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.
Milwaukee Bucks 1986-1991 Summary
– 1986-1987: 50-32 (4th seed), defeated Philadelphia 76ers in 5, lost to Boston Celtics in 7
– 1987-1988: 42-40 (5th seed), lost to Atlanta Hawks in 5
– 1988-1989: 49-33 (5th seed), defeated Hawks in 5, swept by Detroit Pistons
– 1989-1990: 44-38 (6th seed), lost to Chicago Bulls in 4
– 1990-1991: 48-34 (4th seed), swept by 76ers
10K minutes: Jack Sikma
Head Coaches: Don Nelson (1986-1987), Del Harris (1987-1991)
In 1986, the Milwaukee Bucks lost in the Eastern Conference Finals for the third time in four seasons. That July, they traded C Alton Lister and two 1st round picks to Seattle for C Jack Sikma and two 2nd round picks. The trade cost the Bucks their leading shotblocker in 27-year-old Lister, and it made them older, as Sikma was 30 going on 31 in November 1986.
But Sikma was a 7-time All-Star, a 1979 NBA champion, and he was coming off a season where he averaged 17.1 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game. The Bucks were definitely the best team in the 1980s up to that point that hadn’t won a title – only the Celtics, 76ers, and Lakers won more games than Milwaukee from 1980 to 1986. Don Nelson, Milwaukee’s head coach and vice president of basketball operations, had already taken heat in the 1980s for acquiring Bob Lanier and Dave Cowens when they were past their respective primes.
“I’ve picked up three old centers, so I can’t say it’s not true,” Nelson says. “If I could get Sampson and Olajuwon, I would like that. But when you’re picking at about the 20th spot in the draft, the way we do every year, there aren’t a lot of great centers left.”
Still … that’s the trade you make?! You know how this ends, but let’s go ahead here.
The 1986-1987 season would be Nelson’s 11th with the team. The Bucks won 50 games for the seventh straight season, but the Bucks failed to win the division for the first time in eight years. Sikma became the first Bucks center to average a double-double in ten years with 12.7 points and 10.0 rebounds per game. SG Ricky Pierce would win 6th Man of the Year after averaging 19.5 points per game, second on the team to PF Terry Cummings’ 20.8 points per game. The Bucks would send Philadelphia SF Julius Erving off into retirement with a Game 5 win in Round 1, and Milwaukee forced a Game 7 against the defending champion Celtics in the Semifinals after going down 3-1. But the Celtics would outplay Milwaukee in crunch time of Game 7 and beat the Bucks 119-113. The Bucks failed to score a single point in the last three minutes of the game.
That Sikma trade would be the beginning of the end of Nelson’s run in Milwaukee. Nelson criticized Sikma’s high foul rate (Sikma averaged 4.0 fouls per game), and rumors about a feud between Nelson and owner Herb Kohl circulated during the 1987 postseason. In the Game 7 loss in Boston, the Bucks were outrebounded 57-27. After the postseason, Nelson left the Bucks, criticizing Kohl on the way out.
“There has been a breaking down of my credibility in Herb Kohl’s mind ever since he bought the team,” Nelson said Friday. “It’s been one little thing after another. That’s what makes it hard for me to continue.”
The Bucks named assistant Del Harris as the new head coach in 1987. Harris couldn’t stop another step back from the Bucks, as they went only 42-40 in 1987-1988. The Bucks went 6-9 in January 1988, snapping a streak of 52 consecutive months of .500 or better records. The Bucks won their last two games ever at the MECCA, forcing a Game 5 in Round 1 with the Atlanta Hawks. But the Bucks would lose 121-111 in Atlanta, making the 1987-1988 season the first in nine years that the Bucks failed to reach the Semifinals.
Sikma developed a new weapon for the 1988-1989 season: a three-point shot. Sikma always had a nice shooting touch, as he led the NBA in free throw percentage for the 1987-1988 season, making 92.2 percent of his free throws at 6’11”. No player taller than 6’10” has ever had a better qualifying season shooting free throws than Sikma in 1987-1988. He would take his time shooting them too.
But the three-point line debuted in the NBA in Sikma’s third NBA season, 1979-1980. Prior to 1988, Sikma made only 7-of-68 threes (10.3 percent) for his career. In 1988-1989, Sikma made 82-of-216 threes (38.0 percent). For perspective, the 1988-1989 Los Angeles Clippers made only 54-of-234 threes (23.1 percent) as a team!
The Bucks also got an All-Star season from SF Terry Cummings in 1988-1989, as he averaged 22.9 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, while improving his free throw shooting from 66.5 percent in 1987-1988 to 78.7 percent. Milwaukee won 49 games and a 1st Round rematch against the Hawks, but Cummings went down with an ankle injury and missed most of the Semifinals against the Detroit Pistons. Detroit wound up sweeping the Bucks, and Cummings would be traded to San Antonio two weeks later with a 1989 2nd round pick for SG Alvin Robertson, PF Greg Anderson, and a 1990 2nd round pick. The Bucks also signed Sikma to a contract extension through 1991-1992.
The 1989-1990 Bucks saw backup SG Ricky Pierce get a second 6th Man of the Year award, despite Pierce missing 23 games. Pierce didn’t start a single game, but he led the Bucks in scoring with 23.0 points per game. Milwaukee lost in the 1st round to the Bulls in 1990.
In 1990-1991, the Bucks made the playoffs for the 12th season in a row, and Robertson and Pierce both made the All-Star team. Robertson had 246 steals for the season, leading the league for the third time in his career, while Pierce was still dropping 22.5 points per game off the bench. But five days after the All-Star Game, Pierce was traded to Seattle for SG Dale Ellis. Pierce was not happy about his contract situation, while Ellis wasn’t happy about new head coach K.C. Jones limiting him from shooting threes. It was a rough year for Ellis, as he had myriad issues on and off the court in Seattle before missing the last month of the season after the Bucks traded for him due to a herniated disc in his back that required offseason surgery. By time the playoffs rolled around, Sikma was coming off the bench behind C Danny Schayes. Despite homecourt advantage, the 76ers swept the Bucks.
The Bucks may have been the best expansion franchise ever. Of course, a lot of that was due to being able to draft C Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) first overall in the 1969 NBA Draft, just ahead of Milwaukee’s second season. The Bucks would win a title in 1971, and even after trading Abdul-Jabbar to the Lakers in 1975, the Bucks missed the playoffs only four times from their first year in 1968 to 1991. Up until 1991, the Bucks had never missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons.
The Bucks would let Sikma go in 1991 after five seasons, ending Sikma’s 14-year NBA career. If you thought that meant that the Bucks would finally get younger at center, you’d be wrong, because Milwaukee turned right around and signed C Moses Malone. Malone was actually eight years older than Sikma, and he was two years removed from his last All-Star appearance with the Hawks.
The Bucks got off to an 8-9 start in 1991-1992, and Harris gave up head coaching duties to focus on his role as vice president of basketball operations.
“The bottom line is that in today’s NBA I believe that it is most difficult for one person to fulfill the dual role of head of basketball operations and head coach,” said Harris, who would be replaced as head coach for the rest of the season by assistant Frank Hamblen.
It didn’t end well for the Bucks. Milwaukee was dead last in the NBA in field goal percentage allowed in 1991-1992, and the Bucks finished the season 31-51. Harris, like Nelson before him, grew weary of Kohl’s involvement and would quit as GM before the end of the season. That left the door open for Hamblen to get fired at the end of the season. The Bucks would hire 38-year-old Los Angeles Lakers head coach Mike Dunleavy as head coach in May 1992, giving him an 8-year contract and the Lakers two future 2nd round picks. Later, in September 1992, the Bucks went ahead and named Dunleavy vice president of basketball operations.
The Bucks went straight to hell. A franchise that never missed the postseason in back-to-back seasons prior to Dunleavy’s hiring would lose at least 48 games each of Dunleavy’s four years as head coach. The Bucks would fire Dunleavy as head coach in 1996, keep him on as GM (even though he never wanted to be the GM!) while Chris Ford was the head coach for the 1996-1997 season, watch Dunleavy quit in 1997 to become Portland’s head coach, then fired Ford in 1998 after the team missed the playoffs for a 7th straight season. The Bucks have only advanced past the first round of the playoffs once since 1989; the team hasn’t won a playoff series since making the Eastern Conference Finals in 2001, the longest drought in the league.
The Clippers may be more talented than the Bucks were at the end of their Playoff Purgatory, but they better hope head coach/President of basketball operations Doc Rivers doesn’t crash and burn like the Bucks coaches did. Basically, the Bucks showed multiple times why it’s dangerous to keep trusting head coaches to double as personnel executives. Dunleavy would later fill this role with the Clippers. The similarities, unfortunately for the Clippers, don’t stop there. The Bucks and Clippers have the exact same regular season record since 1991: 850-1152. Only Philadelphia, Washington, and Minnesota have more losses in that span of time.