This year, plenty of teams appear to be employing a strategy of pain in hope of later gain. Whether it's called tanking, riggin' for Wiggins (in reference to Andrew Wiggins, the presumptive top pick in the 2014 draft), or a more charitable term, several front offices have gone all-in on the future at the expense of the present. The Sixers, Magic, Jazz, Suns and Kings all figure to have a hard time exceeding 25 wins this season, and the Celtics and Bobcats could wind up in that group, too.
The reward for that kind of failure is a top pick in the loaded 2014 draft, and some of those teams are also set up with enough cap room to chase one of the superstar free agents who could become available next summer. Executives are hoping that will set them on a course toward championship contention, but teams don't often vault from the dregs to the elite, as recent history shows.
Among teams that have won 25 games or fewer in any season since 2005/06, the first year of the most recent former collective bargaining agreement, only the Celtics and the Heat have recovered to win championships. Those two franchises have accounted for three of the last six titles, which is an impressive ratio considering the depths those clubs came from. Still, it masks the fact that 14 of the NBA's 30 franchises won 25 or fewer games at some point between 2005/06 and 2011/12, meaning only one in seven reached the promised land.
Luck factors into which teams win championships, but there's less happenstance involved in identifying teams that have had realistic shots at doing so. Grantland's Zach Lowe recently pointed to 55 regular season wins as more or less the mark of a championship contender, so that seems as an approriate a measure as any. The Grizzlies, Thunder and Clippers join the Heat and Celtics in having gone from 25 or fewer wins to 55 or more wins, but that's still only five of the 14 franchises who've plumbed the NBA depths of late.
The Celtics and Heat also represent outliers in terms of the speed with which they turned around their fortunes. No team that has finished with 25 wins or fewer since 2009/10 has recovered to make the playoffs in a subsequent season other than the Nets, who have only last year's first-round flameout to their credit.
Here's a chart showing each team that won 25 games or fewer since 2005/06, with their records, followed by the first seasons in which they made the playoffs, won at least 55 games, and won the title, respectively. The benchmarks for the lockout-shortened season of 2011/12 were adjusted to 20 wins and 44 wins. The 2012/13 season is excluded, since none of the poorest teams from this past season have had a chance to show improvement.