The 2020-21 season has been strange, defined less by on-court action than the unprecedented context in which it has occurred. With COVID cases spiking just as the season tipped off in December, it was clear that the season should not be happening -- at least not as it was -- but financially and logistically, neither the teams nor the players had much of a choice. The joy and freedom that so often characterizes NBA basketball at its best was often lacking, replaced by a perfunctory sense of obligation. Now though, with the postseason approaching, the league has a chance to supplant this narrative, to provide the competition and beauty that was so rare in the months preceding it.
The early portions of the season were marred by the ongoing pandemic. Many games were postponed and even more were missed by players who had either contracted COVID-19 or come into contact with someone who had. And then the injuries began to accumulate. Several of the NBA’s best players found themselves missing weeks worth of games. Unless one was checking the official injury lists daily, it was impossible to know who would be playing on any given night. With such a large number of players missing contests, it raised questions about the responsibility of the NBA having such a short offseason -- less than three months for teams that made the 2020 Conference Finals -- followed by little time for training camps and a condensed schedule with more back-to-backs than is normal. Collectively, this year’s All-Stars missed over 300 games due to injury, or health and safety protocols -- more than four seasons worth of basketball altogether. Most of the players who missed substantial amounts of time are now healthy, or at least well enough to suit up. There are a few notable exceptions -- Jaylen Brown and Jamal Murray are the most impactful absences -- but considering how many more players missed extended time the last few months, it’s a relief to have so many rejoining their teams at this precise moment.
In light of these absences and oddities, it is hard to know what to make of some team’s success or lack thereof. Does the Celtics only sneaking into the postseason indicate some sort of inherent flaw in their roster’s make-up or is it a result of Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart appearing in only 17 games together? You can ask similar questions about Toronto, who not only played in Tampa this season, but also had Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam together for 23 games. Conversely, the success of Utah and Phoenix, who have found themselves atop the standings in the West, may have less to do with their talent than their relative stability. The Suns had the most used five man line-up in the NBA while the Jazz had two of the top five in terms of games played together. With so much being uncertain and unusual this year, merely being able to roll out the same line-ups on a regular basis was a massive competitive advantage.
Luck is a component of every NBA season. Players get injured and the standings don’t always look the way one would expect. This is just the way things are, so in that regard, this season has not been unique in terms of what has happened, but in terms of scale, it certainly has been. This year, with the results being particularly tricky to analyze due to the absences and strange playing conditions, events felt more random than simply unusual. What this has meant for the seeding has been clear -- neither of last year’s conference champions will have homecourt advantage in the first round -- but what remains to be seen is whether that sense of arbitrariness will continue into the postseason.
The playoffs supersede the regular season in importance, visibility, and in its ability to forge iconic moments. This is not to say that the regular season is unimportant or fails to provide its own sort of pleasure, but that the postseason is where legends are made and legacies are burnished. Postseason failures and successes outweigh whatever one achieves beforehand, and now the NBA must hope that the playoffs contain enough great match-ups, series, and moments to make up for the unsatisfying period that has preceded it. This season certainly contained its requisite number of delights, though they all occurred within a context that too often seemed designed, or at least fated, to suck the joy out of them.
The makings for a memorable postseason are present. These playoffs certainly are not lacking in starpower, contenders, or storylines. Already, there are intriguing first-round match-ups and the battles are sure to only get more fascinating as the postseason progresses. It’s hard to know what to make of what happened in the NBA over the last six months, which makes these next two months unpredictable and ripe for surprises. Are the Jazz and the Suns actually as good as they’ve looked? Can the Lakers and Nets flip the proverbial switch? Will Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and the Clippers be able to make up for their ignominious exits from the postseason last year? Finding out the answers to these questions in real time won’t erase the messy regular season that preceded it, but it could help fans forget about it.