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.
Minnesota Timberwolves 1996-2003 Summary
– 1996-1997: 40-42 (6th seed), swept by Houston Rockets in Round 1
– 1997-1998: 45-37 (7th seed), lost to Seattle SuperSonics in 5
– 1998-1999: 25-25 (8th seed), lost to San Antonio Spurs in 4
– 1999-2000: 50-32 (6th seed), lost to Portland Trail Blazers in 4
– 2000-2001: 47-35 (8th seed), lost to Spurs in 4
– 2001-2002: 50-32 (5th seed), swept by Dallas Mavericks in Round 1
– 2002-2003: 51-31 (4th seed), lost to Los Angeles Lakers in 6 (4-2)
10K minutes: Kevin Garnett, Anthony Peeler
Head Coach: Flip Saunders (1996-2003)
Entering the 1996-1997 NBA season, the Minnesota Timberwolves lost 422 games in their 7-year franchise history. No other team in the league lost more than 400 games since the Timberwolves debuted in 1989. Vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale named general manager and former University of Minnesota teammate Flip Saunders as head coach Bill Blair’s midseason replacement in December 1995, and the Timberwolves ended PF Kevin Garnett’s rookie season at 26-56.
The Timberwolves still finished the 1996-1997 season with a losing record at 40-42. But that was still a team record, and for the first time ever, Minnesota had two All-Stars in Garnett and SF Tom Gugliotta. Garnett, who was the first player since the NBA-ABA merger to be drafted straight out of high school in 1995, averaged 8.0 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.4 steals, and 2.1 blocks per game for an average Minnesota defense. On the flip side, Gugliotta led the Timberwolves in scoring with 20.0 points per game, rebounds with 8.7 per game, and steals with 1.6 per game. Minnesota made the playoffs as a 6th seed, but were swept by the Houston Rockets.
In October 1997, Minnesota and Garnett would agree on a historic six-year deal that ended a summer holdout. The contract would be cited as one of the key factors in the 1998-1999 NBA lockout. On the court, the Timberwolves and Garnett would take another step forward in 1997-1998, as Garnett led the team in rebounds (9.6 per game), steals (1.7 per game), and blocks (1.8). Minnesota made a midseason trade in February 1998, acquiring SG Anthony Peeler from Vancouver in exchange for SG Doug West, a member of the inaugural franchise. West had to go to alcohol rehab and missed the rest of the season following the trade, while Peeler went from riding the bench for a cellar dwellar to starting for a playoff bound team.
But leading scorer Gugliotta had to get season-ending ankle surgery in February, and the Timberwolves went 20-19 after his last start of the season in late January. Saunders had to go with a small lineup in Minnesota’s 1st Round matchup at Seattle, putting Garnett at C, Sam Mitchell at PF, Peeler at SF, and Terry Porter at SG next to PG Stephon Marbury. It worked initially, as the Timberwolves stole home court in Game 2 and took a 2-1 series lead.
The SuperSonics would win Games 4 and 5 to eliminate the Timberwolves. The chemistry in Minnesota would be put to the test over the next year. Gugliotta recognized that Garnett’s contract may force him to move on, and once the Lockout ended, Gugliotta left Minnesota to sign with the Phoenix Suns.
The Timberwolves would then have to trade Marbury to the New Jersey Nets in a 3-team deal that sent Milwaukee PG Terrell Brandon to the Timberwolves. After the trade, Gugliotta criticized his former teammate Marbury for his jealousy of Garnett.
“Stephon couldn’t take being overshadowed by Kevin Garnett,” Gugliotta said. “It really bothered him Kevin got all that money ($126 million) and he has to settle for $50M less. It killed him to see Kevin make the All-Star and Olympic teams and he didn’t. He wanted to go some place where he could be the man, that’s the bottom line.”
The Lockout Timberwolves struggled after the trade, going from 12-6 before the trade and finishing the season with a 25-25 record. The Timberwolves would go on to lose to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in 4.
Minnesota was able to bounce back in 1999-2000. The team was able to get the 6th pick in the 1999 NBA Draft from New Jersey in the Marbury trade, and they used it on SF Wally Szczerbiak out of Miami (Ohio). That allowed SG Malik Sealy to start and Peeler to come off the bench as a 6th Man. Garnett was an All-NBA First Team selection for the first time in 1999-2000, and he also was an All-Defensive First Team selection for the first time. Saunders led the Timberwolves to 50 wins for the first time in franchise history as well. But Garnett would struggle in the 1st Round against the Trail Blazers, scoring only 75 points on 78 field goal attempts for the series, and Minnesota was eliminated in 4. 18 days later, Sealy tragically passed away in an auto accident after leaving Garnett’s 24th birthday party.
The Minnesota organization would take a major hit going into the 2000-2001 offseason. The team had a secret agreement with PF Joe Smith voided in October 2000, allowing him to become a free agent. The NBA wasn’t messing around at all with this one, as Minnesota was stripped of their next five 1st Round picks, owner Glen Taylor was suspended for the rest of the season, and McHale agreed to a leave of absence until the end of July 2001. Minnesota was also fined $3.5 million; the NBA would later restore the 2003 and 2005 picks.
On the court, Peeler returned to the starting lineup and made 100 three-pointers, while Garnett turned in another All-Star season for a 47-35 Timberwolves team. But for the fifth straight season, Minnesota failed to get out of the 1st Round, losing to the Spurs again in 4.
Early in the 2000-2001 season, Garnett and Szczerbiak came to blows in a practice. By 2001-2002, Szczerbiak joined Garnett as an NBA All-Star, starting in place of Peeler at SG and averaging 18.7 points (50.8 percent from the field), 4.8 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game for a top-5 offense. One year after the practice altercation, Garnett had a different perspective on what was always a chilly relationship with Szczerbiak.
“I’m glad it happened now because we understand each other better as a result,” Garnett said. “We’re not trying to be best friends. But where before he’d do something and I’d say, ‘What the hell are you doing?,’ now it’s, ‘Be aggressive, but do it through the offense.’ ”
The Timberwolves were 33-16 going into the All-Star Break, but only 17-16 after. A major factor would be Brandon’s career-ending leg surgery, which thrust PG Chauncey Billups into a starting role. While Billups averaged a respectable 3.3 assists per turnover, that paled in comparison to Brandon’s 6.1 assists per turnover. Minnesota would be swept by the Dallas Mavericks in the 1st Round, as Dallas PF Dirk Nowitzki lit the Timberwolves up for 33.3 points and 15.7 rebounds per game in the series.
Garnett was worked to the bone in 2002-2003. He would appear in every game and average a career-high 40.5 minutes per game, producing 23.0 points, 13.4 rebounds, a career-high 6.0 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.6 blocks per game. Peeler would once again bounce into the starting lineup right around the time Szczerbiak returned from a dislocated toe in January 2003. The NBA announced during the 2002-2003 All-Star Break that the 1st Round of the NBA Playoffs would go from best-of-5 to best-of-7. The Timberwolves would earn home court advantage for the first time in franchise history, but they had to host the three-peat defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers would steal homecourt advantage in Game 1, take a 3-2 series lead after dealing Minnesota their largest postseason loss in franchise history, and finish the Timberwolves off at STAPLES Center in 6. It would be the seventh season in a row that Minnesota would be eliminated in the first round.
After six seasons with Minnesota, Peeler was used in a trade that would go a long way towards finally getting out of the 1st Round, as he was sent along with Smith to Milwaukee for PG Sam Cassell and C Ervin Johnson in June 2003. In July 2003, Minnesota acquired New York SF Latrell Sprewell in a 4-team trade that sent C Marc Jackson to Philadelphia and Brandon to Atlanta.
Garnett would sign a five-year contract extension in October 2003, and then he would turn in an MVP campaign for the top seed in the West.
In the 1st Round of the 2003-2004 NBA Playoffs, the Timberwolves eliminated the Denver Nuggets in 5, earning their first postseason series win in franchise history. They would face the Sacramento Kings in the Semifinals. That series got so heated that Peeler, who signed with Sacramento after Milwaukee waived him in July 2003, struck Garnett in the face with an elbow.
Peeler would be suspended for Game 7 at Minnesota, which was played on Garnett’s 28th birthday. Garnett would come through with game-highs of 32 points, 21 rebounds, 4 steals, and 5 blocks in an 83-80 win over the Kings.
The Timberwolves had homecourt advantage in the 2004 Western Conference Finals, but they had to go up against the Lakers again. Cassell, a 2003-2004 All-Star, was severely limited in the Conference Finals due to a hip injury suffered in Game 7 of the Conference Finals; according to Saunders in 2014, Cassell injured it doing his Big Balls Dance. Just like the 2003 1st Round, the Lakers would defeat the Timberwolves in 6. The Timberwolves haven’t been to the postseason since.
The correlation for the Los Angeles Clippers comes when you look at how Minnesota handled Garnett and how Los Angeles may handle their two max contract big men, PF Blake Griffin and C DeAndre Jordan. Griffin has the offensive game that Garnett had in his prime, while Jordan resembles the defensive ability Garnett had. Griffin finished third in the MVP voting just two years ago, while Jordan is now an All-NBA and All-Defensive First Team selection. The question is whether or not Los Angeles will part with a key rotation player similar to how Minnesota traded Peeler in order to make the team better. Perhaps that would mean moving on from someone like SG Jamal Crawford, who is a free agent in 2016.
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