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NBA AM: Lottery Teams Emerging From The Basement

Five teams that have been languishing in the league basement have playoff aspirations. Can they keep the pace?

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One of the toughest places to emerge from in professional sports is the proverbial basement. There are franchises across the league that have spent years and even up to a decade at times languishing outside the land of relevancy. Fan bases during these periods of drought have likely endured a combination of the following: botched rebuilding plans, front office upheavals, numerous coaching changes and failed draft picks while living in the basement.

But every now and then a team is able to elevate from the deeper depths of the league and join the ranks of relevancy. To start the 2017-18 campaign there are five teams that have been mired in seemingly endless rebuilds where their respective fan bases have anticipated the next draft lottery and crop of collegiate and international prospects more than the regular season opening tip.

Whether these teams can keep up their current pace and earn their first playoff berth in years is another story altogether, but through the early going these teams are showing the potential and the upward trajectory that may ultimately lead to them playing in late April, May and eventually June.

While it’s still very early, let’s take a look at teams on pace to leave the basement this season:

Orlando Magic
2017-18 record:
6-4
2016-17 record: 29-53
Last Playoff Appearance: 2012

After a fiery start, the Orlando Magic had the best record in the league at one point right out of the gates.  While the team has dropped their last two contests, the team is showing signs of life under head coach Frank Vogel, who had similar success resurrecting the Indiana Pacers a few years back. Those Pacers teams, led by All-Star Paul George, former All-Stars Roy Hibbert and David West and a blossoming Lance Stephenson, became perennial thorns in the side of the LeBron James led Miami HEAT for a few seasons.

This year’s Magic team doesn’t possess the same type of star power that  Vogel had at his disposal with the Pacers, but the unit is a scrappy bunch that plays with a chip on their shoulders. Forward Aaron Gordon is on pace for a career season and center Nikola Vucevic has rebounded from an inconsistent campaign last season. The Magic are on pace to arrive a bit ahead of schedule this season and secure a playoff berth.

Philadelphia 76ers
2017-18 record:
6-4
2016-17 record: 28-54
Last Playoff Appearance: 2012

Are you trusting the process yet? The Philadelphia 76ers are a team with plenty of upside. But to get to this point, the franchise’s fan base had to endure years of campaigns full of losing and uncertainty surrounding their young leading talent. To start the season, the team is above .500 and look like they potentially have two franchise level players in center Joel Embiid and point guard Ben Simmons.

It’s just a matter of time before the 76ers completely emerge from the basement and become annual playoff fixtures. Whether that is this season or not remains to be seen, but the team has a capable set of veterans around their young talent and still haven’t fully benefited from No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz as the rookie is currently battling a shoulder injury.

It’s fair to mention that Embiid and Simmons have both missed full seasons in the past due the injury, however, if Philadelphia’s health holds up then trusting the process over the years would have proved to be a pretty solid investment.

New York Knicks
2017-18 record:
6-4
2016-17 record: 31-51
Last Playoff Appearance: 2013

It’s definitely too early to start singing any rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” but we can spread a little news about this year’s team.

Third-year big man Kristaps Porzingis has moved himself into the All-Star discussion after a blistering start where he’s averaging 30 points per game to begin the season. It’s not often that the departure of a future Hall-of-Famer would help a player develop quicker, but in the case of Porzingis, removing the security blanket of Carmelo Anthony has thrust him into a larger leadership role – and he has thrived without missing a beat.

Offseason free-agent signing Tim Hardaway Jr. has been a solid addition to the team’s backcourt despite some initial reservations about the size of his new contract. Keep in mind, it is still very early in the season and the Knicks have been largely dependent on Porzingis each night to keep them in games, so any type of slippage or injury to the big man would derail a lot of their progress. But for now, Knicks fans finally have a reason to smile when thinking about their future.

Minnesota Timberwolves
2017-18 record:
7-3
2016-17 record: 31-51
Last Playoff Appearance: 2004

Heading into last season, many pegged the Timberwolves to be a sleeper team in the Western Conference due to the highest expectations on Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins being paired with head coach Tom Thibodeau, who found plenty of success during his years at the helm of the Chicago Bulls.

Those expectations proved to be too lofty as Minnesota sputtered to a 31-51 record, disappointing many in the process. The team was very aggressive during this past offseason. Minnesota acquired All-Star guard Jimmy Butler via trade, and signed veterans Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford in free agency.

The new additions around Anthony-Towns and Wiggins have been a blessing as the squad has raced out to a 7-3 record to begin the campaign. Minnesota hasn’t appeared in the playoffs since 2004, a streak that could be coming to an end shortly.

New Orleans Pelicans
2017-18 record:
6-5
2016-17 record: 34-48
Last Playoff Appearance: 2015, only one appearance since 2012

The Pelicans appeared to be on the verge of relevancy in 2015 when All-Star forward Anthony Davis led the team to a playoff berth and a spirited outing versus the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.

That seems like ages ago.

The past two seasons have been a struggle as Davis and the rest of his teammates have battled a combination of devastating injuries and off the court life events. Last season, the club acquired All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins and, while the chemistry and cohesion between him and Davis was slow to take shape, we’re beginning to see how dominant the pair can be when clicking on all cylinders.

Yes, the Pelicans have questions in their back court and are probably sitting on a few bloated contracts they would like to move on from in order to get more high-end talent into their program, but no one can deny that the team led by Cousins and Davis are on the right track to get back into the land of the relevancy.

The NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint, and typically has a way of identifying the real versus pretenders. The Denver Nuggets is another franchise to keep an eye on as they look to emerge from their respective rebuild. We’ll check back in on this list near the All-Star break.

Lang Greene is a senior NBA writer for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last 10 seasons

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