Years from now, when we look back at the 2020-21 NBA regular season, what are we going to remember? Unfortunately, we will probably remember a lot of the negatives aspects of the year like the mass influx of injuries caused by the condensed season, the covid-19-related absences, and the general unpredictability of teams around the league. But we should also remember some of the excellent individual and team performances like the leaps made by Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Zion Williamson, and the great seasons by the Jazz and the Suns. It will be a mixed bag for sure, but regardless of whether you tend to remember the positives or negatives, here are the 25 trends that help explain the crazy six months that were the 2020-21 NBA season.
This season NBA teams are averaging an astounding 112.0 PPG. If that stays the same or increases, it will be the highest-scoring season since 1970-71. Why is this happening? For one, almost every team plays a spread-out, modern brand of basketball which allows their best players ample space to beat their man off the dribble for easy shots or passes to open shooters. Another factor is that teams are not only shooting more three-pointers than ever (34.6 attempts per game), they're shooting with the most accuracy ever (36.7 percent). Finally, the NBA is more talented than ever. Gone are the days of defensive specialists and glue guys on offense - if a guy is on the court, he has the skill set to score 20 points on any given night. In fact, right now, there are 32 players averaging at least 20 PPG this season. 2021 is the year of the bucket.
The Lakers' season started out so promising as they jumped out to a 28-13 record through the first 41 games despite not having Anthony Davis for a number of those games. Unfortunately, LeBron James suffered a high-ankle sprain in Game 42 and the season took a turn for the worse as they fell from the one-seed in the West to the six-seed (and could even have to appear in the Play-In Games). Like the Heat, the long stay in the bubble combined with the record-short offseason may ultimately do them in and lead to an early playoff exit. However, unlike the Heat, the Lakers have two of the best players in the world who know how to elevate their respective games when it matters the most, so this low playoff seeding may not matter if LeBron and AD start firing on all cylinders again.
After putting on arguably the most impressive performance in the Orlando Bubble, the Miami Heat have had their 2020-21 season nearly derailed by injuries and Covid-19-related issues. Jimmy Butler has missed 18 games; Tyler Herro has missed 18 games; Goran Dragic has missed 21 games; and Victor Oladipo, a sleeper midseason acquisition, has only appeared in four games. 20 different players have appeared in at least three games for the Heat this season. This inconsistency has caused the team to be about as streaky a team as any in the league - going on multiple five or more-game winning streaks as well as five or more-game losing streaks. Perhaps Miami will turn it around come playoff time, but if they don't, we'll remember this post-Finals Heat team for having the season from hell.
Noticing a trend here? The Lakers, Heat, Celtics, and until a recent hot streak after losing Jamal Murray, the Nuggets have had rough years after deep playoff runs in the bubble last summer. Boston has had a strange season. On one hand, they have Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown playing like All-Stars, if not All-NBA players. On the other hand, Kemba Walker (26 missed games) and Marcus Smart (21 missed games) have struggled to stay on the court, and their big free-agent signing Tristian Thompson has played poorly. It's all lead to an uneven year and likely a Play-In Games appearance. And while the Celtics should win and make the playoffs, this team seems to have a first-round ceiling unless the roster around Tatum and Brown perform much better than they have all year.
Your first reaction to this stat might be to scoff and say "they have Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving - of course, they have a record-setting offense!!" While I agree with that premise after seeing the three of them play together, the fact of the matter is that they've only played together seven times this season. Heck, half the time, they only have one of their superstars, yet they still keep scoring at a historically great rate (118.0 points per 100 possessions). Doesn't matter who's playing, the Nets are scoring at an elite level.
Raise your hand if you had Kyrie Irving playing the most games out of the Nets' big three this season - I know I sure didn't. The ironic thing is Kyrie's missed 17 games too. Yet, until their recent four-game losing streak, the Nets were the one-seed in the Eastern Conference. First-time head coach Steve Nash and his All-Star cast of assistance coaches (notably, offensive genius Mike D'Antoni) have been excellent all season, engineering a historically great offense despite having to play 27 different players this season. 27!!
It's a damn shame that Joel Embiid got injured earlier this season because the MVP Race between Nikola Jokic and Embiid would have been epic. In 46 games this year, Embiid is averaging 29.1 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.4 BPG, and shooting career highs across the board (51-36-85 shooting splits). In addition to the astounding raw stats, Embiid's on/off numbers have been phenomenal as the 76ers are outscoring opponents by 12.2 points per 100 possessions when he's on the court and are even with opponents with him off the court.
This is known as the Tom Thibodeau effect. Coach Thibs showed up in NYC, pushed Randle to become the best two-way version of himself, and has played him the minutes to put up some amazing numbers. Randle also learned how to shoot three-pointers - hitting 42.0 percent from deep after never shooting above 34.4 percent in his career. Randle is also averaging career-highs in points (24.1), rebounds (10.2), and assists (5.9) per game. And most important of all, Randle has the Knicks in line for the four-seed in the playoffs!!
Despite missing Anthony Davis for 35 games and LeBron for 23 games, the Lakers have been able to stay in the playoff picture with elite defense. Coach Frank Vogel and his staff certainly deserve a ton of credit for the team's league-best 107.0 points per 100 possessions defensive rating as do a number of the players who have taken their defensive game to a new level, like Kyle Kuzma. If the Lakers are to have any chance to defend their title this postseason, they'll need to continue to play elite defense while their offense makes up for lost time.
Let's start with something positive for Kings fans - this is probably a product of the times more than anything else as seen by the Nets having the best offense of all time this year. And now for the negative - the Kings' defense is fantastically bad (118.0 points surrendered per 100 possessions) and it's probably a sign that the team has quit on Luke Walton. If Sacramento can't start to turn things around soon, De'Aaron Fox is going to quit on them as well.
Before he'd ever played an NBA game, Zion Williamson was frequently compared to Charles Barkley. It seemed like a pretty apt comparison...until Williamson started dominating the paint like Shaq and playing point guard. Turns out, Zion is a one-of-a-kind athlete and player in a league full of athletic specimens. Despite only playing 24 games in his rookie season, Zion is poised to make an All-NBA team in his sophomore season and is averaging 27.0 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 3.7 APG, and shooting 61.1 percent from the field even though he shoots the ball 17 times a game.
In case there was any doubt, Steph Curry is still the best show in the NBA, still the best shooter in NBA history and still capable of single-handedly winning any game against any opponent. His performance this April was one for the ages as he averaged 37.3 PPG on 52-47-91 shooting splits, buried a total of 96 three-pointers (an NBA record, obviously), including four separate games where he made 10 or more three-pointers. Steph's inferno of a month also kept the Warriors in line to make the Play-In Games, perhaps setting up for another March Madness-type environment for Curry to dominate.
In today's world of no nuance, talking heads are eager to take an extremist position on Russell Westbrook - and most have long ago planted their flag in the "he sucks" camp, choosing to focus on his inefficiencies instead of the complete picture. Myself, I'm a basketball centrist. So Westbrook is fascinating to me. On one hand, he's an inefficient shooter - no one is arguing that his 44-31-64 shooting splits are great - who plays out of control at times (4.9 turnovers/game). On the other hand, he's an absolute force of nature who is going to average a triple-double for the fourth time in his career (21.8 PPG, 11.4 RPG, and 11.4 APG). What gets lost on the "he sucks" analytics guys is the pressure that Westbrook puts on a defense on every single possession. Can you imagine how tired defenders are after having to guard this guy for 48 minutes? (I'm guessing most analytics guys can not.) That kind of impact is immeasurable and unaccounted for statistically. So instead of defaulting to the lame "he sucks" bandwagon every time Westbrook has a rough day shooting, just remember that his impact goes beyond the box score.
Nikola Jokic is on the same level as James Harden, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Luka Doncic in that he's an entire elite offensive system unto himself. Put Jokic on the worst offensive team in the NBA and he'd turn them into an above-average, if not great offense. Jokic has always been an excellent rebounder and an all-world passer, but he's taken his scoring up two notches this season by increasing his efficiency despite increasing his volume. He's taking nearly four more shots a game this season but shooting the second-best field goal percentage and the best three-point and free throw percentages of his career. He's also averaging 6.3 PPG more than any other season of his career. When you look back at the 2020-21 season and wonder how Jokic made the leap from All-NBA player to league MVP, the first thing you should look at is his impressive efficiency.
Welcome to the MVP Plateau, Giannis! As many of the all-time greats like LeBron and MJ have learned, once you win a couple of MVPs, you're graded on a different scale. Giannis Antetokounmpo is being graded on the scale where no one will vote for him again until he makes it to the NBA Finals - even if he puts up almost identical numbers from his previous two MVP seasons. If Giannis leads the Bucks to the Finals this year, we may look back at this season as a year where we spent the whole season wondering whether Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic or James Harden or Kevin Durant or some other player was ready to dethrone LeBron James as the league's alpha dog only to realize that Giannis was right there the whole time hiding in plain sight.
Joe Ingles recently admitted that he didn't even know what true shooting percentage is, which is hilarious because at one point not very long ago he was on pace to break the record before recently cooling down. On the season, he has 50-47-84 shooting splits, but the key to his excellent true shooting is his shot selection - he attempts 6.0 three-pointers per game (making 2.8) and only 2.3 two-pointers per game (making 1.4). Ingles incredible shooting has helped the Jazz to the best record in the entire NBA.
The Chris Paul Effect!! Last season, despite ending the season on an impressive eight-game winning streak in the bubble, the Suns finished with a 34-39 (46.6 winning percentage). Enter CP3. Now the Suns are 47-19 (71.2 percent) and have the second-best record in the NBA. Paul's leadership and Point God play, combined with the continued growth of Phoenix's talented young players like Devin Booker, has helped the Suns improve their defensive rating from 17th to eight, their offensive rating from 12th to seventh and their net rating from 14th to fourth.
I hope that people understand how insanely efficient the Clippers have been from beyond the arc this season. Shooting 41.7 percent from three would be a career year for almost every single player in the league. The Clippers are doing it as a team! Every player on the Clippers who has shot at least 128 three-pointers is shooting at least 39.6 percent from distance. With a couple of torrid games to end the year, the Clippers could potentially overtake the 96-97 Hornets (42.8 percent) as the greatest shooting three-point team in history. The craziest part about that is that those Hornets only attempted 16.9 threes a game whereas these Clippers are hoisting 34.4 threes a game.
This Grizzlies team is all about balance. Their highest scoring player, Ja Morant, averages 19.4 PPG and their ninth-highest scorer, Desmond Bane, averages 9.3 PPG. Memphis abides by the mantra popularized by The Ringer's Chris Vernon: Play guys who don't suck. This philosophy, along with some excellent player development and coaching has helped keep the Grizzlies right in the thick of the Play-In Games all season despite missing Jaren Jackson Jr. for the majority of the year and Ja Morant for a stretch earlier in the season.
At first glance, Luka Doncic appears to be having an almost identical season to last year (28.5 PPG, 8.9 APG, 8.1 RPG). However, if you dig a little deeper, you'll see that he's improved his efficiency by becoming a more dependable three-point shooter (improving from 31.6 percent to 35.7 percent). While subtle, this improvement makes Doncic an even more elite offensive weapon because his step-back three is even more lethal now. If Doncic could ever improve his three-point shooting to the upper-30s, the NBA might as well start engraving his name onto MVP trophies because he'll be winning plenty of them.
The Thunder have won 2 of those games. Yikes, right? Actually, this is all part of the plan. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was excellent in the 35 games he played this season, averaging 23.7 PPG, 5.9 APG, and 4.7 RPG on 51-42-81 shooting. He made another leap and is clearly going to be an All-Star player moving forward, if not an All-NBA player someday. The only problem with his emergence this season was that he, and the Thunder, were too good when he played. So, instead of fighting for a spot in the Play-In Games, the Thunder have shut SGA down for the season and tanked in hopes of landing an elite prospect to pair with him moving forward.
There was a stretch earlier this season where Christian Wood missed 17 straight games...and the Rockets lost all 17 games. Part of that was probably by design - the Rockets are tanking this season after trading James Harden - but a lot of it had to do with the absence of Wood, who has emerged as an All-Star level player. On the season, Wood is averaging 21.0 PPG and 9.6 RPG and shooting 51.4 percent from the field and 37.4 percent from three. If the Rockets can land one of the top-five picks and pair Wood with a potential stud, they could have a quicker turnaround than expected.
Scary Terry Rozier has been arguably the most clutch player in the NBA this year with insanely efficient 53-50-85 shooting splits. Once considered a terrible signing by the Hornets, Rozier has proven to be quite the opposite, especially this year where he played well enough to garner some All-Star consideration. On the year, he's averaging 20.2 PPG, 4.3 RPG, and 4.1 APG with 45-39-82 shooting splits. He's one of the main reasons that Charlotte is currently the eight-seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Remember when the Pacers fired Nate McMillan right after giving him a contract extension last year? How's that working out for the Pacers right about now? Fortunately for McMillan, he landed in Atlanta and, when Lloyd Pierce couldn't coach the team out of a 14-20 rut around mid-season, the Hawks fired him and replaced him with McMillan. With McMillan at the helm, the team immediately went on an eight-game winning streak and are 23-11 overall. This McMillan-led surge has the Hawks in a fight with the Knicks for the four-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs - something no one thought possible a couple of months ago.
This stat may come as a surprise because this rookie class has actually been a very solid class across the board with two or three future stars, a ton of rotation players, and hardly any obvious busts. My theory: None of these players had regular off-seasons, they had abbreviated, training camps, and they're playing in a pandemic season with a number of unique variables that no other rookie class ever had to play through. Furthermore, it took a little while for a number of coaches to get comfortable with the idea of playing rookies big minutes early in the season, so certain players spent a significant chunk of the season only playing a handful of minutes every night, thus driving down their PPG. Expect this class to double this number of players average 10-plus PPG in their sophomore seasons.