Some teams are bad because they’re stocked with young players who’ll eventually help the team win. That’s not ideal, but it’s OK.
Some teams are bad because they’ve held on too long to players who previously helped the team win. That’s also not ideal, but again OK.
And then there are the special teams that have been nowhere and are going nowhere.
Making the playoffs in the NBA is a relatively low bar. Most teams (16/30) qualify, and it used to be even easier. So, even teams that fall out of the postseason shouldn’t have too long of a road back.
But some have taken the scenic route. A few terribly run franchises have had to completely turn over their roster. Twice.
I’m fascinated by teams in such an awful position. They provide no joyous nostalgia for fans. Any hope was later proven to be false.
I call them Teams of Despair.
There are two rules for a Team of Despair (TOD):
1. It has no players remaining from the franchise’s last playoff team.
2. It has no players who will remain until the franchise’s next playoff team.
A history of Teams of Despair (seasons designated by the year they ended):
Sacramento Kings (2014-2015)
Sacramento has the NBA’s longest active playoff drought, last qualifying in 2006. The core of that first-round loser didn’t last long. Only Francisco Garcia kept the 2011, 2012 and 2013 Kings off the TOD list.
2010-2013 Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves, led by Kevin Garnett, reached the playoffs every year from 1997-2004. That 2004 team was the best of the era, winning 58 games and reaching the Western Conference finals. But Garnett’s supporting cast – led by Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell – was getting old and was gone only one year later. Garnett eventually approved a trade from Minnesota.
After an extended malaise, the Timberwolves began to build back up. By 2011, they had Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and the No. 2 pick. But they also had David Kahn as team president. Kahn chose Derrick Williams (to be fair, the consensus No. 2 prospect) and eventually alienated Love. Even in hindsight, it’s somewhat stunning these teams had to be completely overhauled.
2001 Chicago Bulls
The second three-peat Bulls broke up in a hurry. Of the six players who started somewhat regularly – Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Ron Harper, Luc Longley and Toni Kukoc – only Kukoc returned the season after the 1998 title. Another year later, Kukoc was gone, too.
Elton Brand, the No. 1 pick in 2000, led the TOD Bulls to a 15-67 record. After the season, Chicago traded him to the Clippers for No. 2 pick Tyson Chandler. The Bulls also picked Eddy Curry No. 4 in 2001, and the twin towers eventually helped Chicago reach the 2005 playoffs.
1996-2000 Vancouver Grizzlies
Expansion teams are at a disadvantage, as they automatically start with a roster of players who never made the playoffs with the franchise. But the Grizzlies went five seasons before acquiring their first player who’d reach the postseason with them. These were the Bryant Reeves years blending into the Shareef Abdur-Rahim years.
In 2000, the Grizzlies drafted Stromile Swift, who became a rotation player on their 2005 playoff team led by Pau Gasol (the No. 3 pick the following year).
1995-1996 Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks were playoff regulars in the 80s, but their core aged out. By the early 90s, Dallas was challenging the worst single-season record multiple times. That gave the Mavericks the high draft picks to assemble a young core of Jason Kidd, Jamal Mashburn and Jim Jackson – the “Three Js.” But the trio couldn’t get along, rumors of a love triangle between Kidd, Jackson and singer Toni Braxton swirling.
Dallas traded Kidd during the 1996-97 season then hired Don Nelson shortly before the trade deadline. Aghast at the team’s culture, Nelson quickly shipped out seven players, including Jackson and Mashburn.
Nelson’s early roster churn brought in Michael Finley and Shawn Bradley, two eventual starters on the Dirk Nowitzki-led 2001 playoff team.
1990 Sacramento Kings
In 17 seasons between 1982 and 1998, the Kings made the playoffs just three times – each with losing record, each ending with a first-round elimination. It’s of little surprise the longest postseason drought of that era (1987-95) featured a TOD.
The 1990 Kings had some decent talent – Rodney McCray, Wayman Tisdale, Kenny Smith, Danny Ainge, Antoine Carr. But No. 1 pick Pervis Ellison was supposed to lead Sacramento forward. Instead, he was frequently injured. In his third and best season, he averaged 20-11 and won Most Improved Player – but that wasn’t until after the Kings traded him to Washington.
Sacramento drafted Lionel Simmons and Duane Causwell with two of its four first-round picks in 1990. Though neither Simmons nor Causwell became high-impact players, both stuck around until the Mitch Richmond-led Kings returned to the playoffs in 1996.
1980-1987 San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers
Of course the Clippers have the longest Team Of Despair streak in NBA history. Through moves from Buffalo to San Diego to Los Angeles, the franchise missed the playoffs 15 straight years (1977-91).
The Clippers had some talented players during their TOD years – Bill Walton, Tiny Archibald, Terry Cummings, Norm Nixon, Marques Johnson. But they all faced major health issues while with the franchise.
Obviously, the Clippers also had Donald Sterling during most of this era. The infamous owner was cheap and cranky, and he built a losing organization from the top down.
The Clippers temporarily dug out of their rut by drafting Ken Norman in 1987, Danny Manning in 1988 and trading 1989 No. 2 pick Danny Ferry for Ron Harper. The Clippers made the playoffs in 1992 and 1993.
But they returned only twice in the next 18 years. It was just darned hard to win under Sterling.
1975-1979 New Orleans Jazz
Another expansion franchise starting off with several Teams Of Despair, the Jazz didn’t begin to build a winner until leaving New Orleans for Utah.
Pete Maravich starred for those New Orleans teams. But whether because his game was more flash than substance or his supporting cast was too weak or some of both, he never led the Jazz to a winning record.
Spencer Haywood played for the Jazz during their final year in New Orleans, but according to the team, he didn’t want to go to Salt Lake City because his wife was a fashion model. For some reason, the Lakers traded Adrian Dantley – seven years younger than Haywood – for Haywood.
Dantley led the Jazz to the playoffs in 1984, 1985 and 1986 before the Karl Malone-John Stockton era kicked into gear.
1977 Indiana Pacers
After excelling in the ABA, the Pacers missed the playoffs in their first four NBA seasons. They faced financial difficulties in those years due to the NBA entrance fee, payout to folding ABA teams and lack of national-TV revenue (which former ABA teams didn’t initially receive). Indiana traded its All-Stars, Billy Knight and Don Buse, in money-saving deals.
By the time the Pacers returned to the playoffs in 1981, they had turned over their entire roster.
The success was fleeting. Indiana didn’t return to the postseason until 1987 and didn’t produce another winning record until 1990.
1971 Portland Trail Blazers
Yet another expansion team that needed time to take off. The Trail Blazers missed the playoffs in their first six years.
At least what their initial squad lacked in playing talent, it made up for in future peripheral basketball ability. Geoff Petrie became a two-time Executive of the Year with the Kings. Rick Adelman won more than 1,000 games coaching the Kings, Trail Blazers, Rockets, Timberwolves and Warriors. Jim Barnett became Golden State’s TV analyst.
After that first season, Portland drafted Larry Steele, who had his best season in 1977. That year, the Trail Blazers made the playoffs for the first time, and Bill Walton led them to the championship.
1968-1970 Seattle SuperSonics
Further north, the expansion SuperSonics followed a similar model as Portland. They were lousy their first few years, but their players included a future Executive of the Year (Rod Thorn) and future Coach of the Year (Lenny Wilkens).
Seattle signed Spencer Haywood from the ABA in 1970 then overcame a lawsuit challenging the NBA’s rules about early eligibility to get him on the court. The next year, the Sonics drafted Fred Brown No. 6. Those two led Seattle to the 1975 playoffs, and Brown stuck around as a key contributor to the 1979 title team.
1953 Milwaukee Hawks
Playing as the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, the franchise made the playoffs in its first NBA season in 1950. They also drafted all-time great Bob Cousy that year. But focused on opening a driving school in Massachusetts, Cousy refused to sign unless given a $10,000 salary. The Blackhawks instead sold him to the Chicago Stags.
Over the next five postseason-less years, the final four in Milwaukee, the Hawks used 75 players. Only one, Bill Calhoun, played a majority of the Hawks’ games in that era, and he barely surpassed 50%.
Milwaukee traded for Chuck Share in 1953 and drafted Bob Pettit in 1954, and they helped the Hawks make the 1956 playoffs in their first season in St. Louis. In fact, Pettit took them much further, becoming an all-time great and leading them to the 1958 championship.
1950 Denver Nuggets
1950 Waterloo Hawks
1949 Indianapolis Jets
1947-1949 Providence Steam Rollers
1947 Detroit Falcons
1947 Pittsburgh Ironmen
1947 Toronto Huskies
These seven all missed the playoffs every year of their existence. Maybe they’re more Franchises Of Despair than Teams of Despair.
The TOD list could grow. Seven teams enter the season without a player who remains from their last playoff appearance, and six of them have previous seasons still in TOD limbo.
The potential Teams Of Despair:
Denver Nuggets (2019)
New York Knicks (2018-2019)
The Knicks got rid of the final member of their 2013 playoff team by trading Carmelo Anthony just before last season.
It’d be devastating if New York doesn’t return to the postseason with Kristaps Porzingis, but his injury presents significant downside risk. If not Porzingis, that’s a lot of pressure on Frank Ntilikina to get the 2018 Knicks off the TOD hook. Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson provide other options on this year’s squad.
Brooklyn Nets (2018-2019)
Brook Lopez was the last link to Brooklyn’s 2013-15 playoff teams. The Nets traded him to the Lakers then played last season without him, starting the TOD clock.
Brooklyn has plenty of young talent – D'Angelo Russell, Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Spencer Dinwiddie – but the team is still in a transient state as it builds up. It’d be surprising if none of those players are keepers who stick until the next playoff team, but it’s also hard to pinpoint one to believe strongly in.
Los Angeles Lakers (2017-2019)
The Lakers have missed the playoffs the last five years, as many seasons as they missed the playoffs in their first 65 years. The last link to the glory days, Kobe Bryant, retired in 2016.
With LeBron James, the Lakers are entering a new era. But how many players from the last couple seasons will stay in Los Angeles? Brandon Ingram is the best hope of clearing the 2017 team from TOD status. Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma or Josh Hart could absovle the 2018 team. But any of those young players could get traded for a veteran ready to win with LeBron.
Orlando Magic (2015-2019)
The Magic haven’t made the playoffs since trading Dwight Howard in 2012. Jameer Nelson held off the TOD until 2014, but it has looked grim since.
Orlando still has a few players from its 2015 team – Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic. Gordon just signed a long-term contract and looks like the franchise player. But the Magic don’t appear close to making the playoffs. Who knows what this team will look like when it finally wins again?
Phoenix Suns (2015-2019)
Channing Frye helped the Suns reach the 2010 playoffs then stayed in Phoenix for the first four years of what has become an eight-season playoff drought.
T.J. Warren is the last hope for the 2015 team to escape the TOD label. Devin Booker arrived for the 2016 season, and he just signed a max contract extension. Though there are still questions about his ability to lead a good team, if Booker doesn’t eventually get Phoenix to the playoffs, I can’t even imagine how many general managers Robert Sarver will fire.
Sacramento Kings (2016-2019)
The longest-tenured Kings are Willie Cauley-Stein and Kosta Koufos, who arrived for the 2016 season. Buddy Hield and Skal Labissiere add hope for the 2017 team. But Sacramento looks like one of the NBA’s very worst teams and won’t even have its first-round pick this season. There has been plenty of despair in Sacramento, and more could be ahead.