2024 NBA Playoffs

5 teams that went from lottery to 2024 NBA Playoffs

Breaking down how 5 teams turned things around in 2023-24 after missing out on the playoffs last season.

After missing the playoffs last season, the Thunder secured the No. 1 seed in the West in 2023-24.

Some teams and fan bases treat the NBA’s second season – the playoffs – as if they are a birthright.

Well, to be honest, most teams and fan bases feel that way, even if 14 wind up disappointed each spring. (Remember, the Play-In games don’t actually qualify as “postseason,” no matter how much some coaches or execs with jobs on the line might want us to believe.)

Every year, though, there are teams that rise through meticulous planning or sheer good fortune. Simultaneously, some teams fall, either through injuries or other bad luck or as a sign that an overhaul, a firing or a rebuild is coming.

This spring, as the 2024 playoffs begin with four series openers Saturday and the other four Sunday, five teams that were on the outside looking in still are very much alive. To the five that fell short from 2023 – Atlanta, Brooklyn, Memphis, Sacramento and Golden State – get well and get better.

Here is a look at the five franchises that found their way back to the big tourney:

Orlando Magic

This season: 47-35, No. 5 seed

Last season: 34-48, 13th place in East

Recent history: This is Orlando’s first playoff appearance since 2020. The Magic have not won a playoff series since 2010.

What changed: Though they missed the playoffs last season, the Magic did win 12 more games from 2021-22. Now they’ve added another 13. What made the biggest difference as Orlando snagged the Southeast Division title was its defense.

The Magic tightened up from 18th last season to third overall. They limited opponents to the fewest shots per game (84.0), ranked third in allowing fewest 3-point attempts and gave up a league-stingiest 8.9 offensive rebounds.

Then there has been the effort under coach Jamahl Mosley of the developing core led by Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner and a fleet of plucky guards. As Philadelphia’s Buddy Hield said during the season, “Their hard play is what separates them.”  

Indiana Pacers

This season: 47-35, No. 6 seed

Last season: 35-47, 11th place in East

Recent history: The Pacers’ streak of nine playoff appearances in 10 years ended in 2020. The five most recent have been firstround only.

What changed: Come for the attack, stay for the prevention. The offense got most of the attention – Indiana led the league in total points, upping its buckets by five per game over last season. It ranked sixth all-time in scoring average (123.3 ppg) and third all-time in total assists (2,522).

The Pacers also allowed the fewest 3-point makes in the league, outscoring foes by 7.5 points per game from the arc. The roster and offense were reconfigured to play faster around point guard Tyrese Haliburton, with a green light from coach Rick Carlisle and teammates fit for a track meet.

Oklahoma City Thunder

This season: 57-25, No. 1 seed

Last season: 40-42, 10th place in West

Recent history: Like this year’s climbers in the East, the Thunder last reached the postseason in the Orlando “Bubble” in 2020.

What changed: From 14th in the West two years ago to 10th to first, OKC now seems ahead of what felt to many like waiting for paint to dry.

Redshirt rookie Chet Holmgren dropped into GM Sam Presti’s jigsaw as the final puzzle piece, at least for now. Kia MVP candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander emerged as the type of cornerstone many assumed the Thunder still would need to import by trading young talent and draft capital.

Coach Mark Daigneault probably will be named Coach of the Year for managing four years of continuous improvement. This season, OKC leaped from 16th to third in offensive rating and from 13th to fourth in defensive rating.

Dallas Mavericks

This season: 50-32, No. 5 seed

Last season: 38-44, 11th place in West

Recent history: The Mavericks reached the conference finals just two years ago. It was their third consecutive appearance after a three-year gap from 2017-2019.

What changed: This is more of a half-season transformation than a completely different whole season. Through Feb. 3, Dallas was 26-23, barely better than last season’s pace, and in eighth place after blowout losses to Minnesota and Milwaukee. Then a pair of in-season maneuvers came to the rescue.

The Mavericks acquired center Daniel Gafford and forward P.J. Washington. With those two, coach Jason Kidd’s squad went 21-9 and Gafford and Washington combined for 22.9 points and 12 rebounds per game. It didn’t hurt that Kyrie Irving, who averaged 25.6 points in 58 games, went essentially drama-free compared to his recent seasons in Cleveland, Boston, Brooklyn and even his partial in Dallas a year ago.

New Orleans Pelicans

This season: 49-33, No. 8 seed

Last season: 42-40, 9th place in West

Recent history: New Orleans has scattered four postseason appearances since 2009, failing to reach the playoffs two years in a row in that time. They lost in the first round two years ago.

What changed: The Pelicans barely grabbed the last rung on this list by surviving Friday in a Play-In win over Sacramento. They were facing the prospect of tumbling from the sixth seed to the seventh to the eighth to out completely if they had lost a third consecutive home game.

Ironically, the biggest difference this season wasn’t a factor on the night they salvaged the season: Zion Williamson had his best overall season, playing in 70 games while averaging 22.9 points, but missed the game against the Kings (hamstring strain).

Injuries were the biggest problem – six rotation guys missed between 15 and 23 games – but New Orleans managed to finish sixth in defensive efficiency and ranked Top 10 in field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, points in the paint, points off turnovers and opponents’ field goal percentage.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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