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.
Utah Jazz 1998-2003 Summary
– 1998-1999: 37-13 (2nd seed), defeated Sacramento Kings in 5, lost to Portland Trail Blazers in 6
– 1999-2000: 55-27 (2nd seed), defeated Seattle SuperSonics in 5, lost to Trail Blazers in 5
– 2000-2001: 53-29 (4th seed), lost to Dallas Mavericks in 5
– 2001-2002: 44-38 (8th seed), lost to Kings in 4
– 2002-2003: 47-35 (7th seed), lost to Kings in 5 (4-1)
10K minutes: Karl Malone, John Stockton
Head Coach: Jerry Sloan (1998-2003)
When Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls completed their second three-peat in the 1998 NBA Finals, it marked the end of a three-season run that saw the Utah Jazz make the Western Conference Finals three years in a row and the NBA Finals two years in a row. 1997-1998 was also the 15th season in a row that the Jazz made the postseason – a run that started in Playoff Purgatory.
The Lockout Jazz of 1998-1999 was PG John Stockton and PF Karl Malone’s 14th NBA season together. Stockton turned 37 years old during the season, while Malone was 35. That didn’t stop the Jazz from tying the San Antonio Spurs for the best record in the entire league at 37-13. San Antonio beat the Jazz two out of three times during the regular season, giving the Spurs the Midwest Division title and the top seed in the Western Conference Playoffs. Malone would get his 2nd NBA MVP award, becoming the oldest player in NBA history to be named MVP.
Uta would get a scare in the 1st Round of the playoffs. After beating the Sacramento Kings by 30 points in Game 1, the Kings came back to win Games 2 and 3. But Utah won Game 4 thanks to a Stockton game-winner, and they beat the Kings in overtime in Game 5 after blowing an 11-point halftime lead.
The Jazz had home court advantage against the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1999 Semifinals, but lost Game 2 before losing all three games in Portland to drop the series in 6.
The 1999-2000 season would be the end of several Jazz events. Stockton would make his final All-Star appearance, Malone averaged 25.5 points per game, his last season of at least 25 points per game. And SG Jeff Hornacek decided that his 14th NBA season would be his last.
The Jazz would win the Midwest Division and get the 2nd seed in the West, drawing the Seattle SuperSonics in the 1st Round. It would be a rematch of the 1996 Western Conference Finals, which Seattle won in 7. This series would go the distance as well, but Game 5 would be in Utah, and the Jazz edged out Seattle to advance to the Semifinals. It would be the last playoff series that Stockton and Malone would win together.
The 2000 Semifinals was a rematch between Utah and Portland. Despite having the higher seed, Utah had to go on the road to start the series due to Portland’s superior record. The Trail Blazers went up 3-0 and won the series in 5 to end Hornacek’s career.
Even with Hornacek’s retirement, the 2000-2001 Jazz were still the oldest team in the league. Four of the five starters were at least 35 years old: Stockton (39), Malone (37), C Olden Polynice (36), and new SG John Starks (35). Starks would eventually be replaced as a starter by Bryon Russell, who was 30, while 27-year-old SF Donyell Marshall was the only starter under 30. The team also had 34-year-old backup PF Danny Manning. The Jazz would finish 53-29, giving them homecourt advantage against the 5th seeded Dallas Mavericks in Round 1. The Jazz would win Games 1 and 2 at home, but Dallas would force a Game 5. Utah would be up 14 at home going into the 4th quarter, but the Mavericks came all the way back before Dallas C Calvin Booth’s go-ahead bucket proved to be the game-winner and series ender.
The 2001-2002 Jazz would finish 44-38, their fewest wins in a full season since 1986-1987. That was also the last time that Malone, still an All-Star at age 38, was left off an All-NBA team. Utah would be an 8th seed going up against the Kings, somewhat of a role reversal from three years earlier. Utah would steal homecourt advantage in Game 2, but the Kings would win both games in Utah to eliminate the Jazz in 4.
Utah would once again field the oldest team in the league in 2002-2003. Stockton turned 41 during the season, Malone was 39, and the backup PG was 38-year-old Mark Jackson. The NBA announced during the 2003 All-Star Weekend that the 1st Round would be best-of-7 instead of best-of-5, and the 7th-seed Jazz had a rematch with the 2nd-seed Kings. Sacramento would end the series in 5, marking four straight postseason losses for the Jazz and five straight postseasons without getting to the Conference Finals. It would also be the last time Stockton and Malone would appear in a Jazz uniform.
After 19 seasons in Utah, Stockton retired from the NBA as the all-time league leader in assists and steals. Malone was a free agent, and he would stay in purple. But after 18 years with the Jazz and Stockton, Malone signed with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Malone would also mention that Utah isn’t a destination for free agents, citing Los Angeles Clippers PG Andre Miller choosing the Denver Nuggets over the Jazz in free agency in 2003.
“When Andre didn’t sign,” Malone said, “that wasn’t a good sign at all.”
After 20 consecutive postseason appearances, the Jazz would narrowly miss the postseason in 2003-2004. Utah finished 42-40, but they lost three of four to Miller’s Nuggets, who finished 43-39. The Jazz would sign Cleveland PF Carlos Boozer in July 2004, but Boozer missed 30 games in his first season with the Jazz. Utah would finish 26-56 in 2004-2005, Sloan’s worst season as head coach. The Jazz then drafted PG Deron Williams third overall in 2005, one spot over PG Chris Paul. Utah would miss the playoffs for a third straight season in 2005-2006 with a 41-41 record.
Utah hung on to Stockton and Malone as long as they could, a loyalty that was made easier because of the Finals appearances more than the stints of Playoff Purgatory. Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers mentioned this when discussing championship windows at the end of this season.
“[The Spurs] have gotten some of their key guys to take less and fit in, because they’re a lot older,” Rivers said. “That’s my goal: us win one or two, Chris (Paul) and them are 35 and decide to take less, which you think they would at that point to keep winning.
“But you have to win it first. You don’t get that loyalty, and then win. You usually win it, and then you get that type of sacrifice.”
Paul and Blake Griffin aren’t close to their 40s yet. But they also haven’t accomplished what Stockton and Malone did either. Whether they get the chance to, and whether they actually can, remains to be seen.