Reed’s basketball court may have gotten destroyed, but the NBA season is going strong! After some initial troubles with violations of COVID-19 protocols, the NBA has taken a very aggressive stance with regards to combating the virus’s spread and, after renegotiation with the player’s union, the league added additional measures to supplement health and safety protocols. Now that the season is roughly 30 games deep, enough time has passed to where the performance of both individual players and teams can be adequately assessed. Looking to get into the NBA but need a place to start, or simply curious about what’s been going on this season? Here’s a quick look at the season’s biggest overachievers, underachievers, and the race for Most Valuable Player. (This article was written on February 28, 2021. Team records and player averages reflect what was accurate at the time the article was written.)
Overachievers: Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs, New York Knicks
The Utah Jazz, sent home last year in the first round of the playoffs, have made their mark this season as the best team in the NBA. They currently boast the league’s best record at 27-7 and own the No. 1 seed in the intensely competitive Western Conference. Shooting guard Donovan Mitchell and center Rudy Gobert were selected by fans, players, and coaches as NBA All-Stars. Mitchell, a young star at the age of 24 years old, has taken the next step this season to become the team’s #1 scoring option and emotional heart. Gobert, on the other hand, is currently averaging a career high 2.7 blocks per game (BPG) to go along with 14.0 points per game (PPG) and 13.4 rebounds per game (RPG). His defensive and rim-protection skills, along with the Jazz’s stellar play, have him as the frontrunner for the coveted Defensive Player of the Year award. The Jazz were expected to be competitive, but to claim they would be the best team in the league pre-season would have been laughable. If the season ended today, the Jazz would face off against the Denver Nuggets who knocked them out of the playoffs last year in a down-to-the-wire seven game series. Will the Jazz be able to get over the hump and deliver Salt Lake City its first ever NBA Championship?
Led by legendary coach Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs currently maintain a 17-12 record and the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference. While not quite as dominant as the Jazz, the Spurs were expected to be one of the worst teams in the league this year but have consistently defied expectations. The Spurs lack any All-Stars, but are still continuing to win games due to their team-oriented and unselfish style of play. They’re led by small forward DeMar DeRozan, who is putting up averages of 20.3 PPG, 4.8 RPG, and a career-best 7.0 assists per game (APG). Due to their lack of big-name players and their small market (San Antonio is one of the smallest TV markets of any NBA team) they’ve been consistently overlooked this season. While it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to make a run at the Finals this year, root for this Spurs team in the first round of the playoffs if you like a good underdog story.
The upstart New York Knicks have shocked doubters and currently sit at the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. With their collection of young talent such as Immanuel Quickley, RJ Barrett, and Obi Toppin, along with the veteran presence of Derrick Rose, Nerlens Noel, and Reggie Bullock, the Knicks look to be real competitors for the first time since 2013. Perhaps the biggest contribution to their winning record, however, is the emergence of power forward Julius Randle. Randle has emerged seemingly out of nowhere to reach his first ever All-Star game due to his averages of 23.4 PPG, 10.9 RPG, and 5.5 APG, all career-highs. The Knicks have been a much-maligned team over the past few years — because they typically, well, suck — with even the Disney movie Soul cracking a joke at their expense. This Knicks team, however, feels different. They seem to have finally established a winning culture, and this season will surely be considered a success no matter how successful they are in the postseason.
Underachievers: Atlanta Hawks, Denver Nuggets
Despite aggressively pursuing and signing free agents Rajon Rondo, Danilo Gallinari, and Bogdan Bogdanovic in the offseason, the Atlanta Hawks have struggled so far this season, currently maintaining a 14-20 record and placing 11th out of 15 teams in the Eastern Conference. Trae Young, the team’s star point guard, was not selected as an All-Star despite putting up averages of 26.5 PPG, 9.5 APG, and 4.2 RPG, with many citing his lack of effort on defense along with the team’s lack of success as reasons for the snub. The team just hasn’t gelled as expected and, at this point, the team’s postseason future is in doubt. This has also been partially due to injuries suffered by Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, and their big-time signing Bogdanovic, as each player has missed a significant portion of time this season. Other teams like the Portland Trailblazers (go Blazers!) and Golden State Warriors have been able to overcome injuries due to the play of mega-stars Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry respectively. Although Trae Young is a very young player at only 22 years old, he may need to step up his game in the way those other players have. If he can ascend to superstardom and drag the Hawks into the playoffs, they may be a team to look out for in the future.
The Denver Nuggets are a team many expected to compete for a title this year, but, as of now, they place seventh in the Western Conference and are only three games above .500 at 18-15. Expectations were high due to the stellar play of point guard Jamal Murray in last year’s postseason; he showed flashes of superstar potential and took the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals where they lost to the eventual NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers. He’s played well so far this season, averaging 21.6 PPG, 4.6 APG, and 4.4 RPG, but he hasn’t felt as electric as he did then. They’ve recently suffered close losses to the Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks, both squads that any championship-caliber team should be able to easily defeat. The team’s bright spot has been the play of center Nikola Jokic, a second-round pick in 2014 who has blossomed into one of the league’s premier players. He’s currently averaging 26.7 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 8.5 APG, as well as 1.7 steals per game (SPG), all of which are career highs. His play has put him in the running for the Most Valuable Player award. The Nuggets may be able to get over the hump and increase their standing in the Western Conference, but their pre-season aspirations of a championship seem rather unlikely now.
Three names are repeatedly floated in the race for the league’s Most Valuable Player award: Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Lebron James. Joel Embiid, star center of the Philadelphia 76ers, has achieved new levels of greatness this year. He averages a whopping 30.0 PPG (good enough for second in the league) to go along with 11.3 RPG, and 3.2 APG. The 76ers own the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, and Embiid’s dominance this season has been a large factor in their success. He’s currently the heavy frontrunner for the award. Nikola Jokic, whose stats I referenced earlier, has actually played arguably as well as Embiid. When voters make their decision, though, team success plays a factor in who the award ultimately goes out to. Due to the disappointing nature of the Nuggets’ overall season, it’s unlikely that Jokic will win the award unless they go on a run to finish the season out. LeBron James, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, is still going strong at 36, an age at which most basketball players comfortably retire 2-3 years before. The fact that he’s still in the MVP race in his 18th year in the league is astounding, and his numbers of 25.5 PPG, 7.8 APG, and 8.1 RPG have been impressive as well. James’ Lakers are the second seed in the West behind the Jazz, but he hasn’t been as dominant as Embiid has this year. Only time will tell if he can catch up.
Team records and player averages were gathered from basketball-reference.com.