13 years of misery: How the Timberwolves playoff drought ranks historically

MINNEAPOLIS - JANUARY 10: Kevin Garnett /

Last week, the Minnesota Timberwolves became near-mortal locks to make their first NBA playoff appearance in 13 seasons.

Minnesota began the year with an 81 percent chance of making it to the Western Conference playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight’s Playoff Odds projections but last week they reached the coveted 99+ percent mark. Baring a complete and utter meltdown, the Timberwolves will reach the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

The Timberwolves last hosted a playoff game on May 29, 2004 when Usher’s “Burn” was celebrating its eighth-straight week as the United States Number One song and NBC had weeks prior aired the series finales of both Friends and Frazier.

Yep. It’s been awhile.

What’s most interesting about Minnesota’s playoff drought is what happened in their most recent playoff appearance — the Timberwolves were in the Western Conference Finals in 2004.

The Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell-led Timberwolves lost a hard-fought six-game series against the re-packaged Los Angeles Lakers with a bursting at the seams core of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, as well as veteran hands Karl Malone and Gary Payton.

Minnesota would miss the playoffs in 2005 joining just 11 teams since 1980 to miss the playoffs following a conference finals appearance:

  • 2015 Indiana Pacers (Lost 2014 Eastern Conference Finals to Miami)
  • 2015 Oklahoma City Thunder (Lost 2014 Western Conference Finals to San Antonio)
  • 2011 Phoenix Suns (Lost 2010 Western Conference Finals to Los Angeles)
  • 2005 Minnesota Timberwolves (Lost 2004 Western Conference FInals to Los Angeles)
  • 2002 Milwaukee Bucks (Lost 2011 Eastern Conference Finals to Philadelphia)
  • 1999 Chicago Bulls (Won 1998 NBA Championship)
  • 1989 Dallas Mavericks (Lost 1988 Western Conference Finals to Los Angeles)
  • 1984 San Antonio Spurs (Lost 1983 Western Conference Finals to Los Angeles)
  • 1982 Kansas City Kings (Lost 1981 Western Conference Finals to Houston)
  • 1981 Seattle Supersonics (Lost 1980 Western Conference Finals to Los Angeles)

What sets Minnesota apart is how long it took them to reach the playoffs again: 13 seasons.

The rest of the 11 teams averaged only three seasons between appearances with many making the playoffs the season after missing.

Note: The 2005 Los Angeles Lakers were unfortunately overlooked in the research of this article and not included in the above graphic. They missed only one postseason after being in the NBA Finals.

1981 Seattle Supersonics

After losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980 Western Conference Finals, Seattle only had to wait another season to reach the playoffs again. Seattle would remain a fixture in the Western Conference playoffs for much of the 1980s and 1990s with their longest drought being only two seasons in 1985 and 1986.

1982 Kansas City Kings

The Kings made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals in 1981 losing out to Moses Malone-led Houston Rockets. The Kings would miss the next two playoffs before returning in 1984. After another appearance in 1986, the Kings began an arduous 10-year drought from 1987 to 1996 when Mitch Richmond pushed the now Sacramento Kings to a first-round matchup with Seattle. After another two-year drought, Sacramento would become perennial playoff contenders from 1999 to 2006 led by Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic and Vlade Divac.

1984 San Antonio Spurs

One of the darling franchises of the ABA, San Antonio began their NBA life as a constant in both the Eastern and Western Conference playoffs (move to the West in 1981). After reaching the Western Finals in 1983, San Antonio missed the playoffs all together in 1984.

Spare your sympathy, San Antonio made the playoffs in 30 of the next 33 seasons with a few titles sprinkled in.

1989 Dallas Mavericks

An unfortunate victim of a dominant Lakers dynasty, the late 1980s Mavericks could never get over the hump, peaking in the Western Conference Finals in 1988. Dallas would miss the 1989 playoffs but return the following year (1990). Quickly though, they’d reach the deep, dark depths of the NBA missing 10 consecutive playoffs from 1991 until 2001 when the Don Nelson-led Mavericks — fueled by Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley — finally ended the drought.

1999 Chicago Bulls

One of the most famous cases of first to worst, the 1999 Chicago Bulls had to continue a Bulls legacy that saw the franchise win six titles in the 1990s. Of course, a team led by Dickey Simpkins (seriously, he had the team’s highest win shares) set the stage for years of futility. The Bulls wouldn’t make the playoffs againt until 2005. Since that point, they’ve been constants in the East save for two aberrations (2008 and 2016).

2002 Milwaukee Bucks

After just barely missing the 2001 NBA Finals, Milwaukee would miss out on the playoffs entirely in 2002. The Bucks would return the following season (2003) but become perpetual flip-floppers over the next handful of years making the playoffs seven times since 2001 while missing nine.

2005 Los Angeles Lakers

The 2004 Los Angeles Lakers, fresh off placing the Timberwolves into 13 years of misery, made it to the NBA Finals where they were upset by the gritty Detroit Pistons. Of course, the Lakers were fracturing even before the loss with the embarrassing defeat being the nail in the coffin.

Phil Jackson was out as coach. Shaquille O’Neal was sent to Miami and the Lakers officially became Kobe Bryant’s team. The Lakers ended their streak of 10 straight playoff appearances as the team fell to 34-48 on the year. Don’t fret. Los Angeles was back in the postseason the very next season and would string together eight consecutive playoff appearances (2006-2013) collecting two championships along the way.

2011 Phoenix Suns

Given the way things are currently looking in Phoenix, we could have a new contender for the Timberwolves’ Misery Throne. It’s been seven years since the 2010 Phoenix Suns made the Western Conference Playoffs and their 16-29 mark this season means we’re liking bumping that to eight seasons. With no end in sight, the Suns will be a team to look out for? For perspective: they are still five (!) seasons away from matching the Timberwolves currently mark.

2015 Oklahoma City Thunder and 2015 Indiana Pacers

We’ll add these teams for prosperity sake but both missed the playoffs due to injuries (Paul George and Kevin Durant), both were back in the postseason a year after missing out.

In the 13 years since they last made the NBA playoffs, Minnesota has employed 10 head coaches with two having more than one tenure: Flip Saunders, Kevin McHale, Dwane Casey, Randy Wittman, Kevin McHale again, Kurt Rambis, Rick Adelman, Flip Saunders again, Sam Mitchell, Tom Thibodeau.

In that same time frame, Minnesota has had five different players led the team in total Win Shares: Kevin Garnett, Al Jefferson, Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic (it got dark for awhile, guys), Gorgui Dieng (seriously, real dark, guys) and Karl Anthony-Towns.

Whether or not Towns, Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins have any real chance at knocking off the Warriors or Rockets should be little concern right now. The Timberwolves got over the hump and one of the NBA’s most depressing playoff droughts is finally over. Playoff basketball is finally coming back to Minnesota.

If you’re interested in learning more about NBA history, check out our NBA history podcast, Over and Back, and the rest of our great podcasts hosted on The Step Back.