Inside the most turbulent NBA season of all time

After one of the quickest turnarounds in league history, this NBA season produced injuries, surprises, re-evaluations in an unpredictable year that also brought some normalcy back with it.

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The Milwaukee Bucks were the unlikely champions of the 2021 NBA season. (Courtesy of Twitter)

Thomas Aiello, Contributing Writer

The common odds of rolling snake eyes in a dice game is one to 36, which comes out to about a three percent chance to get such a rare combination. After completing its previous season in the Orlando bubble, the NBA looked to the 2020-2021 season for a return to normalcy.  

What fans and teams got was a season so unprecedented in every way, with fate left to decide it.

A never-ending hospital parade

As easy as it is to attribute injuries to ruining the NBA every year, this season put that concept to the forefront. It seemed like every other day fans were receiving notifications from Adrian Wojnarowski that their favorite player had come down with an injury. Season-ending injuries, COVID-19 cases, teams stopping and starting and an ongoing list of problems picked off NBA players one by one like flies.

The Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers were the two teams that made the 2020 NBA Finals, which ended in the middle of October. The 2020-2021 season began around Christmas time, perhaps the quickest turnaround in the history of American professional sports.

Starting with the defending champion Lakers, general manager Rob Pelinka rejiggered the pieces around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. They added Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell, two players seen as automatic upgrades over bench pieces they had the previous year.

With a midseason scoop of contract buyout victim Andre Drummond, the Lakers had prepared themselves to steamroll the West again for the repeat. All they had to do was stay healthy.

Of the possible 72 games this regular season, only six Laker players were healthy enough to play 60 or more, with only four playing at least 65 of the possible 72. 

Anthony Davis has been quite unlucky with injuries throughout his NBA career, playing only half of this year’s regular season with various leg injuries. In game four of the first round of the playoffs, he came down with a groin strain. Davis did not play game five and only played five minutes in game six before reaggravating the injury.    

LeBron James, who has been the NBA’s most indomitable player for over 16 years, was not at his best either. James missed 20 games with an ankle injury and then was in and out of the lineup entering the playoffs. He was playing hurt and it showed in the first round series against the Phoenix Suns.

The 2020 runners-up, the Miami Heat, had cooled off themselves too with multiple stops to their season while also managing injuries.   

Jimmy Butler played 52 games and missed time with COVID-19 protocols and other injuries.  For someone who has been remarkably durable considering his playstyle, he was another victim of the injury bug.

Bam Adebayo and Andre Iguodala were the team’s only significant members who played over 60 games. Precious Achiuwa played 61 games but only averaged 12 minutes in each.

Both of those last year’s Finals contenders fell flat in 2021, with injuries being a big reason why. (Courtesy of Twitter)

Everyone else on the Heat roster strapped in for a ridiculous roller coaster ride. Kendrick Nunn had to deal with injuries, Goran Dragic’s body betrayed him and then the acquisition of injury-prone Victor Oladipo meant he played just four games before his season ended with a knee ailment.  

The Heat’s season met a fitting end, getting swept aside by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, who were also dealing with a season-ending knee injury to Donte DiVincenzo.

Other NBA teams that made deep playoff runs in the bubble last year suffered from injuries. Former Boston Celtic Kemba Walker came into the season with nagging lower body injuries and began the season on the bench. He only played 43 games and was in and out of the lineup constantly. The Celtics season went further downhill once Jaylen Brown suffered a wrist injury and required surgery just before the playoffs began.

The Philadelphia 76ers lost superstar Joel Embiid to another lower-body injury as he missed 20 games and the MVP award. Embiid managed to play well in the playoffs while hurt with a minuscule cartilage tear in his knee, but other factors played a role in ending the sixers’ season. Ben Simmons, I am looking at you.

The Denver Nuggets had been without Jamal Murray due to a torn ACL midseason, Atlanta’s golden child Trae Young missed time with an ankle sprain and the Golden State Warriors’ Klay Thompson tore his achilles before the season even started.

Most recently, Los Angeles Clippers superstar Kawhi Leonard went down in round two against the Utah Jazz and recently had surgery on a partial ACL tear.

Injuries are not fun, especially for teams coming off long playoff runs in the bubble the previous season, and they had a major impact on this season’s outcome. 

Miscalculations in the bubble

While all should applaud the NBA’s effort for pulling a magic rabbit out of a hat, the NBA bubble had quite a few flaws of its own that seeped into this current season.

The scheduling was perhaps the biggest one. LeBron James believed that the quick turnaround would account for several injuries, and he was right. Those teams who made deep bubble runs like his Lakers had only about 60 days to rest for next season. 

Additionally, the NBA was keen on debuting the play-in tournament idea that could have waited until the following season. Inviting teams like the Kings, Pelicans, Spurs and Wizards was almost a waste of time considering that some had no chance to make the playoffs.

The Phoenix Suns went from unjustly missing the 2020 playoffs to making a magical NBA Finals run just one year later. (Courtesy of Twitter)

The Wizards were missing Bradley Beal as he declined to go to the bubble, which amounted to them producing a 1-7 record in it. The Spurs went 5-3 in the bubble but that did not amount to anything. The Kings were a mirror opposite and went nowhere. Despite the NBA’s hope of getting Zion Williamson into the playoffs, the Pelicans finished 2-6.

According to basketball reference, the Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and Portland Trail Blazers had the highest chances of competing for the final West playoff spot. The Suns went 8-0 in “warm up” games only to miss the playoffs. Memphis went 2-6 and somehow made the play-in series against Portland. It did not make sense.

Deception in a skewed environment

If anyone has not said it yet, I will be the one to tell you that the NBA bubble was fake news.

The lack of fans, different playing environments or lingering fatigue from the regular season carrying into the playoffs skewed some of the things observed in the bubble.  

Look at the Heat again. In March 2020, right before the stoppage of play, Miami was the fifth seed in the increasingly competitive Eastern Conference. Had there not been a stoppage, the Miami Heat would have been a conference finals surprise.  It is safe to say that they were not better than Milwaukee, Toronto, and to go a step further, Boston.

Not only did the Heat smoke the Indiana Pacers, but they dissected the Milwaukee Bucks, who looked practically indestructible during the regular season. Then they took down the Celtics in six in the Eastern Conference Finals. The bubble antics were in full effect as the Heat marched their way to the Finals where they lost in six to the Lakers. 

The events that transpired almost eight months later defied everyone who thought the Heat were contenders. In this year’s playoffs, the Bucks swept them out of the first round. Except for game one going into overtime, none of them were even remotely close. Games two through four, Miami lost by 34, 29 and 17.  

Remember playoff performer Tyler Herro? This year he was nowhere to be found. After everyone proclaimed him a playoff performer in the bubble, his point numbers dropped from 16 to just nine per contest. His overall field goal percentage dipped from 43% to a whopping 32% in the actual playoff environment.

The Philadelphia 76ers wet the bed in the bubble. The Celtics swept the Sixers in round one. In their defense, Ben Simmons went down with a knee injury in the bubble. That same excuse does not exist this year.

With Philadelphia realizing how egregious Al Horford’s contract was — a whopping annual average value north of $26 million — he was sent away to Oklahoma City in exchange for Danny Green.  

The Sixers fired Brett Brown and brought in Doc Rivers. They were able to get Simmons back at the season’s beginning, with hope that the slightly reconstructed Sixers could finally represent the East in the NBA finals. 

Instead, it was an all-time collapse by the Sixers that included Simmons forgetting how to play basketball and them blowing eighteen point leads in games four and five of the second round to be severely embarrassed by the Atlanta Hawks.

One final team to examine is the Los Angeles Clippers. After completing the most deplorable act in recent NBA history, blowing a 3-1 lead, in the bubble, many NBA observers did not believe the Clippers were a true contender.  

Rivers, of course, was fired and replaced by assistant Tyron Lue. He took the Clippers to the Western Conference Finals in the 2021 playoffs without superstar Kawhi Leonard.  

Paul George (above) and the Clippers proved many doubters wrong with their performance in this year’s playoffs. (Courtesy of Twitter)

Paul George was the second piece of this puzzle. Coming into this playoffs, dozens of clips existed on YouTube of him crucified for his three point shots that hit the side of the backboard or his role as a playoff choker.  

However, against the Nuggets, George’s point totals were 19, 22, 32, 10, 26, 33 and 10. George averaged over 20 points in the bubble, but somehow fans were convinced that the Clippers were not playoff contenders.  

This year, a mostly similar squad fought with the Dallas Mavericks in round one before Leonard sent them away in game seven. Round two saw the Clippers defeat the Jazz in six, losing Leonard for the rest of the playoffs before game five.

George then took on the burden and delivered. The Clippers marched along to the Western Conference Finals, where they lost in six games, three of which were decided by six points or less. Had Kawhi Leonard been healthy, the Clippers may very well have been in their first-ever NBA Finals.

The Suns and Bucks squared off for six epic games in this year’s NBA Finals, with Giannis Antetokounmpo dropping 50 points en route to a trophy, MVP and one of the greatest individual performances in Finals history. 

The 2020 bubble had everyone thinking the Bucks could not reach this point, and this James Harden mini diatribe about Antetokounmpo will go down in history.

“I wish I could be seven feet, run and just dunk. That takes no skill at all,” Harden said. “I gotta actually learn how to play basketball and how to have skill. I’ll take that any day.” The Bucks seem to have just enough of it.

So there is the 2021 NBA season. Incomprehensible amounts of injuries, overcoming bubble scheduling and realizing that deception in the bubble was real returned some normalcy to an unpredictable NBA season.