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.
San Antonio Spurs 1989-1994 Summary
– 1989-1990: 56-26 (2nd seed), swept Denver Nuggets in Round 1, lost to Portland Trail Blazers in 7
– 1990-1991: 55-27 (2nd seed), lost to Golden State Warriors in 4
– 1991-1992: 47-35 (5th seed), swept by Phoenix Suns in Round 1
– 1992-1993: 49-33 (5th seed), defeated Trail Blazers in 4, lost to Suns in 6
– 1993-1994: 55-27 (4th seed), lost to Utah Jazz in 4
10K minutes: David Robinson, Sean Elliott, Willie Anderson
Head Coaches: Larry Brown (1989-1992), Bob Bass (1992), Jerry Tarkanian (1992), Rex Hughes (1992), John Lucas (1992-1994)
The San Antonio Spurs have never missed the postseason in back-to-back seasons. They’re the only franchise of the four major American sports leagues (NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL) that can claim that.
But that doesn’t mean the Spurs didn’t have a serious dry spell. The Spurs went 21-61 in 1988-1989, head coach Larry Brown’s first with the team. It marked the sixth season in a row that the Spurs failed to record a winning record, even though the team made the playoffs in three of those seasons. From 1983 to 1989, the Spurs lost 299 regular season games; only the Kings, Pacers, and Clippers lost more.
But all kinds of help was on the way for Brown and the struggling Spurs franchise.
The Spurs finished 28-54 in 1986-1987, the fourth-worst record in the league that season. But they won the lottery and drafted C David Robinson out of Navy.
Robinson had to serve two years with the Navy, so the Spurs wouldn’t have his services until the 1989-1990 season. If Robinson didn’t sign with the Spurs, he would have entered the 1988 NBA Draft. But the Spurs were able to sign Robinson to an 8-year, $26 million contract in November 1987.
The 1987-1988 Spurs made the playoffs with a 31-51 record and were swept by the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. New Spurs chairman Red McCombs fired head coach Bob Weiss, hiring Brown from Kansas to replace him. Two of Brown’s assistants were future Spurs GM R.C. Buford and future Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. The Spurs weren’t in the lottery, but their sorry record got them the tenth overall pick in the 1988 NBA Draft, which they used to select Georgia SF Willie Anderson. Anderson led the Spurs in scoring as a rookie with 18.6 points per game. But the Spurs lost 61 games, so they were back in the lottery in 1989. This time, the Spurs had the 3rd pick in the draft, selecting Arizona SF Sean Elliott. Elliott’s selection allowed Anderson to move to SG for the 1989-1990 season. And Robinson was arriving. The dark days were over.
The Spurs went on to win the Midwest division in 1989-1990. Robinson would be an All-Star and the Rookie of the Year, putting up 23.4 points, 12.0 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 3.9 blocks per game. The Spurs would sweep the Denver Nuggets in the 1st round of the playoffs before meeting the Portland Trail Blazers in the Semifinals. Even though the Spurs were the higher seed, the Trail Blazers had a better record, which gave them home court advantage. That would matter, because the home team won every game in the series, including a 108-105 Game 7 win by the Trail Blazers in Portland.
The next season saw the Spurs allow the lowest field goal percentage in the league, while Robinson became the 2nd player ever to turn in a season of at least 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 300 blocks. The Spurs would finish 1991-1992 with a 55-27 record and another division title. But after winning Game 1 against the 7th-seed Warriors, San Antonio struggled with the small lineups and three-point shooting of the Warriors, and would lose three straight games and the series to Golden State.
All wasn’t well with the Spurs. Even before the 1991-1992 NBA season, Brown didn’t always see eye-to-eye with his team. He called Robinson “The Black Hole” for not passing out of the paint in 1990. He criticized PF Terry Cummings, and assistants Buford and Popovich colluded with Brown to give the media a hard time.
The dysfunction came to a head in January 1992. Brown was replaced as head coach by Bob Bass, the vice president of basketball operations. No stranger to crazy departures, Brown would be hired a few weeks later as the head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers. The Spurs would make the playoffs with a 47-35 record, but they wouldn’t have Robinson against the Phoenix Suns due to thumb surgery. The Spurs were also without Anderson due to surgery to repair a left leg stress fracture, which would cost him most of the 1992-1993 season. The Suns would sweep the Spurs in Round 1.
In April 1992, the Spurs hired UNLV head coach Jerry Tarkanian as head coach for the 1992-1993 NBA season. Except … Tarkanian wouldn’t even make it to 1993. The Spurs started 9-11 in 1992-1993, and they would fire Tarkanian in December 1992.
“All I wanted was a point guard,” Tarkanian said, as he would alternate between Vinny Del Negro and Lloyd Daniels at PG.
After winning a game with Tarkanian assistant Rex Hughes, former Spurs PG John Lucas would take over as head coach. So from January 1992 to December 1992, the Spurs had five head coaches. Elliott would average 17.2 points per game and join Robinson as an All-Star, and the Spurs were 39-22 with Lucas as head coach. Lucas also discovered that the PG Tarkanian kept complaining about not having was already on the roster, as Avery Johnson would become a starter in January 1993 and lead the Spurs with 7.5 assists per game. The Spurs would beat the Trail Blazers in the 1st round, but they would fall to the top-seed Suns in the Semifinals.
The Spurs shook things up in October 1993, one month before the start of the regular season. After finishing the 1992-1993 season with the fewest offensive rebounds in the league, the Spurs acquired PF Dennis Rodman from Detroit in exchange for Elliott, PF David Wood, and a 1996 1st round pick; the Spurs also received a 1996 1st round pick, a 1994 2nd round pick, and SF Isaiah Morris. Rodman led the league in rebounds for a third season in a row in 1993-1994, his first in a Spurs uniform. Anderson returned as a starter in 1993-1994, adding 11.9 points and 4.3 assists per game. Robinson led the league in scoring with a career-high 29.8 points per game, dropping 71 points on the Clippers to clinch the scoring title.
The Spurs finished 55-27, and they beat the Utah Jazz in Game 1 of their 1st Round series. But the Jazz beat the Spurs in Game 2, and Rodman would be suspended for Game 3 after flagrant and technical fouls.
The Spurs would be blown out 105-72 in Game 3 without Rodman, and the Jazz would eliminate the Spurs in Game 4. It would be the third time in four years that San Antonio was beaten in the 1st round, and the fifth year in a row that the Spurs made the playoffs but failed to get to the Conference Finals.
In May 1994, Popovich returned to the Spurs as executive vice president of basketball operations and general manager; he had spent the previous two seasons with Golden State as an assistant coach. Buford also returned to the organization in 1994, after being a Clippers assistant in 1992-1993 and a Florida assistant in 1993-1994. In June 1994, Lucas resigned as head coach of the Spurs. The following month, the Spurs made another trade with the Pistons, giving up the draft rights to 1st round PF Bill Curley and a 1997 2nd round pick to get Elliott back. The Spurs would also bring back Johnson, who spent the 1993-1994 season with Golden State with Popovich, allowing 1993-1994 PG Del Negro to move to SG. Orlando assistant coach Bob Hill was hired as head coach in August 1994.
The Spurs would finish the 1994-1995 season at 62-20, the best record in the NBA. This was despite Rodman starting only 26 of 49 games, while Anderson played only 556 minutes. Elliott bounced back from a down year in Detroit by averaging 18.1 points per game, taking advantage of the shorter 3-point line by making 136-of-333 three-pointers (40.8 percent). In Elliott’s first five seasons combined, he made only 109-of-346 three-pointers (31.5 percent). San Antonio would also sign PG Doc Rivers after the New York Knicks released him in December; Rivers was a year removed from a torn ACL in New York. The Spurs swept the Nuggets in the 1st round, and would beat the Lakers in 6 to advance to their first Western Conference Finals in 12 years. Robinson would be named the 1994-1995 NBA MVP ahead of San Antonio’s matchup with the defending champion Houston Rockets and 1993-1994 NBA MVP Hakeem Olajuwon. And that’s as good as it got for the 1994-1995 Spurs, as Olajuwon had his way with Robinson during the eventual champion Rockets 4-2 series win over San Antonio.
For the Clippers to break through like the Spurs did in 1994-1995, they would need their 2009 top overall pick Blake Griffin to become an MVP. This correlation is similar to the New York Knicks situation with Patrick Ewing. Next season will be Griffin’s eighth year out of college; the 1994-1995 season was also Robinson’s eighth year out of college.