The Los Angeles Clippers have made the playoffs five years in a row. Each year, they fell short of the Conference Finals.
Over the past two weeks, ClipperBlog featured 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 have featured 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, circling it back and relating it to the Clippers’ current situation.
Atlanta Hawks 2007-2014 Summary
– 2007-2008: 37-45 (8th seed), lost to Boston Celtics in 7
– 2008-2009: 47-35 (4th seed), defeated Miami Heat in 7, swept by Cleveland Cavaliers in Semifinals
– 2009-2010: 53-29 (3rd seed), defeated Milwaukee Bucks in 7, swept by Orlando Magic in Semifinals
– 2010-2011: 44-38 (5th seed), defeated Magic in 6, lost to Chicago Bulls in 6
– 2011-2012: 40-26 (5th seed), lost to Celtics in 6
– 2012-2013: 44-38 (6th seed), lost to Indiana Pacers in 6
– 2013-2014: 38-44 (8th seed), lost to Pacers in 7
10K minutes: Josh Smith, Al Horford, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams
Head coaches: Mike Woodson (2007-2010), Larry Drew (2010-2013), Mike Budenholzer (2013-2014)
The Atlanta Hawks went from Playoff Purgatory in the 1990s to the worst team in the NBA from 1999-2007. The Hawks hit rock bottom in 2004-2005, finishing a franchise-worst 13-69 in head coach Mike Woodson’s first season as an NBA head coach. PF Josh Smith, the 17th pick in the 2004 NBA Draft out of Oak Hill Academy, was a rare bright spot as an All-NBA Rookie Second Team selection ad 2005 Slam Dunk champion.
The 2005 offseason brought a couple of major acquisitions. The Hawks had the 2nd pick of the 2005 NBA Draft, and went with North Carolina SF Marvin Williams. The next three picks were PGs (Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Raymond Felton).
The player the Hawks targeted as their next PG? Phoenix SG Joe Johnson, a restricted free agent in 2005.
“I love the idea,” Johnson said. “I’d love that, having the ball in my hands. I think I’m a great shooter, but that’s where I think I’m most effective, making decisions.”
In August 2005, Atlanta traded SG Boris Diaw and two future 1st round picks to Phoenix for Johnson, who they signed to a 5-year contract. The Hawks doubled their win total in Woodson’s second season, but that still meant a 26-56 finish in 2005-2006. Johnson would make his first All-Star Game in 2006-2007, scoring a career-high 25.0 points per game, while Williams became a starter. The Hawks improved again in 2006-2007, but only to 30-52.
The Hawks whiffed with their 2006 lottery pick, taking Duke PF Shelden Williams 5th overall. They would fare much better in 2007, selecting C Al Horford out of Florida. It would be the last time the Hawks would draft in the lottery for awhile.
The Hawks would improve to another losing record in 2007-2008, finishing 37-45. The Hawks would finally trade for a legitimate PG around the All-Star Break, acquiring PG Mike Bibby from Sacramento in exchange for PG Anthony Johnson, PG Tyronn Lue, bust Shelden Williams, PF Lorenzen Wright, and a 2008 2nd round pick. Atlanta would still struggle with a starting lineup of Bibby, Johnson, Williams, Smith, and Horford, going 14-17. But for the first time in nine seasons, the Hawks were a playoff team, earning the final spot in the Eastern Conference and a matchup with the Boston Celtics, coached by former Atlanta Hawks All-Star PG Doc Rivers.
The Celtics destroyed the Hawks in Games 1 and 2 by a combined 42 points. But the Hawks surprised by tying the series at 2-2. The Celtics won Game 5 by 25 points, but then the Hawks forced a Game 7. The Celtics were able to put Atlanta away 99-65, the 4th-largest Game 7 win in NBA history. After the season, general manager Billy Knight resigned; he had tried to get Woodson fired after the Bibby trade. Atlanta hired Seattle consultant Rick Sund as Knight’s replacement.
Atlanta finally made meaningful improvement in 2008-2009, finishing the season at 47-35, the franchise’s first winning season in ten years. The Bibby-Johnson-Williams-Smith-Horford lineup improved to 20-12, while Johnson went back to the All-Star Game. The Hawks drew the Miami Heat in Round 1, and Atlanta blew them out in Game 1. But the Heat would steal homecourt advantage, winning Game 2 in Atlanta and Game 3 in Miami. Atlanta would take Games 4 and 5, but Miami forced a Game 7 after a 26-point Game 6 win at home. The Hawks eliminated the Heat in 7. It was a series where the loser was held under 80 points five times, and none of the games were decided by fewer than ten points. The low-scoring blowouts would continue for the Hawks in the Semifinals against the Cavaliers. Unfortunately for Atlanta, it wouldn’t be an even matchup. Cleveland swept the Hawks, winning each game by at least ten points and prohibiting Atlanta from scoring more than 85 points in each game.
The relationship between Woodson and Smith by the end of the 2008-2009 season was fairly dysfunctional. Smith would take a different approach to his game in 2009-2010. On one hand, the 27.0 percent three-point shooter limited himself to only seven attempts in 2009-2010, missing all of them. But he had career-highs in field goal percentage (50.5 percent, scoring 15.7 points per game), rebounds (8.7 per game), assists (4.2 per game), and steals (1.6 per game), while leading the Hawks in blocks with 172. Smith’s efforts would earn him a selection on the 2009-2010 NBA All-Defensive Second Team.
Smith wouldn’t be the only Hawk rewarded in 2009-2010. Johnson, in a contract year, was an All-NBA Third Team selection. Horford was a first-time All-Star. And SG Jamal Crawford, acquired in a 2009 offseason trade with Golden State, earned his first Sixth Man of the Year award. For the fifth season in a row, the Hawks improved under Woodson, finishing the season at 53-29. The Bibby-Johnson-Williams-Smith-Horford lineup went 49-26. The 3rd-seeded Hawks would win Games 1 and 2 at home against the Milwaukee Bucks, but they had to overcome a 3-2 deficit before putting the Bucks away in 7. What followed was the most disgraceful postseason performance ever.
The Hawks were smoked by 43 points in Game 1 at Orlando, their worst postseason defeat since moving to Atlanta in 1968. After losing Game 3 by 30 points, Johnson said, “It’s about us in this locker room. We could care less if [fans] showed up.” By time the Magic finished their sweep of the Hawks, the final score of the series was 429-328 – the largest margin of victory in a postseason series ever.
The Hawks let Woodson go as head coach after six seasons. Atlanta hired assistant Larry Drew as Woodson’s replacement in June 2010. Despite the disastrous Semifinals at Orlando, Johnson earned a six-year deal with the Hawks worth nearly $124M in July 2010.
The Hawks took a step back under Drew in the regular season. An offense that was 2nd in offensive efficiency in Woodson’s final season dropped to 21st in 2010-2011. Johnson and Horford were still All-Stars, but the Hawks dropped to 44-38, setting up a rematch with Orlando in Round 1. This time around, the Hawks handled the Magic, stealing homecourt advantage in Game 1 and holding Orlando C Dwight Howard to three assists and 33 turnovers in a 4-2 Atlanta series win. Atlanta went to Chicago and stole homecourt advantage from the top-seed Bulls in Game 1, and tied the series at 2-2 after a Game 4 win. But the Hawks would be eliminated by the Bulls in 6.
Following the 2011 NBA Lockout, the Hawks would have to deal with a major injury, as Horford tore his left pectoral muscle in January 2012. The injury meant that backup C Zaza Pachulia had to fill in as a starter, but the Hawks were a top-ten defense with Horford on the shelf. Even though Atlanta earned the 5th seed in the East, they had homecourt advantage in Round 1 against the Atlantic champion Celtics due to a superior record. The Hawks won Game 1, but the Celtics would take a 3-1 series lead. Following a Hawks win in Game 5, Atlanta co-owner Michael Gearon Jr. decided it was a good idea to rile up Boston C Kevin Garnett.
“We don’t get any calls, which I know everybody always hears,” Gearon said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But I’ll give you a stat. Last night, we are playing this old physical team. They are old. I know what happens when you play basketball, old guys foul. [Kevin] Garnett is the dirtiest guy in the league. We are playing Boston last night and they had two fouls the whole first half. We had five times that and we’re athletic.”
Gearon wound up being fined $35K by the NBA. The Hawks wound up being eliminated before the Conference Finals for the fifth year in a row after a Game 6 Celtics win in Boston. And Kevin Garnett, who had game-highs of 28 points, 14 rebounds, 3 steals, and 5 blocks, let Gearon have it after Game 6.
Atlanta hired San Antonio executive Danny Ferry as general manager in June 2012. Ferry would break up the Hawks core with two major trades, sending both Johnson and Williams away after seven seasons. Johnson went to Brooklyn in what amounted to a salary dump; Atlanta received five players who spent one season or fewer with the Hawks (PG Jordan Farmar, SG DeShawn Stevenson, SG Anthony Morrow, C Johan Petro, C Jordan Williams), a 2013 1st Round pick, and a 2017 2nd Round pick. Williams was sent to Utah in exchange for PG Devin Harris, who also spent only one season in Atlanta.
Horford would return from injury in 2012-2013 to average 17.1 points, a career-high 10.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists, a career-high 1.1 steals, and 1.1 blocks per game in a career-high 37.2 minutes per game. Smith, in a contract year, led the team with 17.5 points and 1.8 blocks per game. Drew, also in a contract year, saw the Hawks finish 44-38 and earn the 6th seed in the East. The Indiana Pacers would eliminate the Hawks in 6.
Ferry would make more moves in the 2013 offseason. San Antonio assistant Mike Budenholzer was hired as head coach to replace Drew in May 2013. Smith left Atlanta after nine seasons to sign a 4-year deal with Detroit in July 2013. In Smith’s place was Utah PF Paul Millsap, who Atlanta signed to a 2-year deal.
The new-look Hawks started 16-13 under Budenholzer, with a starting lineup of PG Jeff Teague, SG Kyle Korver, SF DeMarre Carroll, Millsap, and Horford going 14-9. That all changed a day after Christmas.
Horford, now the longest-tenured player on the team, tore his right pectoral and would be lost for the season; he tore his left pectoral in 2012. The Hawks would go 15-28 after Horford’s injury, dropping them ten games under .500 with ten games left to play.
But the Hawks still had talent left, as Millsap became an All-Star for the first time in his career. Millsap averaged a career-high 17.9 points per game, and after making only 31-of-113 threes (27.4 percent) in his first seven NBA seasons, Millsap made 76-of-212 threes (35.8 percent) in his first season away from Utah in Atlanta. The Hawks would win seven of the last ten games of the last ten games of the season to finish 38-44, clinching a playoff spot for a seventh consecutive season, the longest streak in the Eastern Conference.
The Hawks would make a run as an 8th seed reminiscent of 2008. In a rematch with the Pacers, the Hawks stole homecourt advantage in Game 1, and would have a 3-2 lead going back to Atlanta for Game 6. But the Hawks would shoot an unacceptable 79 threes in Games 6 and 7, making only 20 of them (25.3 percent), and the Pacers would survive Atlanta’s bid for a 1-8 upset. For the second time in franchise history, Atlanta managed to make the postseason seven years in a row without advancing to the Conference Finals.
The Hawks were rocked by a racism scandal going into the 2014-2015 season, forcing controlling owner Bruce Levenson to sell the team and forcing Ferry to take a leave of absence and eventually step down as general manager.
Budenholzer would take on Ferry’s duties as the primary personnel executive, and his team would turn in the best season in franchise history, becoming Spurs East in the process. The Hawks won 60 games, sent Horford, Millsap, Korver, and Teague to the All-Star Game, and earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta would beat Johnson’s Nets in 6 in Round 1, and the Hawks would beat the Washington Wizards in 6 to advance to their first Conference Finals since 1970, when they were in the Western Division. The Hawks would be swept in the Conference Finals by the Cavaliers.
Atlanta’s Conference Finals drought was matched only by the Clippers, and Budenholzer had to go through an ownership/racism scandal just like Los Angeles head coach/president of basketball operations Doc Rivers. By time the Hawks were in the Conference Finals, Horford was the only member of Atlanta’s Playoff Purgatory core still with the team; the Hawks had changed head coaches, let players like Smith go in free agency, and traded away an All-Star and one of the highest draft picks in franchise history (Williams).
It will be interesting to see if the Clippers eventually decide to break up their core of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan in an effort to rebuild on the fly – and if Rivers will be the one to oversee it, or be part of the exodus. It is worth noting that Smith and Woodson attempted an ill-fated reunion with the Clippers this season that ended with Smith being traded back to Houston.