the 1993-1994 Semifinals and won both games against the Rockets, coming back from double-digit leads in both games to do so. But the Rockets would return the favor in Phoenix, beating the Suns in Games 3 and 4 before going back to Houston and winning Game 5 as well. The Suns would force a Game 7, but the Rockets would blow them out for the fourth time in five games. The Rockets would go on to win the 1993-1994 NBA Championship.
The Suns weren’t messing around with Barkley championship window going into 1994-1995, his 11th NBA season. Barkley was dealing with back issues, and he contemplated retirement after the 1993-1994 season. Phoenix signed PFs Danny Manning and Wayman Tisdale to one-year deals in the 1994 offseason, with both players taking less than they could have gotten elsewhere.
Despite leg injuries consistently interrupting Johnson’s season, the Suns got off to a 36-10 start, and Barkley was joined in the 1995 NBA All-Star Game in Phoenix by Westphal and SG Dan Majerle. Majerle led the NBA in three-pointers in 1992-1993 and 1993-1994, and only New York SG John Starks made more than Majerle’s career-high 199 3s in 1994-1995.
But the Suns were decimated by a major injury to Manning: a torn left ACL suffered in practice shortly before the All-Star break. As a rookie with the Los Angeles Clippers in January 1989, Manning had torn his right ACL. Manning had been averaging 17.9 points per game, mostly off the bench.
The Suns would rally to win the Pacific Division, and they wasted no time sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers in Round 1, setting up a Semifinals rematch with the defending champion Rockets. The Suns had homecourt advantage this time, and they took a 3-1 series lead headed back to Phoenix for Game 5. But the Rockets forced a Game 7 in Phoenix. And then this happened:
The Suns would trade Majerle, SF Antonio Lang, and a 1997 1st round pick to Cleveland for C John “Hot Rod” Williams in October 1995. By January 1996, the Suns were 14-19 and dealing with injuries to Barkley, Johnson, and Manning (who had signed a six-year deal in October 1995 despite his recovery from ACL surgery). Westphal was fired, replaced by senior executive vice president and former Phoenix head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. The Suns would get to 41-41, but the San Antonio Spurs eliminated Phoenix in 4, ending Phoenix’s worst season in 8 years.
The Suns moved on from Barkley in August 1996, sending him to Houston along with a 1999 2nd round pick in exchange for PF Robert Horry, PG Sam Cassell, PF Mark Bryant, and SF Chucky Brown. Once again, the Suns got off to a poor start, as Fitzsimmons stepped down after Phoenix lost the first eight games of the 1996-1997 season. Assistant Danny Ainge, who played for the Suns and was hired in May 1996 as Fitzsimmons’ eventual successor, took over earlier than expected. The Suns would lose their first five games with Ainge to drop to 0-13. After a blowout home loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Christmas, the Suns made another huge move, trading Cassell, SF Michael Finley, PF A.C. Green, and a 1998 2nd round pick to Dallas for All-Star PG Jason Kidd, SG Tony Dumas, and C Loren Meyer. Johnson intended to retire after the season, and Phoenix made the move despite drafting PG Steve Nash out of Santa Clara 15th overall in the 1996 NBA Draft.
Kidd was injured in his first game with the Suns, missing 23 games with a broken collarbone. The Suns had to suspend and later trade Horry after he threw a towel in Ainge’s face. A March 1997 loss to the Clippers left the Suns at 27-39 with 16 games left in the season. But the Suns would win 13 of their last 16 games of the 1996-1997 season, including 11 in a row, and secure a playoff berth as the 7th seed. Playing with a very small lineup (Kidd and Johnson at guard, SF Rex Chapman in the starting lineup, with SG Wesley Johnson playing most of the minutes), the Suns pushed the Seattle SuperSonics to the brink of elimination, and Chapman forced overtime in Game 4 with a memorable buzzer beater.
Seattle was able to beat the Suns in overtime, and then the Sonics blew the Suns out in Game 5, ending Phoenix’s 1996-1997 season in Round 1.
Johnson held off retirement for a year, while Kidd got back to the All-Star Game in 1997-1998, leading the Suns to a top-ten defense and a 56-26 record. But Manning, the winner of the 1997-1998 Sixth Man of the Year award, would tear his ACL for the third time in April 1998. The Spurs would eliminate the Suns in 4, marking the fifth year in a row that the Suns made the playoffs but failed to get to the Conference Finals. Johnson would retire, and Nash would be traded to Dallas during the 1998 NBA Draft.
Following the 1998-1999 NBA lockout, Kidd posted a career-high 10.8 assists per game, the first of five seasons leading the league in assists per game. But the Lockout Suns would be swept in Round 1 by the Portland Trail Blazers, marking the first time in 14 years that the Suns would be swept in Round 1.
Phoenix was able to acquire SG Penny Hardaway in August 1999, trading Manning, PF Pat Garrity, and 1st round picks in 2001 and 2002 to Orlando. The Suns got off to a 13-7 start in 1999-2000 when Ainge quit as head coach, citing family. Ainge would be replaced by assistant Scott Skiles. Hardaway would miss 22 games due to plantar fasciitis, while Kidd broke his ankle in March 2000; Johnson would come out of retirement to help the Suns going into the postseason. The Suns also had the challenge of PF Tom Gugliotta’s rough season; Gugliotta survived a near-fatal seizure in December 1999, then tore his left ACL/MCL in March 2000. The Suns did get a career-high 115 3s from the 1999-2000 Sixth Man of the Year, PF Rodney Rogers. And rookie SF Shawn Marion, who was selected with the 9th pick in the 1999 NBA Draft via the Steve Nash trade with Dallas, made the All-NBA Rookie 2nd team. The Suns were able to knock off the defending champion Spurs in Round 1, but lost in 5 to the eventual champion Lakers in the Semifinals.
Phoenix’s “Backcourt 2000” would take a major step back in 2000-2001. Hardaway would play only four games due to microfracture knee surgery, and he would never be an All-Star again. And while Kidd was an All-Star, the NBA’s leading passer, and the main key in Phoenix’s top-2 defense, he was involved in a domestic violence incident with his wife in January 2001. Kidd’s incident would be sandwiched between PF Cliff Robinson getting charged with DUI and marijuana possession in February 2001 and Hardaway being charged with intimidation in December 2000. While the Suns would win 51 games and defeat the Sacramento Kings on the road in Game 1 of their 1st Round series, the Kings would eliminate Phoenix in 4, holding Kidd to 31.9 percent shooting from the field. It would mark the fifth straight postseason that Kidd would fail to get to the Conference Finals in Phoenix.
The Suns moved on from Kidd in the 2001 offseason, trading him and C Chris Dudley to New Jersey for All-Star PG Stephon Marbury, SG Johnny Newman, and C Soumaila Samake.
You could’ve ended Phoenix’s franchise-long 13-year postseason appearance streak right there that summer. Skiles would be out as head coach in February 2002 after Phoenix started 25-26, replaced by assistant Frank Johnson. Meanwhile, Kidd was turning around the Nets, eventually leading them to the NBA Finals. Here’s how Adrian Wojnarowski described it in March 2002:
Kidd won. The Suns lost. That’s the truth he’s trying to tell you on his return to America West Arena on Wednesday night as a New Jersey Net. They’re winning the Eastern Conference now. He’s an MVP candidate. Yes, Kidd won. The Suns (28-32) have collapsed completely without him. They’re going to get worse, and they could stay that way for a good, long time. The Suns fired Skiles. Marbury was busted for drinking and driving. They traded Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk to the Celtics to clear cap space. It’s a downright disaster.
What would that mean for Los Angeles’ current situation? They shouldn’t trade PG Chris Paul away just because he’s been the common link to the Clippers’ Playoff Purgatory. Like Kidd, Paul was traded from his original team to a team that he would fail to get past the Semifinals five years in a row. The Marbury trade didn’t work out at all. The Clippers would have to be very careful going through with a Paul trade, or they would be setting up for a midseason coaching change like Phoenix did.