Playoff Droughts: A Review

It’s odd to say in November but we are actually in the depths of the sorta off-season for the NBA.   In reviewing off-season priorities, I noticed that the Suns currently have a ten-year playoff drought.  That blew my mind because: (a) ten years is a long time for any team to miss the playoffs and (b) I can’t believe we are a decade removed from the Nash/Amare Suns.  In any event, this all got me wondering what each franchise’s worse playoff drought has been.  It seems that random chance would keep the droughts much shorter in the NBA, where over half the teams make the playoffs ever year.  For fun, here’s a look at each franchise’s longest playoff droughts in reverse order:

-San Antonio Spurs, 1 year (most recently 2019-20):  The Spurs have never missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.  This is fairly amazing.  Having Artis Gilmore, George Gervin, David Robinson, and Tim Duncan has obviously helped.  On the bummer side, the Spurs are pretty well placed to miss the playoffs for the second straight season by next summer.

-Miami Heat, 3 years (1988-89 to 1990-91):  The Heat have stealthily been a great franchise.  Their only playoff drought that lasted three years was from their first three seasons as a franchise.  The last time they missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons occurred in 2001-02 and 2002-03, and they got Dwyane Wade for their trouble.

-Brooklyn Nets, 5 years (1986-87 to 1990-91 and 2007-08 to 2011-12):  The Nets’ two fun runs ended hard.  After Micheal Ray Richardson was banned from the NBA in 1986, the Nets imploded and were basically an expansion team again.  They drafted poorly (Pearl Washington, Dennis Hopson) and didn’t pull out of the spiral until they got Derrick Coleman.  The more recent drought was a direct result of management refusing to spend any payroll until they moved to Brooklyn and were sold.

-Charlotte Hornets, 5 years (2004-05 to 2008-09):   The return to Charlotte was not inspiring.  An expansion team with bad draft picks, doesn’t usually win.  They did bring in Larry Brown to eke into the playoffs with a very unfun defensive team (they actually had the best defense in the NBA) but a putrid offense.  They are currently on a four-year non-playoff streak and won’t break it unless they get really lucky in the draft.

-Houston Rockets, 5 years (1969-70 to 1973-74):   The Rockets have been pretty good for most of the last 50 years.  They did have a little hiccup at the end of the Hakeem Olajuwon Era for four years until they got Yao Ming.  The longest drought occurred  in the early 1970s and started when they were playing in San Diego.  The Rockets actually made the playoffs as a second-year expansion team in 1968-69.  They went 37-45 (the top four teams out of seven made the playoffs then) and played solidly in the playoffs.  They slumped the next season to 27-55 and drafted Calvin Murphy and barely missed the playoffs in 1970-71 at 40-42.  The near playoff misses continued until 1974-75 when Murphy and Rudy Tomjanovich won a playoff series against the aging Red Holzman Knicks.

-Indiana Pacers, 5 years (1981-82 to 1985-86):  On paper, a core of Clark Kellogg, Steve Stipanovich, Vern Fleming, and Herb Williams doesn’t sound bad.  In fact, it was quite bad.  They lost 56+ games four straight years before drafting Chuck Person and eking into the playoffs.  They did not win a playoff series until 1993-94.

-Portland Trail Blazers, 5 years (1970-71 to 1975-76 and 2003-04 to 2007-08):  Portland missed the playoffs their first five years as a franchise.  In Year 6, however, they won a title with Bill Walton.  The first Portland teams weren’t good but got some nice scoring from Geoff Petrie and Sidney Wicks (who was disliked by coaches despite his scoring).  Walton was drafted first in 1974 but Portland continued to miss the playoffs his first two seasons.  Walton was effective during those first seasons but he missed 47 games his first season and 31 his second.  When he was quasi-healthy in 1976-77, they won the title.

The more recent drought came in the period after Portland purged the core of Rasheed Wallace and Zach Randolph and attempted to rebuild, which they did with Brandon Roy and LeMarcus Aldridge (and, later, Damian Lillard).

-Toronto Raptors, 5 years (2008-09 to 2012-13):  For some reason the Raptors couldn’t make the playoffs with peak Chris Bosh.  Things got worse when Bosh bolted for Miami and their top pick, Andrea Bargnani, was underwhelming.  Then the Raps got one over on Houston, trading a first-rounder for Kyle Lowry.  The Raptors were still bad with Lowry and planned to trade him to the Knicks in the beginning of the 2013-14 season.  New York squashed the deal at the last minute for the usual dumb James Dolan reasons.  Lowry somehow turned into a star the minute the deal was tabled.  Masai Ujiri is a great GM but he got really lucky the Knicks saved him on that trade.

-Boston Celtics, 6 years (1995-96 to 2000-01):  It felt like the Celtics were stuck in the ML Carr and Rick Pitino years for 20 years but it was only 6 years.  It’s worth noting that the Paul Pierce/Antoine Walker core was sufficient for a good coach (i.e. not Pitino) to make the playoffs.  In 2001-02, Jim O’Brien had ostensibly the same roster that Pitino had the year before and the team jumped from 36-46 to 49-33 (actually, Pitino slinked out of town in mid-2000-01 with a 12-22 record and O’Brien finished the year 24-24).  O’Brien fixed both offense and defense and the Celtics were suddenly a decent team.

-Chicago Bulls, 6 years (1998-99 to 2003-04):  We covered this at length in our Last Dance articles.  Basically, after he sent away Michael Jordan, Jerry Krause whiffed on a few key draft picks, whiffed on free agency, and traded Elton Brand for Eddy Curry.  The result was a six-year drought from the playoffs that got Krause fired and the team made the playoffs almost immediately after Krause was retired.

-Detroit Pistons, 6 years (1977-78 to 1982-83 and 2009-10 to 2014-15):  The first drought in the late 1970s/early 1980s was less egregious because the playoff format permitted fewer teams.   The Pistons were poorly run after Dave Bing and Bob Lanier left town (see Vitale, Dick) but were able to cobble together a team by the early 1980s that was respectable thanks to drafting Isiah Thomas,  Kelly Tripucka, and John Long and a few other moves.

The more recent drought came after the Chauncey Billups/Ben Wallace teams aged.  Joe Dumars’ GM acumen seemed to age with the players’ physical ability.  Dumars traded Billups for an older Allen Iverson who didn’t fit the system and cycled through coaches without any real plan.  The drafting hasn’t been great either.  They were able to squeeze into the playoffs with Andre Drummond twice since then but still haven’t won a playoff game since 2007-08.

-Los Angeles Lakers, 6 years (2013-14 to 2018-19):  Before the dark years after Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles in 2013, the Lakers had never gone more than two years without making the playoffs.  It was a brutal six years where the Lakers didn’t know what to do with Kobe as he aged and also had no clue how to rebuild.  Fortunately, being a glamour franchise was enough to attract LeBron (and Anthony Davis).   That plan doesn’t work in most cities.

-Orlando Magic, 6 years, (2012-13 to 2017-18):  Orlando really struggled after trading Dwight Howard at gunpoint in 2012.  The traded ended up netting Nikola Vucevic, who somehow ended up being better than Howard.  Still, the Magic flailed in the draft (Mario Hezonja) and Aaron Gordon took a long time to develop.

-Cleveland Cavaliers, 7 years (1998-99 to 2004-05):  It wasn’t as dark a time as the Ted Stepien Years but the rebuild after the 1990s was also bad.  The Cavs invested in Shawn Kemp as the future (trading Terrell Brandon and Tyrone Hill for him).  Kemp aged rapidly and they had to dump him for nothing.  On top of that, the drafting was execrable: Chris Mihm (actually traded Jamal Crawford for him), DeSagana Diop, and Dajuan Wagner.  The Cavs then tanked for LeBron James and it worked.  I totally forgot that the Cavs missed the playoffs in LBJ’s first two seasons.  This wasn’t young LBJ’s fault, his core was not great.

-Milwaukee Bucks, 7 years (1991-92 to 1997-98):  Milwaukee typically has been around the playoffs but the mid-1990s were rough.  Like Cleveland, the Bucks were trying to rebuild from a competent but boring team built around Jay Humphries, Alvin Robertson, and a surprisingly blah front line (Jack Sikma, Brad Lohaus, Fred Robert, Frank Brickowski, Larry Krstkowiak).  When they went to tank mode, the Bucks were lucky enough to get the top pick in 1994, Glenn Robinson, but the next two players ended up being much better (Grant Hill and Jason Kidd).  The Bucks also got Vin Baker as a sleeper.  Baker/Robinson just wasn’t enough to make the playoffs until they got Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, and George Karl.

-New York Knicks, 7 years (2013-14 to present):  The Knicks haven’t won more than 37 games since 2012-13.  How they could be so bad when they aren’t really tanking and are a cash-rich and marquee franchise is incredible (in a bad way).  It takes a special owner to consistently squander these advantages. 

-Oklahoma City Thunder, 7 years (1967-68 to 1973-74):  Back in the heady days when OKC played as the Seattle Sonics, they were slow to launch.  They missed the playoffs their first seven seasons in Seattle, even though the 1971-72 team went 47-35.  While Bill Russell’s coaching/GM acumen has been questioned (particularly in Sacramento), he was able to break the playoff drought his first year as coach in Seattle.

-Philadelphia 76ers, 7 years (1991-92 to 1997-98):  Eat it Hinkie!  The 1990s 76ers were much uglier than The Process.  Philly somehow turned peak Charles Barkley into an aging Jeff Malone and Tim Perry.  They also went all in on Shawn Bradley second overall in the 1993 Draft (over Penny Hardaway) and Sharone Wright over a few better players in the 1994 Draft.  At the same time, they hired a very unengaged Doug Moe to rebuild the team, which worked very poorly.  Then they overpaid for Jerry Lucas to control the franchise and he flooded the team with reclamation projects. It took drafting Allen Iverson and hiring Larry Brown to break the cycle.

-Atlanta Hawks, 8 years (1999-00 to 2006-07):   In 1999, the Hawks were frustrated by their consistent middling playoff results and traded their longstanding backcourt in hopes of improving the offense.  Mookie Blaylock was dealt to Golden State for the remains of Bimbo Coles and a first-rounder (ending up being Jason Terry).  This was a defensible traded because Mookie was getting older and Terry was a better future value but the notion that Coles could be a starting PG was not realistic. 

The Rider/Smith challenge trade didn’t work out well because Rider was a mercurial dude and Smith was actually a better player (gimpy knees and all):

Smith 99-00: 17.3 PER, .186 WS/48, 2.9 BPM, 3.3 VORP

Rider 99-00: 15.7 PER, .037 WS/48, -1.4 BPM, 0.3 VORP

The Hawks may not have wanted to pay Mookie and Smith anymore but the trade was a big surrender and the team cratered offensively and defensively.  It took several years of high draft picks and a weird litigation between owners to finally make it back to the playoffs.

-Denver Nuggets, 8 years (1995-96 to 2002-03):  When the Nuggets didn’t re-sign Dikembe Mutombo in 1995, they were clearly in for hard times.  The ensuing eight years involved an attempted tank in 1997-98 by Allen Bristow that was so ugly (they went 11-71) that he was canned after the season for Dan Issel.  Issel didn’t tank but he coached poorly and the Nuggets dumped him for yet another tank in 2002-03, which yielded Carmelo Anthony and ended the drought.

-Memphis Grizzlies, 8 years (1995-96 to 2002-03):  This playoff futility started from the Grizz’s expansion season.  The first six years came in Vancouver and were really bad.  They didn’t win more than 23 games in any single season (and won fewer than 20 games their first four seasons).  The drafting was bad (Antonio Daniels) and the trades were worse (Steve Francis for a bucket of replacement level guys).  The hopelessness was a strong factor in ditching Canada for Memphis.  They finally broke out thanks to Pau Gasol and Hubie Brown in 2003-04.

­-Washington Wizards, 8 years (1988-89 to 1995-96):  The Bullets were both bad and bereft of intriguing talent most of this time.  The late 1980s Bullets were built around an aging Bernard King and Jeff Malone.  The team tried hard but had little defense.  When King and Malone aged out, the roster had Harvey Grant, Pervis Ellison, and Don MacLean.  All were decent players but not exactly building blocks.  They finally had a core worth watching when they drafted Juwan Howard and traded for Chris Webber.  The squad made the 1996-97 playoffs before the Wiz traded C-Webb and then went on a seven-year run with no playoffs.  (Yes, one playoff series in 16 years).

-Utah Jazz, 9 years (1974-75 to 1982-83):  Like several teams on this list, the Jazz missed the playoffs every year it played in its initial city.  In this case, the Jazz were terrible in New Orleans.  For all the legend of Pete Maravich, his New Orleans Jazz were mostly unwatchable.  This wasn’t Pistol’s fault.  It was a bad expansion team, with little other talent.  The Jazz let Maravich go and moved to Utah in 1979.  They didn’t make the playoffs until 1983-84.  They have been a pretty consistent playoff team since then.

-Dallas Mavericks, 10 years (1990-91 to 1999-00):  Yes, the 1990s were bad for the Mavs.  A model franchise in the 1980s went downhill almost immediately in 1990.  Mark Aguirre forced a trade for Adrian Dantley, who promptly broke his leg.  They attempted to arrest the decline by acquiring vets Alex English and Fat Lever but English was shot and Lever had knee problems that prevented him from being effective.  Then Roy Tarpley was banned for drugs that same season and a rebuild was needed.  The Mavs tanked as hard as the Sam Hinkie 76ers (Dallas was 11-71 in 1992-93) and were able to draft decently well (Jim Jackson, Jamal Mashburn, Jason Kidd).   The franchise was so bereft of bigs that they didn’t really sniff the payoffs until they traded for Michael Finley and drafted Dirk Nowitzki.

-Phoenix Suns, 10 years (2010-11 to present): The Robert Sarver years have been tough for a franchise that was a premier free agent destination in the 1990s and 2000s.  There has been a little bad luck in this span.  The 2013-14 Suns went 48-38 (3.02 SRS) and would’ve made the playoffs in almost any other division in almost any other season.  Still, the team has been mostly terrible most of this time.  They have a reasonable chance of breaking the streak in 2020-21 but it is still, at best, a 50-50 proposition.

-Golden State Warriors, 12 years (1994-95 to 2005-06):  Definitive proof that tanking does not necessarily make you better.  The Warriors traded away Chris Webber for pennies on the dollar in early 1994-95 and were cursed for a dozen years.   The Warriors drafted poorly, made bad trade decisions, and had a five-year run where they won no more than 21 games in a season.  Yuck.  They broke the streak in 2006-07 with that zany team featuring Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson, Monta Ellis and Al Harrington.  They upset the Mavs and proceeded to miss the playoffs the next five years before finally nabbing Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to make them the class of the NBA for the next decade.

-Minnesota Timberwolves, 13 years (2004-05 to 2016-17): The legacy of the Kevin Garnett Trade was not a happy one. The return of Al Jefferson and some stuff was not great. The one high pick was squandered on Jonny Flynn, which was a whole other fiasco. They broke curse briefly and, in theory, should be decent with Karl Anthony Towns but things still look bleak.

-Sacramento Kings, 14 years (2006-07 to present):  So, Phoenix isn’t even the worst active franchise in terms of playoff droughts.  Sacramento has been bad for so long that I didn’t even think about its playoff futility.  The last time Sacramento was in the playoffs the starting lineup consisted of Mike Bibby, Bonzi Wells, Ron Artest, Kenny Thomas, and Brad Miller.  The Webber/Stojakovic run feels like 100 years ago.  Since then, there have been bad picks, bad trades, and a bunch of DeMarcus Cousins drama.  The Kings have been a bit better since taking De’Aaron Fox but making the playoffs next season is pretty iffy.

-Los Angeles Clippers, 15 years (1976-77 to 1990-91):  It’s been a few years since they were a joke but never forget the true awfulness of the Clippers.  This franchise missed the playoffs its last two years in Buffalo, its entire six years in San Diego, and the first seven years in Los Angeles.  Finally in 1991-92, the Clipps had a real coach (Larry Brown) and amassed a ton of young players via the draft (Gary Grant, Ron Harper, Danny Manning, Charles Smith, Loy Vaught) they had done enough to make the playoffs.  Another fun fact: the franchise did not win a playoff series from 1976 until 2006.  Things have been better since but they were putrid for a long time.