The 2020-21 NBA season was always going to be quite different to past seasons given all the extraordinary circumstances of the last year. And so it has proved as a handful of unexpected teams have suddenly emerged and far exceeded expectations heading into the season.
With the playoffs just under a month away, SBOTOP takes a look at the most surprising teams thus far this season and the reasons for their shocking success.
Many expected Atlanta to make modest improvements this season after finishing with the second-worst record in the East in last year’s shortened season. After all, they made some splashy offseason moves, bringing in Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Rajon Rondo in free agency.
However, few would have thought they’d be this good this quickly. The Hawks are not only on course to make the playoffs for the first time since 2017, but they are even in contention for a top-four seed and homecourt advantage in the first round.
All-Star point guard Trae Young has not made a big jump this season, but the additions of Gallinari, Bogdanovic, and Clint Capela have significantly strengthened the supporting cast around him. Meanwhile, the midseason dismissal of Lloyd Pierce and promotion of Nate McMillan to head coach has proven to be the right call.
With how good the Hawks have looked this season, winning at least one playoff series will not be at all surprising at this point.
The Grizzlies were one of the big surprises of last season. First-year head coach Taylor Jenkins and rookie sensation Ja Morant led them to a respectable 34-39 record, and they just missed the playoffs as they lost the first-ever NBA play-in game against the Portland Trail Blazers.
This season, though, Jenkins and the Grizzlies have delivered an even bigger surprise by staying in the playoff hunt despite the absence of star big man Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow for most of the season.
Jenkins has coped with those absences by getting the most out of his entire roster. Rookies Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman have been steady contributors, while veteran big man Jonas Valanciunas is having a career year.
Of course, the Grizzlies are still not secured a playoff spot in the very competitive West. But whatever happens, the job Jenkins has done with this Grizzlies team without an established All-Star certainly deserves recognition.
The Jazz have been a consistent mid-tier Western Conference playoff team, finishing 5th, 5th, 5th, and 6th in the last four years. With Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell as their stars, they were good but looked unlikely to reach that next level of greatness.
However, they are showing this season that they can in fact be a true title contender as they’ve held on to the best record in the league for most of the season.
The emergence of Sixth Man of the Year candidates Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles and the resurgence of veteran guard Mike Conley have given the Jazz the depth they have been missing in recent years.
It still remains to be seen whether this impressive form will translate into the playoffs, but the Jazz’s rise as a top contender in the West surely merits inclusion in this list of biggest surprises.
As surprising as the Jazz have been, though, the rise of the team directly below them in the standings – the Suns – has been even more stunning.
The Suns significantly improved their NBA 2021 odds of finally ending their decade-long playoff drought after swinging a huge deal to acquire veteran point guard Chris Paul in the offseason.
But hardly anyone anticipated that the 35-year-old Paul would be able to push a young team that had promising but mostly unproven players – Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikael Bridges – into a legitimate challenger for the No. 1 seed in the West.
This one-year turnaround is a bit similar to Steve Nash’s arrival in Phoenix in 2004, which saw the struggling Suns win 62 games and reach the Western Conference finals. But the fact that Paul is so much older than Nash and the West is so much stronger makes this turnaround all the more impressive and surprising.
New York Knicks
When it comes to the most surprising NBA teams this season, there could only be one choice for the top spot: the New York Knicks.
After years of disappointment – from mediocrity to outright awfulness – the Knicks are well on their way to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
First-year head coach Tom Thibodeau has done in New York what he is best known for, which is to build one of the best defensive teams in the league.
Meanwhile, Thibodeau handed the keys to the offence over to forward Julius Randle, who responded by creating NBA 2021 highlights every single game. The 26-year-old is having a career year, averaging nearly 24 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists per game.
The combination of a top defence and Randle’s sudden emergence into an All-Star-calibre player has been the recipe for the Knicks’ success, one that absolutely no one saw coming.
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