NBA's big three miss playoffs in same year for first time
Not in 1948-49, not 2012-13 and no season in between have the New York Knicks, Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers all missed the playoffs in the same season.
With the Atlanta Hawks' 98-85 victory vs. the Miami Heat Saturday, the Knicks were eliminated from the postseason. The Celtics and Lakers were eliminated already, and the three teams have a combined winning percentage of .353.
They are the league's flagship franchises. They have championships and a lot of fans. Not having at least one of them in the playoffs is a bad thing. Right?
"It's unfortunate for those franchises if they don't make it," ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said. "But the league, just because of how it's grown and the depth of teams and organizations, I don't think it's a major deal either. Those teams have proven to be great organizations, and they'll be in the playoffs in the near future and in the short term, once in a while to not have them in doesn't impact the playoffs negatively at all."
That view isn't shared by everyone. Lakers radio analyst Mychael Thompson, who was part of some Showtime championships, disagreed.
"It's horrible for the NBA that those markets may not be in the playoffs," Thompson said. "The NBA is a lot healthier business when those franchises are competing for championships, and they'll get back there."
He also said better days ahead for the franchises.
"Everyone of them will get back there – it's just going to take some time, a couple-of-year rebuild for each franchise," Thompson said. "But with Brad Stevens in place in Boston and Danny Ainge calling the shots there, Phil calling the shots in New York, that's going to turn things around, and Mitch and Jimmy (in Los Angeles) they have all the know-how and the braintrust to do this. They've done it before, so it's a couple-of-year rebuild for those three franchises, but the three of them will be in the championship picture again real soon."
What's next for the three teams? USA TODAY Sports Jeff Zillgitt and Sam Amick break it down.
Phil Jackson has his work cut out for him trying to turn around the New York Knicks.(Photo: SHANNON STAPLETON Reuters)
Even before the Knicks' troubles started on the court this season – before the 3-13 start and the nine-game losing stretch from mid-November to early December – the troubles started off the court.
The NBA suspended guard J.R. Smith for the first five games of the season for violating the league's anti-drug policy and days before training camp open, the team reassigned general manager Glen Grunwald and replaced him with Steve Mills.
And it just that kind of disappointing, peculiar, injury-riddled, drama-filled season for the Knicks, who failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009-10 and took an unexpected step backward after a 54-28 season in 2012-13.
The blame can be spread, from Mike Woodson's coaching to substandard guard play to injuries to suspensions to Amar'e Stoudemire's minute restriction to the absence of Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace and Kurt Thomas.
"Add all of that together and it doesn't take much to flip from a really good year to one that's a little bit disappointing," Van Gundy said.
Woodson said the Smith suspension set the Knicks back and just said things may have played out differently this season had center-forward Andrea Bargnani not missed every game since last playing on Jan. 22.
By the end of December, the Knicks were 9-21 and tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for the second-worst-record in the East. Even a late-season push wasn't enough to fill that hole.
It didn't help that shortly after the new year, the Knicks left Woodson dangling with little support, and that was made obvious when word got in March that the Knicks first asked if Phil Jackson wanted to coach the team and then eventually hired Jackson as team president in charge of all basketball decision.
Former Knicks coach Larry Brown and Woodson friend criticized the hiring of Jackson and the Knicks' treatment of Woodson.
"I'm sick about what's happening with Michael (Woodson), Brown told SiriusXM NBA Radio. "The way they've treated Mike Woodson, I think he went 15-5 when he took over that team two years ago. And then last year they won 54 games. I think from 2001 they might've won one playoff series. He's done a remarkable job. They've had terrible injuries. They lost a GM that I thought did a great job. And then they didn't bring any older guys. When you lose Jason Kidd and Kurt Thomas and Rasheed Wallace, you lost your locker room.
"It's just troublesome to me to bring in Phil Jackson, not that he won't be great, but let him coach. You're not going to make the Knicks better by living in L.A. and being there half the time and not talking to your coach. Let him coach. He was the best coach probably ever. Let him coach. If that's the way they want to do it let him coach and give Woody a way to leave graciously. But he's out on the limb and that's not fair. For a guy that really turned that franchise around and made people proud of the way they played I don't think he's been treated fairly and that really bothers me."
The future isn't clear, even with Jackson in charge. He needs to make a decision on Woodson, and he if he doesn't keep Woodson, he needs to find a coach. Then, the Knicks need to find out if All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony is returning.
If Anthony comes back, then there's the whole matter of the Knicks' salary cap situation. Anthony, Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, Barganani and Smith will eat up more than $70 million next season.
Unless there are major trades, Jackson won't have a chance to remake the roster until 2015-16.
"Their team is going to come from new leadership, new direction and then the right strategic trade, by another great asset in the NBA – you look right to them, and that's expiring contracts, because while we've all written and talked about how disastrous those contracts are, as soon as we hit July 1 they all get pretty appealing," ESPN analyst and former NBA executive Tom Penn said. "And you, as well as I, know that it's almost like the switch flips right then when it goes from horrible contract to good asset. And then New York has the promise as the backstop…of significant cap room if they just ride it out, in 2015."
-- Jeff Zillgitt
Boston Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck says the team still is about winning.(Photo: Todd Plitt USA TODAY Sports)
When Wyc Grousbeck led the way in the 2002 purchase of the Celtics, he decided to honor the franchise's celebrated history by picking an apt name for the investment group: "Banner 17 LLC."
Six years later, when the Celtics downed the Lakers in the Finals and won the 17th championship banner he so badly wanted, the name no longer fit.
"We got that one," Grousbeck told USA TODAY Sports recently. "I might as well name it Banner 18 now, because that's all we're interested in."
The goal remains unchanged, in other words, and their plan to get back on top again is the same this time as it was before. That's the key difference between the Celtics and the Knicks and Lakers: this playoff absence was, in essence, by design.
While some teams rely heavily on free agency to improve (see the Miami Heat), and others become elite by way of the NBA draft (the Oklahoma City Thunder), the Celtics used a major trade (Kevin Garnett from Minnesota) to help win it all back in 2008. As Grousbeck sees it, there's no reason to change the script now.
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The Celtics, who haven't had a season this bad since the one that preceded their championship run, entered the rebuilding stage last summer when they let former coach Doc Rivers sign with the Los Angeles Clippers and traded Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets. They maximized their return in those deals, and now have the same sort of assets that helped them pull off the league-record turnaround six years ago.
"Building through the draft, with the goal eventually of maybe making a couple of transformative trades – that's really how it played out in '07," Grousbeck said. "So we really think we're going to do the exact same thing. We're going to draft and be patient and provide the payroll and support and steady hand necessary to bring this back, because I'm only interested in banners."
Boston has seven first-round draft picks in the next three drafts, not to mention young and promising players like Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk. But transformative opportunities don't come along all that often, so patience and poise are required from here as general manager Danny Ainge looks to seize the right opportunities yet again.
"That's always the second prong of the plan, is that 'If we can't get great young guys to grow up together like Oklahoma City did, then we'll at least make a strategic trade at the right time,'" ESPN analyst and former Portland Trail Blazers assistant general manager Tom Penn told USA TODAY Sports. "Projecting and foreseeing the likelihood of that happenings is really hard, but the first step of making that a possibility is to get access to a lot of young, promising assets. The best positioned franchise to do that over the next three years is going to be Boston."
As for how long this latest U-turn might take? Grousbeck, like so many owners, is hoping for a speedy recovery but well aware that it may not be a one-season fix.
"Nothing would make me happier than to be contending next year," he said. "We went from basically worst to first in '07-'08. Having said that, this is going to be a multi-year process. We've got a young core that we're excited about. We've got (draft) picks and a GM (in Ainge) and a (first-year) coach (in Brad Stevens) that looks like a recipe for a lot of success in the future. But it doesn't look like it's an overnight success. So we're prepared for the long haul, but we'd love to accelerate it if we could."
-- Sam Amick
Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak says the team hopes to turn things around next season.(Photo: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
Please excuse the Lakers if they're insulted by being included in this infamous company.
When it comes to losing and late-April vacations, this debacle is far rarer for them than even the mighty Celtics and the sizzle-over-substance New York Knicks.
While the Knicks have missed the playoffs in eight of the past 12 seasons alone and the Celtics have been absent from nine of the last 20 postseasons, the legendary Lakers have a mind-blowing 92.3% success rate on this front – 60 playoff appearances in 65 tries entering 2013-14. This mess of endless injuries and ineptitude is – in case you hadn't heard –already in the books as the worst season in franchise history since the team moved to Los Angeles from Minneapolis in 1960.
The question going forward is whether this is an outlier or their new norm.
The problems caused by the Feb. 2013 passing of legendary Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss are more about perception than power.
While the day-to-day basketball duties had been handled by general manager Mitch Kupchak and Jerry's son, Jim, for years leading up to his passing, Jerry's absence has fans and prospective free agents alike wondering if this season is a sign of things to come. Kupchak, who was recently given a multi-year extension in a move that brought some stability to this otherwise-unsettled situation, does not believe that's the case.
"I'm confident that over time, that we're going to be able to assemble a team that's competitive, fun to watch," he told USA TODAY Sports recently. "The advantages that this franchise and this city have always had remain, which is our fan base, it's a great city, players like playing here. There are a lot of diverse components of this city that attract players – the organization itself, its legacy. So those things don't change."
Yet even Kupchak admits it might take a while. The league's new collective bargaining agreement limits the ability of cash-cow teams like the Lakers to simply spend their way out of the cellar, and their best player – Kobe Bryant – is coming off the two worst injuries of his storied career (Achilles tendon tear and left knee fracture) just in time to start playing on his new, two-year, $48.5 million contract extension.
As the Celtics-types might say, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Magic Johnson or Shaquille O'Neal aren't walking through that door anytime soon.
Still, the hope that history repeats itself remains.
"I think these (Lakers fans) have short memories," Thompson said. "They forget that under Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak this team has won two championships in the last six years. It's like, 'What, did these guys forget how to build a championship team?' They did it once and they're going to do it again. Look at Mitch Kupchak's resume as a general manager. Other than Gregg Popovich and the (San Antonio) Spurs, no other GM around the league is more impressive than Mitch."
-- Sam Amick