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.
Denver Nuggets 2003-2008 Summary
– 2003-2004: 43-39 (8th seed), lost to Minnesota Timberwolves in 5
– 2004-2005: 49-33 (7th seed), lost to San Antonio Spurs in 5
– 2005-2006: 44-38 (3rd seed), lost to Los Angeles Clippers in 5
– 2006-2007: 45-37 (6th seed), lost to Spurs in 5
– 2007-2008: 50-32 (8th seed), swept by Los Angeles Lakers in Round 1
10K minutes: Carmelo Anthony, Marcus Camby
Head Coaches: Jeff Bzdelik (2003-2004), Michael Cooper (2004-2005), George Karl (2005-2008)
The Denver Nuggets ended the 2002-2003 season under first-year head coach Jeff Bzdelik at 17-65, tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the worst record in the league. It was Denver’s eighth consecutive season out of the playoffs; only the Memphis Grizzlies, an expansion team in Vancouver in 1995, had more than Denver’s 424 losses from 1995 to 2003.
Help would be on the way, though. Some of the help was already there; during the 2002 NBA Draft, the Nuggets traded PF Antonio McDyess, the 25th pick of the 2002 NBA Draft (PG Frank Williams), and a 2003 2nd Round pick to New York for C Marcus Camby, the 7th pick in the 2002 Draft (PF Nenê), and PG Mark Jackson. Camby missed most of the 2002-2003 season after hip surgery, but he finished the season healthy. And though the Nuggets only got the third pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, they would get an immediate contributor in Syracuse SF Carmelo Anthony.
The Nuggets would also secure the services of PG Andre Miller, who left the Los Angeles Clippers to sign a six-year deal with Denver via restricted free agency in 2003. Denver also signed Toronto SG Voshon Lenard in September 2003; Lenard had spent the 2000-2001 and 2001-2002 seasons with the Nuggets.
Miller and Lenard would join Anthony, Nenê, and Camby as starters for the 2003-2004 season. They wasted no time putting the 2002-2003 season behind them. The Nuggets knocked off the defending champion Spurs in their season debut, and by December 26, the Nuggets had surpassed their win total from the entire 2002-2003 season. In the home finale against the Sacramento Kings, the Nuggets won 97-89 to beat out the Utah Jazz for the final playoff spot in the West, ending the franchise’s longest postseason drought in the process. Anthony would lead the Nuggets with 21.0 points per game as a rookie, while Camby played in 72 games for 2,162 minutes, averaging 10.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. The Nuggets would lose to the Minnesota Timberwolves in 5, but it was a successful debut season for Anthony.
The Nuggets traded three 1st round picks to New Jersey for the right to sign All-Star PF Kenyon Martin in July 2004. The move was supposed to move Denver up a class. But when the Nuggets started the 2004-2005 season 13-15, general manager Kiki Vandeweghe fired Bzdelik as head coach. Assistant Michael Cooper, who left the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks to join the Nuggets coaching staff in July 2004, was named the interim head coach. The Nuggets were even worse under Cooper, losing 10 of 14 games. The solution: hire ESPN analyst and former NBA head coach George Karl in January 2005. Cooper was kept on as an assistant, while Karl made it his duty to get Anthony going.
“I’m going to be demanding of certain things that he might not be happy with, but I also respect that he’s a great talent,” Karl said. “[His] being successful will only make my job successful. I’m just going to communicate with him, coach him, mentor him, try to teach him professionalism. I see a great player that has plateaued.”
Karl’s first game as Denver’s head coach came at Milwaukee; the Bucks fired him in 2003. Denver overcame a 14-point deficit to beat the Bucks, and the run towards a playoff spot was on. Anthony went from scoring 20.2 points per game on 39.0 percent shooting from the field under Bzdelik and Cooper to averaging 21.3 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting from the field under Karl. Camby would earn a selection on the NBA All-Defensive Second Team after averaging 10.0 rebounds and blocking a league-high 199 shots. The Nuggets went 32-8 under Karl to finish 49-33, their best record in 17 years.
Denver’s reward for being the NBA’s best team since Karl took over? A 1st Round matchup with the San Antonio Spurs. The Nuggets took Game 1 in San Antonio, but the ride was over shortly after that, as the eventual NBA champions would win the remaining four games of the series by an average of more than 14 points per game.
The momentum from Karl’s debut didn’t carry over into the 2005-2006 season. Nenê was lost to a torn right ACL in the season opener, Karl was suspended multiple times by the league, and Camby needed finger surgery. Anthony was an All-Star snub again, but he averaged 26.5 points per game, while Camby averaged 11.9 rebounds and a league-leading 3.3 blocks per game. The Nuggets were division champs for the first time in 18 years, earning the 3rd seed in the West with a 44-38 record.
But while the relatively weak Northwest Division gave the Nuggets a high seed, it didn’t earn them homecourt advantage in Round 1 against the 6th-seed Los Angeles Clippers, who finished the 2005-2006 season with a 47-35 record.
Unfortunately for the Nuggets, this series would be known for two things: Denver PF Reggie Evans getting fined $10K for going Johnny Cage on Los Angeles C Chris Kaman, and for the Clippers winning their first postseason series in franchise history, eliminating the Nuggets in 5.
Vandeweghe would leave the Nuggets after the season. He would be replaced by Mark Warkentien, who was promoted from director of player personnel to vice president of basketball operations in September 2006. 2006-2007 was another roller coaster for the Nuggets. For the second season in a row, they lost a PF after the first week of the season, as PF Kenyon Martin was lost for the season after microfracture knee surgery. On December 16, 2006, the Nuggets visited New York and were blowing out the Knicks when a brawl involving Anthony changed the course of their entire season.
It was the worst incident in the NBA since the 2004 Malice at the Palace, and the suspensions were merciless: Anthony got 15 games, Denver SG J.R. Smith was suspended 10 games, New York PG Nate Robinson was suspended 10 games, New York SG Mardy Collins was suspended six games, New York SF Jared Jeffries was suspended four games, and New York C Jerome James and Nenê were suspended one game each for leaving the bench. Both teams were fined $500K each.
One day after the suspensions, the Nuggets traded Miller, PF Joe Smith, and two 2007 1st Round picks to Philadelphia for All-Star SG Allen Iverson and PF Ivan McFarlin. The Nuggets would lose 7-of-8 games at one point during Anthony’s suspension, but Denver won the final three games of Anthony’s suspension.
Anthony and Iverson were both selected to the 2006-2007 All-Star Game, Anthony’s first appearance of his career. Camby was named the 2006-2007 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, leading the league with 231 blocks. And the Nuggets would get to the playoffs with a 45-37 record. They would draw the Spurs, just like in 2005. They would win Game 1 in San Antonio, just like 2005. And they would lose the last four games of the series to the eventual NBA champions, just like 2005.
The Nuggets would get Martin back for the 2007-2008 season, but Nenê was back on the shelf after surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb in November 2007. Nenê would have his season interrupted again in January 2008 after being diagnosed with testicular cancer; he would return in March 2008.
Anthony and Iverson would both average more than 25 points per game and represent the Nuggets as All-Stars, while Camby had a career-high 285 blocks, leading the NBA for the third time in four seasons. The Nuggets had their first 50-win season in 20 years, and they needed it to get the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, as the Golden State Warriors finished 9th with a 48-34 record. But the Nuggets would be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers, marking the fifth year in a row that the Nuggets would fail to get out of the 1st Round of the playoffs.
When the Nuggets entered Playoff Purgatory in the 1980s, they were coming off a 1985 Western Conference Finals loss to the Lakers and would basically blow the team up in 1990, resulting in a disastrous 1990-1991 season. Denver entered this run of Playoff Purgatory after the worst stretch in franchise history. The bold moves they made in 2008 would get them over the hump.
During NBA Summer League in July 2008, the Nuggets traded Camby to the Clippers, swapping 2010 2nd round picks in the process. The Nuggets made the move for salary reasons as well as a need to shake things up. Karl wasn’t pleased with the trade initially.
“I’m not going to talk philosophically about what’s going on and why we did it,” Karl said. “I think all of us, Marcus and all the coaches, we’re going to have to think about it a little bit. It was a situation where I know that Marcus was a big part of our success. Any time you lose a player like Marcus, you’re going to have a tough time filling that void.”
Camby was even more upset about the deal than Karl, according to the Denver Post.
“I definitely felt insulted because of the lack of communication,” said Camby. “Upon hearing about the trade, I basically felt like, am I the scapegoat? Am I the guy who’s taking the blame for our lack of success in the playoffs? But what can I do?”
Camby wouldn’t be the only Nugget moved. After starting the 2008-2009 season 1-2, the Nuggets traded Iverson to Detroit for All-Star PG Chauncey Billups, McDyess (who was bought out), and C Cheikh Samb. Billups, a former Nugget and a Denver native, teamed up with Anthony to lead the Nuggets to a 54-28 record and the 2nd seed in the West. The Nuggets drew Chris Paul’s New Orleans Hornets in Round 1 and eliminated them in 5, highlighted by a 121-63 Game 4 win in New Orleans, the largest road win in NBA playoff history.
That set up a Semifinals matchup against the 6th-seed Dallas Mavericks, who upset the Spurs in Round 1. The Nuggets won Games 1 and 2 at home, setting up a controversial Game 3 in Dallas. With the Nuggets down two, Dallas SG Antoine Wright intended to foul Anthony. But the officials incorrectly failed to acknowledge it, and Anthony freed himself up for a game-winning three-pointer.
Afterwards, Martin and the Nuggets got into a verbal back-and-forth with Dallas owner Mark Cuban, and the Nuggets would go on to eliminate Dallas in 5 to advance to their first Western Conference Finals since 1985. The Nuggets would steal homecourt advantage in Game 2 and tie the series at 2-2, but the eventual champion Lakers blew the Nuggets out to win the series in 6. Denver hasn’t won a playoff series since.
If the Clippers were to duplicate what the Nuggets did to get out of Playoff Purgatory, then they would keep PF Blake Griffin while trading C DeAndre Jordan and PG Chris Paul. That would require Los Angeles head coach Doc Rivers to find the appropriate pieces around Griffin to elevate his team to the Conference Finals.
It is interesting to note the trade rumors involving Griffin and Anthony. Both have failed to get to the Conference Finals in the first five postseasons of their career. And both have won the same amount of postseason series in their careers (three), even though Anthony has a six-year head start to his career.