In the past decade, we have seen many middle-of-the-road NBA teams. Teams that are consistent playoff teams but just not good enough to get over the hump and win a title. These teams are stuck in what is known as a playoff purgatory. They are not good enough to win a championship but don’t play poorly enough to miss the playoffs and get a lottery pick. Today, we’ll examine some of these teams in playoff purgatory and the mediocre success they have had in the last decade.
The Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers have participated in every playoff since 2011, excluding 2015. However, year after year, they have continued to come up short when it matters most.
The most significant championship window Indiana had was from 2012-2014. Led by young star Paul George, the 2012-2013 Pacers were no joke. This Pacers team finished the third seed in the East and beat Atlanta and New York in the first two playoff rounds. However, in a heart crusher, the Pacers would fall just one game short of the NBA Finals. The Miami Heat were just too much for Indiana, and the Heat would send the Pacers home in seven games.
The 2013-2014 Pacers came back with a vengeance. This time they would finish first in the East, even topping Miami. Sadly, Indiana would suffer the same fate as they did last season. The Pacers would lose to the Heat in the conference finals, this time in six games.
Indiana never recovered from these losses. Since they lost to the Heat in the 2014 Conference Finals, Indiana has failed to get past the first round. The Pacers have been a good regular season team for the last decade. However, they have continuously come up short in the playoffs.
Overall, a massive reason for Indiana’s lack of success is because of LeBron James. From 2011-2018, James has dominated the Eastern Conference, and unfortunately, Indiana was just a victim of circumstance. The Indiana Pacers have lost to a LeBron-led team five times in the past decade.
The Pacers’ squad is solid this season. They have all-star Domantas Sabonis, Caris LeVert, and Malcolm Brogdon. Sadly, the NBA is full of contenders, and Indiana isn’t one of them. Currently, at the 9th seed, Indiana, will likely stay a playoff purgatory team this season.
The Portland Trailblazers
The Portland Trail Blazers have been in every playoff since 2014. However, they have struggled to see any postseason success in that time frame. Damien Lillard and the Blazers are yet to get over the hump in the postseason. Portland has been either a first or second-round exit nearly every year of their playoff streak.
The closest Lillard and Portland ever were to the finals was in 2019. In the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Blazers would defeat the Thunder and the Nuggets. Unfortunately, in the conference finals, Lillard would fall short, losing to a depleted Warriors team. Although Golden State was missing Kevin Durant, Portland would get swept by the Curry-led team. Lillard underperformed in the series, averaging just 22.3 PPG on 37% FG.
Portland experienced something similar to how the Pacers failed to get past LeBron. The Blazers have continuously lost to Steph Curry and the Warriors. In their consecutive postseason appearances since 2014, three of their seven losses have come to Golden State.
Damien Lillard is playing the best basketball of his career this season. He puts up 29.6 PPG and 7.7 APG a game this season while leading his team to the sixth seed in a competitive West. Lillard has proven himself to be a candidate for the MVP award this season.
Unfortunately for the Blazers, the West is stacked this season. Heavy-hitters like the Jazz, Suns, Clippers, Lakers, and Nuggets are dominating the conference. Because of this, the Blazers likely are not title contenders. Sadly, Portland may very well remain in playoff purgatory this season.
The Boston Celtics
The Celtics are one of the most infamous examples of a team in playoff purgatory the last decade. They have only missed one playoff in that period, 2014. Despite having some excellent groups the previous ten years, Boston has disappointingly been unable to win a championship.
The Celtics’ first championship window since the big three era would be from 2017-2020. The Celtics finished a top-two seed in both 2017 and 2018. Unfortunately, the Celtics’ seasons ended on an all too familiar outcome. LeBron James and the Cavaliers would beat them in the conference finals both seasons.
However, 2018-2019 was a redemption season for them. With LeBron James out of the East, this was an excellent chance for them to capitalize and win a ring. This 2017-2018 Celtics team had an incredible roster—Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, and Marcus Morris. This team would finish the fourth seed in the East. Sadly for Boston, they couldn’t get the job done, losing in five games to MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.
The 2020 bubble provided an excellent opportunity for the Jayson Tatum-led Celtics to win it all. The neutral environment and unique circumstances gave them a good chance at contention. Boston would advance to the conference finals, this time against the scrappy, fifth seed Miami Heat. Unfortunately, the Celtics couldn’t capitalize, losing in six games. Their season once again ended disappointingly, with a loss.
Boston has unfortunately been struggling this season. They are currently eighth in the East. With titans like the Nets, Bucks, Sixers, and Heat in the East, Boston will likely remain in playoff purgatory this season.
What’s Next for These Teams?
These playoff purgatory teams need to figure themselves out. The organizations likely are not pleased with their performances in recent playoffs and want to win as soon as possible. The foundation of these teams is relatively strong. They are a few pieces away from contention. It will be interesting to see what moves these teams make in the future and whether they exit their dreaded playoff purgatory in the years to come. The fans, players, and front offices of these franchises are hungry for titles.