The Biggest Surprises of the First Half of the 2020-21 NBA Season

Colin McGee ‘22

After beginning right before Christmas, the NBA has already exceeded the halfway point of the season. Although certainly strange, this season has still been very entertaining to watch from the perspective of fans. Many of the teams that have experienced success were anticipated to do so prior to the season. Teams such as the Lakers, Nets, and Clippers have all shown themselves to be championship contenders. However, this season has also many teams who are extremely outperforming their preseason expectations. Three teams who stick out the most as overachievers are the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, and New York Knicks.

Utah Jazz

I, along with many other NBA fans, will always remember the events which transpired on the night of April 11, 2020. On this night a Jazz-Thunder game in Oklahoma City was surprisingly postponed right before the game tipped off. Just about an hour later, it was revealed that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. Gobert, an All Star caliber center for the Jazz and former Defensive Player of the Year, was one of the first celebrities in the country to test positive. 

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As a result, the NBA suspended the season until the bubble in July and the season was not completed until October. Gobert was heavily criticized by the media for not seeming cautious towards what would become a global pandemic. On top of that, many rumors circulated about the relationship between Gobert and fellow star Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell was revealed to have a positive diagnosis a day after Gobert. In the NBA bubble, the Jazz would lose in heartbreaking fashion in 7 games to the Denver Nuggets after leading the series 3-1.

The Utah Jazz were very overlooked at the start of the year. However despite all the drama and difficulties which this team has gone through, they shockingly have the best record in the NBA at 31-11 as of March 24th. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are playing as dominant as usual, with no apparent dislikings toward each other. Mitchell and Gobert were named as All Stars along with Mike Conley. Conley, the long time Memphis Grizzlie, was named as an all star for the first time in his 14th season. His play has improved in his second year in Utah significantly compared to his first season there last year. Jordan Clarkson has also been a revelation coming off the bench. From where it stands today, Clarkson seems to be the clear frontrunner for the Sixth Man of the Year Award. Quin Snyder is also a contender for the Coach of the Year. The Utah Jazz also have great role players and shooters who compliment their lead players perfectly. 

Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz selected to Western  Conference All-Star reserves - SLC Dunk

The Jazz have been one of the most efficient offensive and three point shooting teams in the league. Many are skeptical as to whether they will be as dangerous in the postseason. Their ability to get over the hump of the second round of the playoffs is still yet to be proven. However, the Jazz still deserve a ton of respect for how much their team has improved over the course of the past year.

Phoenix Suns

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The 2019-2020 season looked to be another lost one for the Phoenix Suns right before the season was suspended. They had a record of 26-39 and looked to have no hope of making the playoffs again. However, they were invited to the NBA bubble in July and were the only team to go undefeated amassing an 8-0 record in Orlando. Unfortunately, Phoenix fell just short of making the play-in tournament and missed the playoffs for the 10th straight year. However unlike many others this season felt much more optimistic. In the offseason the Suns pulled off a huge trade to acquire future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul. This new backcourt pairing of Paul and Suns’ young franchise player Devin Booker looked to be a very promising one.

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This pairing has been all that and even more. The Phoenix Suns are currently the 2nd seed in the Western Conference with a record of 29-13 as of March 24th, trailing only the Utah Jazz. Booker and Paul have both been great, as evidenced by their All Star nods. Chris Paul, as he has done for every single team he has played for, has established a winning culture in Phoenix. Young center DeAndre Ayton, the #1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, has also been a bright spot for the team. Coach by former NBA player Monty Williams, this team is making impressive strides. It will be very interesting to see what they can do in the playoffs, as it seems they will break the longest playoff drought in the NBA of 11 years. 

New York Knicks

New York Knicks: It's time to just shut up and play

The New York Knicks have an infamous reputation of being unsuccessful. The 2019-20 season was very similar. Shortly into that season head coach David Fizdale was fired. The rest of the season was a disappointing one as the Knicks finished with a 21-45 record. Unlike Utah and Phoenix, the Knicks were one of only 8 teams to not get invited to the NBA bubble. This signaled that positive changes needed to be made immediately. The Knicks signed Tom Thibodeau to be their new head coach. 

This hiring of Thibodeau has shown to work out very well. The Knicks, as of March 24th, stand at 7th in the Eastern Conference with a 22-22 record. Thibodeau has the Knicks playing on a spectacular level on the defensive end. The Knicks are ranked as having the #1 defense in the league. On the court they are led by Julius Randle, who was a 1st time All Star this season. Randle has had a career year coming off a season last year where he received a lot of criticism from Knicks fans.

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RJ Barrett has also quietly strung together a very strong sophomore season as the #2 option on this team. Immanuel Quickley, who was a late 1st round pick out of Kentucky, has also paid dividends for this Knicks team. Quickley has played so well in his rookie season that he is actually in the conversation for Rookie of the Year. If the Knicks want to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013, they are going to need to keep us this good work. This 2021 Knicks team is truly giving their fans something which they haven’t felt in years: hope.