At Long Last: Will Lifelong Lottery Players Finally Reach the NBA Playoffs This Season?


The playoffs are not a given for any team nor any player. Which players have toiled the longest without a postseason appearance?

For fans of successful franchises, the regular season becomes an exercise in how well a team positions itself for a playoff run. Those rooting for their teams in San Antonio, Boston and Houston rarely have to worry about the season ending at 82 games.

But many franchises don’t have the expectation of success, but rather have to deal in hope. Cycles of up-and-down play see them break into the postseason, sometimes for multiple years as a group of players makes a run, before fading back into the lottery.

For a few teams the postseason is impossibly far away, and fans are locked into the dungeon of the lottery as other franchises take playoff glory and other fans get to experience the game’s best moments. In years past the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors (yes, really) and Dallas Mavericks have all gone double-digit seasons without a playoff appearance.

Fans of such a team are stuck waiting patiently for them to turn it around; Minnesota is currently poised to relieve the strain of their drought and become a playoff team for the first time in 13 seasons, breaking the second-longest streak in NBA history and the longest active stretch. They will hand the baton to the Sacramento Kings, nursing an 11-year postseason drought with no end in sight.

Players can often jump ship from teams stuck in the mire and find their way onto a playoff squad. If they are talented, teams heading nowhere may flip them to contenders for future assets. Once free agency hits, they can choose the team on which to ply their trade. Rarely does a player have to endure a career of early endings.

Tom Van Arsdale is that rare player, however, failing to find the playoffs for the entirety of his 12-year career. Arsdale (not to be confused with his identical twin brother Dick, also an NBA player) played for six different teams from 1965-1977. Despite being a three-time All-Star he never reached the postseason, playing an NBA-record 929 games without a playoff experience.

Arsdale is followed by Otto Moore, a distant-but-still-depressing-second with 682 games played and no playoff appearance. Moore was a center who played for five teams across 10 seasons, but he was never more than a rotation player.

Among players who have suited up this millennium, Sebastian Telfair leads the way with 564 games. The journeyman point guard was a high school standout who went straight to the NBA, playing for nine teams from 2004 to 2014, hopping from city to city without once stepping onto the court for a playoff game.

For the above players and many more, their chance at the playoffs are gone. Retired, they instead watch the playoffs as they watch any other game, from the comfort of their homes or the excitement of the stands. But for dozens of players currently playing, the possibility of finally breaking through and making the playoffs is still there. For which players is their dream within reach?

Omri Casspi, F, Golden State Warriors (531)

Casspi’s career has bounced across the country, and features a number of terrible teams in his rearview mirror. He began his professional career for the Israeli flagship team Maccabi Tel Aviv at age 17, and joined the NBA in 2009 after being selected with the 23rd pick by the Sacramento Kings.

While in Israel Casspi was a mainstay in the postseason, with Maccabi Tel Aviv twice winning the Israeli Super League and once winning the Israeli State Cup. Casspi was also part of the Maccabi team that reached the EuroLeague final in 2008.

But in the NBA Casspi has had no such luck, traveling from team to team without a single postseason run. In the NBA Casspi has now played in 531 games without making a single playoff appearance. Perhaps in part because of a desire to break that streak, Casspi signed this offseason with the Golden State Warriors, as close to a playoff-lock as can exist in the NBA.

Casspi currently ranks sixth all-time in games played without a postseason appearance, but barring an unlikely trade (that would be heartless) he will step off the list. What player could take over as the new active leader?

DeMarcus Cousins, C, New Orleans Pelicans (525)

If Casspi represents the most common archetype for a player long-kept from the playoffs, Cousins is the next: a long run on a terrible team. As we will see below, the playoff droughts for Minnesota and Sacramento have impacted a number of active players, but none more than All-NBA center DeMarcus Cousins.

With 525 games played Cousins ranks second among active players and eighth all-time in games played without reaching the postseason. However Cousins is incredibly unique in his level of play; star players almost always find their way to the playoffs. More than a rotation player, Cousins is an offensive fulcrum who carried a heavy load for those Sacramento squads that didn’t make the playoffs. His 16,918 minutes rank third all-time among players selected in the lottery; he passed Portland big man Geoff Petrie just last month.

Last season Cousins was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans to team up with All-NBA big man Anthony Davis, himself just 1-for-5 on making the playoffs in his career. And indeed, if the season ended today Cousins and the Pelicans would make the playoffs as the eighth and final seed in the West. FiveThirtyEight’s Carm-ELO predictions tab the Pelicans with a 72 percent chance of making the playoffs.

If the Pelicans can stay the course, Cousins will himself leave this list as well. After Cousins, there is a large drop-off to the next few players yet to taste the postseason.

Ricky Rubio, PG, Utah Jazz (391)

As Cousins was locked in Sacramento, so Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio was locked in Minnesota, toiling away alongside Kevin Love and Karl-Anthony Towns without a postseason berth in sight. This offseason he was traded to the Utah Jazz, and has to watch as his former team screams towards the playoffs.

Rubio is third among active players in games played without a playoff appearance, passing the injured Brandon Knight last month. Although Rubio entered the league just one year after Cousins, his struggles with injuries have limited his availability. Although third among active players, he ranks just 24th all-time in this category.

Rubio’s Utah Jazz have had an up-and-down few months since acquiring the point guard from Minnesota. A strong playoff team last season, the departure of Gordon Hayward dropped them into the pack of teams fighting for the playoffs. The Jazz exceeded expectations early despite injuries to key players, but as the injuries have continued the Jazz are slowly sliding down the playoff ladder. FiveThirtyEight currently gives them a 40 percent chance of making the playoffs.

Let’s play this game one more time, and say both the Pelicans and the Jazz make the playoffs (sorry Portland). Then who exits the season as the leader in games played without a postseason appearance?

Kyle O’Quinn, C, New York Knicks (360)

There was a time when O’Quinn and teammate Lance Thomas (309) looked like they may break their streaks playing with the New York Knicks. But as Kristaps Porzingis has begun to run out of steam so have the Knicks waned, and their playoff chances are down to 12 percent. O’Quinn could hold the torch.

The former Orlando center joined the Magic just weeks before Dwight Howard was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, marking the beginning of their five-year playoff drought. O’Quinn was present for the first four of those seasons before playing for the New York Knicks over the past season-and-a-half.

O’Quinn has the profile of a player who rides the wave of the unfortunate around the league and away from the playoffs. Not a star nor even a starter, O’Quinn provides valuable minutes as a backup center.

Brandon Knight, PG, Phoenix Suns (382)

Former Kentucky guard Brandon Knight is actually ahead of O’Quinn at the moment, and likewise a lock to miss the postseason on the Phoenix Suns. But Knight is out for the season with an injury, making it likely he will be passed by O’Quinn before the end of the year.

Knight has been close to the postseason but never tasted it; in 2014-15 he was part of a Milwaukee lineup in playoff position before he was traded to the Phoenix Suns in a move that brought Michael Carter-Williams to the Bucks. As Milwaukee faced Chicago in the playoffs, Knight watched from home.

With an albatross contract weighing him down, he may be stuck on the rebuilding Suns for a long time as well. Plenty of time to catch up to Rubio and O’Quinn and steal back the unwanted crown.

Punching Out: Any Minnesota Timberwolves

With a 13-year playoff drought in progress, the Minnesota Timberwolves have held a number of players back from the postseason. But this season the organization has finally turned things around, and a number of players will play in their first playoff contest come April.

Andrew Wiggins is only in his fourth season, but with his heavy workload he has already racked up over 10,000 minutes played. In fact, despite his youth he is already 19th on this list if sorted by minutes played. Joining Wiggins will be Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nemanja Bjelica and Tyus Jones — none longsuffering, but all glad to get off this list.

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