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May 6, 2011
Turning Around
Rapid Improvement

by Dan Feldman


In the previous two years, seven teams won fewer than 25 games in at least one season. This year, five of those teams finished in the bottom eight of the NBA standings. When you're bad, it's typically difficult to improve quickly.

But the two teams that escaped the bottom rung not only made the playoffs, they're still alive and playing each other. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies, ladies and gentlemen.

In the previous two years, the Los Angeles Lakers' worst record was 57-25. The Boston Celtics' worst record in that span was 50-32. Same with the Dallas Mavericks. The Atlanta Hawks stumbled to 47-35 two years ago.

But those fellow second-round teams have nothing on the Thunder and Grizzlies, who combined for 47 wins two years ago. (Memphis held the 24-23 edge over Oklahoma City.)

Of course, such turnarounds are nothing new. Recently, the Celtics won 24 games a season before winning 66 games and the NBA championship.

In NBA history, 17 teams have reached the second round of the playoffs within two years of winning 24 or fewer games.* The Grizzlies and Thunder are the first two teams from the same conference to achieve the feat in the same season, let alone to play each other.

*For simplicity, all game totals in this post are equivalent to an 82-game season.

Perhaps, the rises of Oklahoma City and Memphis are most remarkable because their rosters look fairly similar to those of two years ago. Seven Thunder players--Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison, Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic and D.J. White--played for the team both two seasons ago and this year. Six Grizzlies--Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Rudy Gay, Darrell Arthur, O.J. Mayo and Hamed Haddadi--played for Memphis two years ago and are still with the team.

Of course, Kendrick Perkins for the Thunder and Zach Randolph for the Grizzlies were important recent additions. But Oklahoma City (64 percent) and Memphis (57 percent) received most of their win shares this season from players already on the team two years ago. Most of the other teams that have gone from 24 or fewer wins to the second round have relied more on acquiring new players.

Most of the teams above Memphis on the above list had less meaningful turnarounds than the Grizzlies and Thunder. Two teams qualified for the list because injuries caused poor seasons, and one still didn't have a winning record the year it reached the second round.

The 1987-88 Warriors, which won 20 games, were ravaged by injuries. Nobody played more than 60 games. Larry Smith played just 20 games, Sleepy Floyd played 18 games, and Joe Barry Carroll played 14.

David Robinson played just six games for the 1996-97 Spurs, which sent them to the lottery. They landed the No. 1 pick and took Tim Duncan.

The 1958-59 Lakers drafted Elgin Baylor with the No. 1 pick the year before, but they kept enough veterans to balance the win shares. And they went just 33-39 that year.

The 1988-89 Warriors are probably the only team to reach the second round after a legitimately poor recent season with more production from players on the poor team than Oklahoma City and Memphis had this year.

In the NBA, there always seems to be a search for the next (insert hot trend here). You can bet plenty of teams with coaching vacancies will rate candidates based on similarities to Tom Thibodeau. So, will the Thunder and Grizzlies spark an era of patience, where teams allow time for their plans to develop?

Whether for good or bad--plenty of teams need more than two years of standing pat and a key addition--I'm interested to see how Oklahoma City's and Memphis' success will influence the NBA in coming years.

Dan Feldman is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Dan by clicking here or click here to see Dan's other articles.

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