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.
Portland Trail Blazers 1982-1989 Summary
– 1982-1983: 46-36 (5th seed), swept Seattle SuperSonics (2-0), lost to Los Angeles Lakers in 5
– 1983-1984: 48-34 (3rd seed), lost to Phoenix Suns in 5
– 1984-1985: 42-40 (5th seed), defeated Dallas Mavericks in 4, lost to Lakers in 5
– 1985-1986: 40-42 (6th seed), lost to Denver Nuggets in 4
– 1986-1987: 49-33 (3rd seed), lost to Houston Rockets in 4
– 1987-1988: 53-29 (4th seed), lost to Utah Jazz in 4
– 1988-1989: 39-43 (8th seed), swept by Lakers (3-0)
10K minutes: Clyde Drexler, Jim Paxson, Mychal Thompson, Terry Porter
Head Coaches: Jack Ramsay (1982-1986), Mike Schuler (1986-1989), Rick Adelman (1989)
In 1977, the Trail Blazers become the youngest team in NBA history to win the NBA title. Head coach Jack Ramsay’s team had never made the playoffs before the 1976-1977 season, and only one player (guard Herm Gilliam) was older than 30 when the Trail Blazers beat the Philadelphia 76ers in 6 games, led by NBA Finals MVP (and future Clipper) C Bill Walton.
Five years later, the Trail Blazers were out of the playoffs. By time the 1982-1983 NBA season started, not a single player from Ramsay’s 1977 championship team was left on the roster. But the Trail Blazers did have C Mychal Thompson, the 1st overall pick in the 1978 NBA Draft, and 1979 1st round SG Jim Paxson. In 1982-1983, Paxson had his first All-Star season, averaging 21.7 points per game to go with 140 steals. The Trail Blazers would make the playoffs, starting an NBA-record streak of 21 postseasons in a row. Portland would sweep I-5 rival Seattle in Round 1, but the Lakers eliminated them in Round 2.
With the 14th pick in the 1983 NBA Draft, the Trail Blazers selected SG Clyde Drexler out of Houston. Drexler wouldn’t start as a rookie, as Paxton turned in another All-Star season in 1983-1984, and the Trail Blazers made it back to the playoffs, only to lose to the Suns in 5 games.
Now, here’s a little story about how the Indiana Pacers almost set the Trail Blazers up for life in the NBA penthouse – but also how the Trail Blazers made some regrettable moves in hindsight. In 1976, the Trail Blazers selected C Moses Malone in the ABA dispersal draft – only to trade him to the Buffalo Braves (now the Clippers) for cash and a 1978 1st round pick. The Blazers were content with another ABA big man, PF Maurice Lucas, being a better fit with Walton. (Less than a week later, the Braves foolishly traded Malone to Houston for two future 1st round picks.) The short term results were obviously fantastic, as the Blazers were champions in 1977 and may have repeated if 1977-1978 MVP Walton’s season wasn’t derailed by a foot injury. The Trail Blazers had the 3rd pick in the 1978 NBA Draft from Buffalo, and they used that pick and SG Johnny Davis in a trade with the Pacers to get the 1st pick in the draft. Portland selected Thompson with that pick; Walton would never play again for the Trail Blazers.
In 1981, the Trail Blazers traded C Tom Owens, who had been benched in favor of Thompson, to the Pacers in exchange for Indiana’s 1984 1st round pick. Once again, the Trail Blazers lucked out. The Pacers got one year out of Owens before trading him to Detroit; Owens never played again after 1983. Indiana finished the 1983-1984 season with the league’s worst record. The Trail Blazers lost a coin flip with the Western Conference’s worst team, the Houston Rockets, who had tanked their way to the first pick of the 1983 NBA Draft. The Rockets selected C Hakeem Olajuwon, Drexler’s teammate at Houston. The Trail Blazers used the 2nd overall pick on C Sam Bowie out of Kentucky. The Chicago Bulls would take SG Michael Jordan 3rd overall.
By the 1985 playoffs, Bowie had taken Thompson’s place in the starting lineup at C, while Drexler had taken Paxson’s starting spot at SG. The Trail Blazers were able to upset the Mavericks in Round 1, but they lost to the Lakers in the 2nd Round again.
The Trail Blazers used a 1st round pick on PG Terry Porter in 1985, who would be a backup in his first season. Drexler and Paxson would continue to split starts at SG, while Thompson was the starter at PF. Drexler made his first All-Star appearance. Portland struggled to a 40-42 finish, which was still good enough for the 6th seed in the weak Western Conference. But after the Trail Blazers were ousted in Round 1 by the Nuggets, Ramsay left the team, ending a ten-year run. As it turned out, Ramsay felt the team needed to do something about the Drexler/Paxson SG platoon, while Ramsay was down on Thompson at PF.
“I would not want Mychal on the team at all,” Ramsay said. “He’s too soft. I’ve seen him run right off the floor. For your power forward or center to run off onto the apron of the floor when the ball is being rebounded is very damaging to the team.”
The Trail Blazers hired former Milwaukee Bucks assistant Mike Schuler as head coach in 1986, and Thompson was traded along with the draft rights to PF Larry Krystowiak to San Antonio for C Steve Johnson. Schuler also went with Porter and Drexler as the starting backcourt, while Paxson came off the bench. Unfortunately, Bowie would break his leg again in the fifth game of the 1986-1987 season, and he wouldn’t return until February 1989. Schuler’s first season in Portland ended in the 1st round against Olajuwon and the Rockets. This marked the fifth year in a row that Portland made the playoffs, only to exit before the Conference Finals.
The Trail Blazers traded Paxson to Boston in February 1988 in exchange for backup PG Jerry Sichting. Portland won 53 games, but were upset in the 1988 playoffs by the Utah Jazz. After a 25-22 start to the 1988-1989 season, the Trail Blazers fired Schuler and replaced him with longtime assistant Rick Adelman. The coaching change may have pacified the players, but the Trail Blazers continued to disappoint, as Adelman went only 14-21 before they were swept out of the 1989 playoffs by the defending champion Lakers in Round 1.
The Trail Blazers transitioned from the Thompson/Paxson era into the Drexler/Porter era, but had very little postseason success to show for making the playoffs seven years in a row in the 1980s. To make matters worse, Bowie was damaged goods, having played in only 63 games between the 1985-1986 and 1988-1989 seasons. The Trail Blazers kept Porter and Drexler, retained Adelman as head coach, and traded Bowie and a 1989 1st round pick to New Jersey for PF Buck Williams. Williams had gone through his own postseason struggles with the Nets, and he knew what the situation was in Portland.
“What’s so interesting about the trade was that Portland was able to keep its starting lineup intact and still add a quality player,” Williams said.
The Trail Blazers wouldn’t struggle in the playoffs after getting Williams. The very next season saw the Trail Blazers win more playoff series than the previous seven years combined, as Portland swept the Mavericks in Round 1, beat the Spurs in Game 7 of the Semis, then beat the Suns in the Western Conference Finals in 6 games to reach the 1990 NBA Finals. The Trail Blazers would lose to the defending champion Detroit Pistons in 5. The Blazers came back in 1990-1991 to win a franchise record 63 games before being upset in the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers. Portland then reached the Western Conference Finals for a third straight season in 1992, defeating the Jazz in 6 to set up a showdown with the defending champion Chicago Bulls. Unfortunately, the Bulls had Jordan, the player that the Trail Blazers passed on to select Bowie. The Bulls defeated the Trail Blazers in 6, and Portland hasn’t won the Western Conference since.
The correlation for the Clippers is another tough one. The Trail Blazers were unafraid to move on from Thompson and Paxson, due to the emergence of Drexler. The Trail Blazers also got a future All-Star in Porter with a late 1st round pick. The move that put the Blazers over, though, was a trade of an injured backup (Bowie) and another 1st round pick to acquire a veteran (Williams) that completed the starting lineup. You could argue that the Clippers already have their Big 3 in place with Paul, Griffin, and Jordan, and would just need to hit on the late picks in 2016 like the Trail Blazers did with Drexler and Porter. The 1980s Trail Blazers are probably the best example of a team not having playoff success for an extended period of time before breaking through to the Conference Finals, even though they didn’t get the ring.