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What to Make of This Unpredictable NBA Season

The capriciousness of the 2020–21 NBA season has led to some exciting outcomes and surprises.

Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

We make a lot of predictions in this business, for obvious reasons: Predictions are fun! Fans love debating them! And, well, you keep clicking on them! Predictions are wonderfully cheap content. Getting them “right” is almost immaterial—no one remembers, no one cares (least of all me).

But it’s been a rough year for the NBA’s prediction-industrial complex, with a compressed schedule, fanless games, player quarantines, injured superstars and general weirdness from the moment the season tipped off Dec. 22. Take a look at the standings. Very little this season was predictable.

And I’m here to tell you: It’s never been more enjoyable to be wrong. It’s the unexpected that makes sports fun. It’s the We Believe Warriors stunning the world in 2007. It’s Jeremy Lin going supernova in 2012. It’s the Raptors’ somehow seizing the 2019 championship—the last NBA title of the before times.

A lot went wrong in this NBA season, and there’s no minimizing that. But before the playoffs consume our attention, let's take a moment to celebrate all the delightful unpredictability and random bursts of joy of the last five months.

Here’s to the Knicks and the Suns—the two powerhouses absolutely no one saw coming.

You knew Chris Paul would bring instant toughness and credibility to Phoenix, that his leadership could elevate the young core and maybe even end the Suns’ decade-long playoff drought. But contending for the best record in the league just a year after finishing 10th? Placing second in the tough Western Conference, ahead of the Nuggets, Clippers and Lakers? Absolutely stunning.

You knew Tom Thibodeau would instill accountability and a defensive grit to New York and restore some credibility to the league’s most woebegone franchise. You figured the Knicks might—might—flirt with .500, if all went well. But a fourth-rated defense and a top-four finish in the East a year after finishing 12th? Without a single major addition to the roster? Are you kidding? Not even the most devout Knicks fans expected this, even after the hot start in January.

There are layers upon layers to this Knicks renaissance. Consummate Thibs Guy Derrick Rose—cast aside by five teams (including the Knicks) in the last four years—turned into a vital sixth man. R.J. Barrett, whose NBA debut was so blah that he failed to make the All-Rookie teams last year, suddenly blossomed.

And then there’s Julius Randle, who had one of the most dramatic Year 7 transformations in NBA history—and is a virtual lock to win both Most Improved Player and an All-NBA team selection after averaging career highs in scoring (24.1 points), rebounds (10.2) and assists (six), as well as three-point shooting, where he made the biggest efficiency leap on record (to .411, from a career mark of .295). These things just don’t happen.

After years of dysfunction and ridicule, the Suns and Knicks now stand as twin testaments to the value of astute leadership. The Knicks got it with Thibodeau and new team president Leon Rose; the Suns got it with Paul, coach Monty Williams and GM James Jones. (It’s no coincidence that Williams and Thibodeau are the favorites to win Coach of the Year.)

While we’re here, let's toast the Jazz, who made an even more difficult and unexpected leap—from good to great, from second-tier playoff team to legit contender, with the best record (52–20) in the NBA. Like the Knicks, the Jazz made this stunning leap without adding a single impact player. Coach Quin Snyder simply leaned into three-point shooting, made a few strategic tweaks, then got the best out of a solid-but-unflashy supporting cast: Mike Conley Jr., Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles, Royce O'Neale.

Their rise was all the more impressive after a season that ended with reported tension between All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, who have clearly put all those concerns aside.

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So now we have the Jazz and the Suns forcing their way into a Western Conference title chase that already included both Los Angeles teams and the Nuggets—and given all that’s happened this season, can you truly rule any of them out? It’s a legitimate five-team race, and that’s a glorious sentence.

Ditto for the East, where the Nets have the best talent but zero continuity or track record together; the Sixers have the best record; and the Bucks have the reigning two-time MVP, with a fortified supporting cast. The Heat—the oft-overlooked reigning conference champions—are still a threat, too, and I dare you to tell Jimmy Butler otherwise.

After nearly a half-decade of Warriors vs. LeBron, we have a rollicking nine-team race for the title. What, you don’t think there’s a chance we’ll see Jazz-Bucks, or Suns-Heat, or Nuggets-Sixers? O.K., but sneer at your own risk.

I mean, did you actually foresee a doughy, sorta-bashful, 7-foot Serbian with Magic Johnson passing skills becoming the runaway favorite for MVP—over James and Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo? You didn’t, but Nikola Jokić is here anyway, powering the Nuggets’ title hopes.

Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry

Steph Curry is still here, too, having fashioned another MVP-worthy season while joining Michael Jordan as the only players to win a scoring title after age 33. Every Warriors game was appointment viewing, because you never knew what Curry might do: a 47-point night in Boston, followed by 49 the next night in Philadelphia. An NBA-record 96 three-pointers in April. Eleven straight games with 30-plus points.

Who honestly expected the Warriors, with their most lackluster roster in a decade, to post the fifth-best defensive rating in the league? Who saw Andrew Wiggins, in Year 7, becoming a stout defender and (gasp) efficient scorer?

When Curry wasn’t dazzling us with deep threes and scoring explosions, Damian Lillard was—single-handedly saving the Trail Blazers’ season with clutch shooting, again and again and again. Sure, we’ve come to expect as much, but every late-game barrage is its own unique thrill.

James Harden’s ugly exit from Houston (and subsequent trade to Brooklyn) sparked plenty of backlash, but even critics could see an almost-miraculous silver lining in the deal: Caris LeVert, who was shipped to Indiana as part of the trade, possibly had his life saved when Pacers doctors found a cancerous tumor on his kidney during his post-trade physical exam. It might never have been discovered otherwise.

Even one of the season’s greatest disappointments—the talented, yet mysteriously hapless, Pelicans—provided endless highlights, via the nightly exploits of Zion Williamson, who just completed one of the most ruthlessly efficient high-scoring seasons in NBA history (27 points, 7.2 rebounds, .616 effective field-goal percentage), placing him on a list with Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Then there was Russell Westbrook’s late-season assault on the record books, putting up nightly triple doubles until he had, at long last, passed his idol Oscar Robertson, while simultaneously reviving a moribund Wizards season. (And if you don’t think Westbrook’s feats were surprising, then refer back to the early weeks of the season, when everyone thought he might be done.)

Rookie stud LaMelo Ball made the Hornets fun again with his deft passing. Fellow rookie Anthony Edwards dunked his way into our nightly Twitter streams and made the Timberwolves, well … semi-interesting!

And to end it all, we had one of the most competitive final months we’ve ever seen, because of the new play-in tournament, which had teams either jockeying to qualify for a spot or striving to avoid it entirely. Only three teams had locked in their playoff or play-in seeding as of Sunday morning, the last day of the regular season. Suspense! Suspense is good!

And then we got Steph vs. LeBron in a play-in game Wednesday night. Glorious. And if you dig that sort of thing, consider this: These guys actually could meet again … in the Western Conference finals. Sure, scoff if you must. But we’ve seen stranger things this season.

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