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Though the NBA regular season is a lengthy endeavor requiring 82 battles just to earn a berth in the playoffs and a shot at hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy, that’s not what leads to glory. The postseason matters most, granting players a shot at grandeur on the biggest stage the sport has to offer.
But some have an awfully difficult time advancing beyond that 82nd game.
Historically, no one engaged in more futile regular-season efforts than Tom Van Arsdale, who logged a staggering 929 appearances for the Cincinnati Royals/Kansas City-Omaha Kings, Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns during his 12-year career but failed to suit up in a single postseason contest. He’s still the standard-bearer for those cursed to perpetual watching-from-the-couch sessions (yes, that’s anachronistic), but that hasn’t stopped some current standouts from following in his footsteps.
Last year, I wrote about the best players in NBA history who have never tasted the playoffs. Van Arsdale, a three-time All-Star, checked in at No. 3. Four active players (DeMarcus Cousins, Nikola Jokic, Ricky Rubio, Karl-Anthony Towns) made the countdown, but that list has already dwindled. Towns got off the schneid by winning a de facto play-in game against the Denver Nuggets (before a first-round exit at the hands of the Houston Rockets), while Rubio and his Utah Jazz earned the fifth seed en route to a series win over the OKC Thunder and eventual five-game loss to Houston.
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Of course, Rubio and Towns weren’t the only men who made their playoff debuts in 2018.
Some rookies enjoyed that luxury, ending droughts before they even started. (As a quick aside, look to Aaron Holiday, Michael Porter Jr., Moritz Wagner, Donte DiVincenzo, Zhaire Smith and Grayson Allen if you’re seeking candidates to follow the trail blazed by Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons and Jayson Tatum.)
Luke Babbitt (eight years in the Association), Robert Covington (five), Gorgui Dieng (five), Shabazz Muhammad (five) and others graced the stage after at least a few years of regular-season futility. And by the time the Golden State Warriors had successfully defended their title, 51 different players—the vast majority of whom were rookies or players with little NBA experience—had joined the playoff fraternity.
That’s not an unexpected number, either. Per my research, 58 men made their postseason debuts in 2017, and we saw 51 and 45 in 2016 and 2015, respectively. Counting on another 50 to enter the equation in 2019 is by no means overly optimistic.
But who are the most notable names with legitimate shots at ticking that box?
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“I think some players will take that route, but most guys have too much pride,” CJ McCollum recently said on CCTV during a tour in China. “[They] want to really win on their own or in their certain organizations and aren’t just going to jump the bandwagon.”
Dime on UPROXX @DimeUPROXX
CJ McCollum went on @CCTV and said that star players joining the Warriors is ‘disgusting’ and ‘I would never do that’ ??
?: @NBA_Reddit https://t.co/rcno5SMQJA
That was an obvious subtweet aimed at DeMarcus Cousins, but we’re not here to relitigate the big man’s decision to join the two-time defending champions while recovering from the Achilles injury that ended his 2017-18 efforts and, eventually, his tenure with the New Orleans Pelicans. He had to watch his former teammates sweep the Portland Trail Blazers before losing to his new compatriots, and that must’ve been painful after so many years enduring criticism that he wasn’t the type of player around whom front offices could build winning outfits.
Cousins and Kevin Love, as noted by NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman last January, are the only two men since the NBA-ABA merger to make multiple All-NBA squads before tasting the playoffs. The latter has already ended his drought and won a title with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the former is still waiting, now the unfortunate victim of the injury imp and years of hopelessness with the Sacramento Kings.
That’s about to change.
The Warriors might as well be playoff locks, though they’ve yet to play a single game in 2018-19. FiveThirtyEight’s CARM-Elo model gives them greater than a 99 percent chance at emerging from the regular season with a postseason berth. They’re also more likely than not expected to represent the Western Conference in the Finals (53 percent).
Should the Dubs rest Cousins until calendars flip over to 2019, ensuring that he’s fully recovered before stepping back onto the hardwood, he’ll still be on the roster for the playoffs. Only a subsequent season-ending injury or a trade, which presumably only happens if he develops a disgruntled nature and causes problems by demanding touches at the expense of the incumbent All-Stars, will prevent him from scratching his name off the best-players-to-never-play-in-the-playoffs list.
Denver Nuggets Standouts
The Western field is too ridiculously stacked to guarantee a playoff berth for the Denver Nuggets. Only eight spots are available, and 10 teams should be serious contenders to finish the 2018-19 campaign above .500. The Warriors and Rockets are locks, while the Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota Timberwolves, Pelicans, Oklahoma City Thunder, Blazers, San Antonio Spurs and Jazz can’t be discounted. That’s before we factor in the upside possessed by the Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and (maybe) Dallas Mavericks or Phoenix Suns.
Breaking news: This half of the NBA is loaded.
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But for reasons covered in more detail here, the Nuggets should still be favored to advance beyond Game 82. A healthy Paul Millsap playing next to Nikola Jokic resulted in a 9.4 net rating during the 2017-18 campaign, per PBPStats.com, and that mark soared to an eye-popping 35.7 when the expected 2018-19 starters were all on the floor (granted, only over the course of 65 minutes).
Through the additions of Isaiah Thomas and Michael Porter Jr., as well as natural improvement from the youthful incumbents, the Nuggets should only be getting better. That’s great news, considering even mere stagnation would put them firmly in the hunt.
If they do indeed make the field, quite a few notable players will join the playoff fraternity. Jokic is the most prominent of the bunch, but we can’t forget about Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. In fact, Millsap, Thomas, Barton, Trey Lyles and Mason Plumlee are the only players rostered by Denver who have made the playoffs at some point in their professional careers.
New Orleans Pelicans Newcomers
The Pelicans are in a situation similar to the Nuggets’ quandary. Talented as they may be, they’re still playing in the West. They’re also not as talented as Denver—even with the best player boasted by either roster in Anthony Davis—which makes it increasingly difficult to guarantee the first career playoff appearances for some of the notable newcomers added this offseason.
Elfrid Payton, who’s replacing Rajon Rondo as Jrue Holiday’s primary backcourt mate, has never experienced the increased defensive attention inherent to the playoffs after spending the early portion of his career with the Orlando Magic and—for half a season—Phoenix Suns. While the rest of the returning contributors fall into the opposite category because of their brief foray in 2018, Julius Randle is the other big summer signing.
Two men named Julius have suited up in prior postseasons: Julius Erving did so 11 times with the Philadelphia 76ers (even earning a ring in 1983), and Julius Nwosu spent seven minutes on the floor for the San Antonio Spurs during his lone NBA season in 1994-95.
If Randle can get over the hump, he’d push the Julius club to include more playoff performers than regular-season mainstays (currently Randle and Julius Hodge). If that isn’t his primary goal, what is?
Somehow, Nerlens Noel has managed to find himself on one disappointing squad after another. Just take a gander at the win-loss records of the teams that have rostered him since he came off the board at No. 6 in the 2013 NBA draft:
- 2014-15 Philadelphia 76ers: 18-64
- 2015-16 Philadelphia 76ers: 10-72
- 2016-17 Philadelphia 76ers: 28-54 (21-35 when he was traded away Feb. 23)
- 2016-17 Dallas Mavericks: 33-49 (11-15 after he was acquired Feb. 23)
- 2017-18 Dallas Mavericks: 24-58
In his career, Noel has suited up 223 times. His team has emerged victoriously in 58 of those contests, giving him a lifelong record of 58-165 (.260). To put that in perspective, that would put him on pace to go 21-61 over the course of an 82-game campaign.
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But that’s about to change.
Now that he’s joining the Thunder, prepared to either add defensive punch to the second unit or potentially start alongside Steven Adams in some situations, he’ll be around a winning organization that should be heavily favored to advance past the regular season. He’s not quite a lock, but he should be one of those making his playoff debut in 2019—and hopefully making good on some of the untapped potential that remained dormant during his disastrous stint in Dallas.
We’re moving away from the true definition of “drought” here, but plenty of youngsters on the Lakers could have their initial taste of the playoffs after spending their first few go-rounds stuck in lottery land. With LeBron James aboard, as well as some other rotation members with significant experience playing in the NBA’s second season, the Purple and Gold are poised to return to a stage they haven’t graced since the 2012-13 season.
That year, the Lakers’ most-used starting five was comprised of Kobe Bryant, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Metta World Peace. Doesn’t that feel like an eternity ago?
The roster is a bit different this coming season, but that could lead to quite a few notable playoff debuts. Should the team composition remain intact past the trade deadline (never a sure thing when James is running the show), we’d be looking at inaugural appearances from Lonzo Ball, Isaac Bonga, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Moritz Wagner and Ivica Zubac.
If we assume 50 players join the club in 2019, that’s 16 percent of the class in one fell swoop.
Heading into the 2018-19 campaign, Omri Casspi and Cousins are the only men who have made at least 500 NBA appearances without logging a postseason game. In fact, precious few even make it 250 games (three full seasons and change) without checking the relevant box, as you can see by looking at the countdown of the 10 active players with the most logged games sans playoffs:
- Omri Casspi, Memphis Grizzlies: 552 games
- DeMarcus Cousins, Golden State Warriors: 535 games
- Kyle O’Quinn, Indiana Pacers: 398 games
- Brandon Knight, Phoenix Suns: 382 games
- Ben McLemore, Sacramento Kings: 349 games
- Lance Thomas, New York Knicks: 346 games
- Alex Len, Atlanta Hawks: 335 games
- Elfrid Payton, New Orleans Pelicans: 300 games
- Nik Stauskas, Portland Trail Blazers: 267 games
- Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic: 263 games
Cousins is basically guaranteed to remove himself from the list, but do we have confidence that anyone else will join him?
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Kyle O’Quinn should as the Indiana Pacers look to join the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors as top-tier Finals candidates out of the Eastern Conference, thereby ending a dry spell earned while with the New York Knicks and Orlando Magic. Then we have Payton and Nik Stauskas, both of whom are on Western rosters with legitimate playoff aspirations but no postseason certainties.
For the sake of the argument, let’s assume all three join Cousins. If that’s the case, we could be looking at an entirely new countdown after the conclusion of the 2018-19 season. To keep things simple, we’ll just tack on 82 games to each player’s tally and pretend injuries/trades/DNPs aren’t possible:
- Omri Casspi, Memphis Grizzlies: 634 games
- Brandon Knight, Phoenix Suns: 464 games
- Ben McLemore, Sacramento Kings: 431 games
- Lance Thomas, New York Knicks: 428 games
- Alex Len, Atlanta Hawks: 417 games
- Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic: 345 games
- Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls: 312 games
- Mario Hezonja, New York Knicks: 301 games
- T.J. Warren, Phoenix Suns: 300 games
- Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings: 296 games
Langston Galloway (Detroit Pistons) and Quincy Acy (unsigned) could both displace the men occupying the bottom rungs if they finish in the lottery or, in the latter case, land on an NBA roster. Accounting for expected playing time and potential injuries could also allow Devin Booker (Phoenix Suns), D’Angelo Russell (Brooklyn Nets), Emmanuel Mudiay (Knicks) and a handful of others to enter the fray.
But for the most part, we’re likely looking at a situation in which Casspi is the only active player in the all-time top 10. Once Cousins is removed, the cutoff for inclusion will be Geoff Huston’s and Lee Mayberry’s 496 games—a mark that can only be surpassed by Casspi and Cousins during the upcoming go-round.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.
Unless otherwise indicated, all stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com.