NBA fans tend to be pragmatic, occasionally to a fault. Set a franchise record for wins? Doesn't matter if you don't win the title. Lead the league in scoring? Who cares if you choke in the playoffs? But for every team, including the 29 each season that don't win the championship, steps are taken during the regular season that lay the foundation for eventual progress.
With that in mind, we decided to look at each NBA team's biggest success story from the 2020-21 regular season. Sometimes it's a player blossoming into an All-Star -- sometimes it's the 10th man on the bench who shows a glimmer of promise when he gets the opportunity -- but every team has something to be proud of this season.
*Stats accurate as of May 15
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If the Hawks were serious about making the playoffs, they needed to improve their defense, which had finished 28th in the league in each of the past two seasons. Many questioned the trade that brought in Capela from the Rockets just before the 2020 trade deadline, suggesting that it would create positional conflict with John Collins, and that paying a traditional big man $16 million per year in this day and age was an inefficient use of resources.
Capela has been worth every penny, leading the league in rebounding this season while notching a career high in blocked shots. The Hawks allow 108.2 points per 100 possessions when Capela is on the floor, compared to 113.9 with him off, and Atlanta has improved to seventh in the NBA in rebound percentage after finishing 26th in the category last season. He's also been efficient offensively, providing a lob threat for Trae Young and cleaning up the glass with put-backs around the rim. Looking back on the season, it's safe to say the Capela experiment has been a rousing success.
Overall it's been a disappointing year for the Celtics, but they have gained small victories with the contributions from young players Robert Williams and Payton Pritchard. In an effort to not overthink things, however, Brown gets the honor here. The fifth-year wing continued his ascent on both ends of the floor, earning his first All-Star selection in the process. He improved his scoring average by nearly 4.5 points per game while increasing his true shooting percentage -- no small feat -- and was in the 84th percentile on catch-and-shoot jumpers with 1.273 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports Technology. Brown also showed improved playmaking ability, averaging a career-high 3.4 assists per game.
Beyond the numbers, though, Brown proved he's a reliable second star to complement Jayson Tatum as the Celtics pursue a championship. Now it's a matter of firming up the pieces around them. Unfortunately, Brown won't get to show off his improved skills in the postseason due to a season-ending injury, but he's established himself as one of the best wings in the NBA.
After the James Harden deal sent Jarrett Allen to Cleveland, the biggest concern for the Nets was their lack of a true center beyond an aging DeAndre Jordan. Well, Claxton quickly proved that he would not only be an adequate replacement for Allen, but also that he perhaps better fits their defensive system given his ability to switch onto perimeter players.
In a relatively small sample size, Claxton is allowing 0.776 points per possession defending against pick-and-roll ball-handlers, near the top of the league among NBA centers, while also landing in the 93rd percentile in defense around the basket. Offensively, his quickness and leaping ability make him an ideal rim-runner and lob-catcher for one of the league's best transition teams. Claxton may not have a huge impact in the Nets' upcoming playoff run, but the 22-year-old has shown the potential to be a reliable starting center in the near future by averaging 13.1 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per 36 minutes.
The easy answer for the Hornets' success story is LaMelo Ball, but his Rookie of the Year-level performance isn't all that surprising given the praise he received from talent evaluators before the draft. Instead we'll highlight Bridges, who has quietly put up a fantastic season despite the addition of Gordon Hayward to the Hornets' frontcourt. Bridges' scoring has actually decreased from last season, but his efficiency has gone through the roof, improving his true shooting percentage by over 100 points (.520 to .628) in slightly fewer minutes.
He quickly became Ball's favorite lob target and he's as explosive as ever, but his improvement from the 3-point line is what must have the Charlotte development staff patting him (and themselves) on the back. After making 33 percent of his 3-point attempts in his first two seasons, Bridges is now shooting 40.5 percent from deep, including 44 percent on pull-up 3-pointers, which puts him alongside sharpshooters like Kevin Durant and Joe Ingles. The Hornets have a young, exciting core, and this season Bridges proved he can be an important part of that group moving forward.
In a somewhat disappointing season for the Bulls, who clearly had playoff aspirations, LaVine is first, second and third on the list of success stories. Dismissed as an empty-stats bucket-getter over the past couple of seasons, LaVine became one of the most efficient, prolific scorers in basketball while notching a career high in assists per game. He went from the 59th percentile in points per possession last season to the 84th percentile this season, according to Synergy, as his true shooting percentage improved from 56.8 to 63.4, second only to Stephen Curry among guards with a usage rate of 20 percent or more.
LaVine increased his scoring average by two points while dramatically improving his efficiency, which earned him his first All-Star selection. The Bulls have a lot of questions about their young players and the direction moving forward, but you'd have to think LaVine is a major priority after the season he put up.
In case you didn't catch many Cavs games this year (hey, who can blame you?), Darius Garland had an impressive sophomore campaign. He averaged over 17 points per game on 45/40/85 splits, and led the team with 6.1 assists per game -- the most any Cavalier has averaged since LeBron James left. Garland averaged 1.252 points per possession in catch-and-shoot situations, per Synergy, good for the 82nd percentile, and developed a solid dribble hand-off game with the Cleveland bigs.
The Cavs may not be relevant for a while, but a backcourt of Garland and Collin Sexton seems like a decent place to start.
It was clear from Day 1 that Brunson was going to be a much better player than his second-round draft pick status might suggest, but he's taken things to another level this season. The 6-foot-1 guard has improved his scoring average by more than four points on 52/40/79 shooting splits, while averaging a career-high 3.5 assists per game. His 1.449 points per possession including assists rank in the 95th percentile, per Synergy, and he's reliably driven the offense with Luka Doncic on the bench. In over 900 minutes this season with Brunson on the court and Doncic sitting, the Mavericks have a plus-3.9 net rating.
Dallas has been even better with Brunson and Doncic on the court together, putting up a plus-6.9 net rating and scoring an impressive 114.7 points per 100 possessions. This suggests that Brunson, despite coming off the bench for most of the season, might eventually slot in next to Doncic in the starting backcourt as the Mavs continue their push toward championship contention.
Porter has had one of the most efficient offensive seasons in the league, averaging over 19 points per game on absurd 54/44/79 shooting splits. His 1.227 points per possession rank him second in the NBA for any player with more than 300 possessions, according to Synergy (Porter has over 900 possessions). He's been even better since Murray went down for the season with a torn ACL, averaging 24.4 points per game while hitting 49 percent of his 8.1 3-point attempts per game. If Porter continues to produce at anywhere near this level, even with his defensive shortcomings, the Nuggets are going to have one of the best young trios in the league for years to come.
Grant ascending to a legitimate No. 1 option has to feel good for Pistons general manager Troy Weaver after so many scoffed at the team's decision to give the former Nuggets role player a three-year, $60 million contract this past offseason. All Grant did was average 22.3 points per game while maintaining his excellence on the defensive end. His efficiency waned as the season went on, but that comes with the territory of being the best player on a team with limited offensive weapons.
"The growth, the confidence, the understanding time, score, situation -- when to exert himself, when to pass the ball -- that's when you see those guys grow into All-Stars," Casey said in January. "That's when I saw DeRozan grow into an All-Star, and Jerami's growing into that. He's growing fast into it."
Stephen Curry has obviously been the story for the Warriors this season, but it's nothing new for the two-time MVP. Instead we'll focus on Wiggins, who has quietly put together a strong first full season with Golden State. Head coach Steve Kerr has heaped consistent praise upon Wiggins for his ability to match up with the opponent's best perimeter player night-in and night-out, and it's safe to say that, given their roster construction, the Warriors would not have the league's fifth-best defense without him.
Wiggins has also improved tremendously on the offensive end, averaging nearly 19 points per game with career highs in field goal percentage (.476) and 3-point percentage (.377). He's become an incredibly efficient isolation player, in the 83rd percentile this season, per Synergy, with 1.053 points per possession, which has been valuable to a Warriors offense that struggles mightily without Curry on the floor. Wiggins took 4.4 midrange attempts per game in his last full season in Minnesota, and is down to 2.8 per game this season -- one reason for his improved efficiency.
Wiggins has done exactly what the Warriors have asked of him this season, and though he still isn't living up to the promise of his gargantuan contract, he's become an essential piece in the Warriors' quest to eventually return to championship contention.
As great as it was to see John Wall back on the court, Wood was the biggest success story for the Rockets this season. He performed well in a limited sample size with the Pistons to close out last season, but there were still questions as to whether Wood would be able to maintain his production in larger minutes. He fully answered those queries early and often, averaging a career-high 21 points and 1.2 blocks per game while making 37 percent of his five 3-point attempts per game.
In addition to his ability to stretch the floor, Wood has been a monster around the rim, in the 82nd percentile with 1.327 points per possession, according to Synergy. He can finish above the rim with his length and athleticism, but has also shown deft touch and an ability to find angles in traffic.
There are a lot of questions about the Rockets' future, but they've got a keeper in Wood.
McConnell was good for Indiana last season, but he took things to a new level in 2020-21. The 6-1 point guard commanded the second unit for the Pacers, putting up career highs in points (8.6), assists (6.5) and field goal percentage (.558). Out of all the regulars, McConnell made the biggest difference in net rating, taking the Pacers from minus-1.8 when he was off the court to plus-2.3 with him on. Of course we'd be remiss if we didn't mention McConnell's most notorious quality -- his ability to pilfer the ball from the opponent at an alarming rate. He set an NBA record with nine (!) first-half steals in a March game against the Cavs, finishing the game with a rare points-assists-steals triple-double. Picking up steals on the inbounds pass has become his signature move, taking many an opponent by surprise.
Not a lot went right for the Pacers this season, but McConnell had a career year.
The Clippers had a lot of known commodities heading into the season who have performed more or less as expected, but Mann was a bit less predictable. He showed flashes in limited playing time last season, but not many thought he'd end up consistently stealing rotation minutes from Luke Kennard, whom the Clippers signed to a $64 million extension this past offseason.
In addition to his ability to finish in transition and defensive versatility, Mann shot 42 percent from the 3-point line this season, up from 35 percent last season. His ability to knock down open 3s has made him a valuable part of the Clippers rotation on an extremely affordable salary.
With ubiquitous talk about Kuzma becoming the third scorer next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis well in the past, thanks to last season's title and the addition of Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell, the fourth-year forward has finally settled into a role with the Lakers. With the offensive pressure alleviated, Kuzma has become a solid perimeter defender, and one of the best offensive rebounders in the league for his position.
He's also improved as a shooter, making 36 percent of his 3-pointers this season after shooting 31 percent over the past two years. Kuzma has gotten some flak as former young Lakers Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball have flourished, but it appears he's giving the Lakers exactly what they need from him this season.
Melton's defensive ability was obvious from the moment he made his NBA debut with the Phoenix Suns as a 20-year-old, but there was a major problem -- he couldn't shoot. That certainly wasn't an issue this season, as Melton made 42 percent of his 3-pointers after hitting just 29 percent in his first two seasons. He finished in the 89th percentile with 1.308 points per possession in catch-and-shoot situations, according to Synergy.
As a result of his two-way prowess, the Grizzlies were 7.8 points per 100 possessions better with Melton on the floor this season. Memphis has a crowded, promising young backcourt with Ja Morant, Grayson Allen, Dillon Brooks and Desmond Bane, but if Melton keeps up this type of shooting moving forward, he's going to be hard to keep off the floor.
It sounds weird to call Nunn a success story this season after last year's outstanding rookie campaign, but let's not forget what happened in the playoffs. Nunn completely fell out of the rotation during Miami's run to the Finals in the bubble, which could have affected his confidence and performance moving forward. Credit to Nunn for getting even better, averaging essentially the same number of points on much more efficient shooting. His shooting splits went from 44/35/85 as a rookie to 48/38/93 this season, serving as a steady contributor on a team that had players in and out of the lineup all year long.
With the season-ending injury to Victor Oladipo, Nunn should continue to play an important role with the Heat during the postseason. And it's good to know that even if he drops out of the rotation for a game -- or even a series -- that he'll stay ready mentally and physically.
Portis has always been able to produce in short minutes, but the question always was whether he could do it efficiently. Needless to say, Portis thrived in his first season with the Bucks, making 52 percent of his field goals and an absurd 47 percent of his 3-pointers, which ranks in the top five in the entire NBA. Overall, Portis' 1.095 points per offensive possession rank him in the 83rd percentile, according to Synergy, and he led the league by hitting 57 percent of his wide-open 3s (closest defender 6 or more feet away), per NBA.com.
Perhaps most importantly, Portis was successful in keeping the Bucks steady with Giannis Antetokounmpo on the bench. Milwaukee outscored opponents by 2.3 points per 100 possessions with Portis on the court and Antetokounmpo off in 824 minutes, which was instrumental to the Bucks putting away opponents. Portis' defensive limitations may minimize his postseason impact, but he was a crucial component to Milwaukee's regular-season success.
The Wolves had a rough season that involved the firing of former head coach Ryan Saunders, but they can hang their hat on the fact that they were actually pretty good when their franchise cornerstones, Towns and Russell, played together. The Wolves were basically .500 this season when the two All-Stars played in the same game, and lineups featuring both of them outscored opponents with a 115.8 offensive rating in 440 minutes.
They weren't on the court much together, but the numbers have to give hope to new coach Chris Finch that with a healthy Towns and Russell, paired with an improving Anthony Edwards, the Wolves' path to relevancy will be slightly more navigable.
The 2020-21 season was all about one thing for the Pelicans: the health and development of Zion Williamson. You can check off both boxes, as the 20-year-old manchild was absolutely dominant this season while averaging 33 minutes in 61 games. New Orleans coach Stan Van Gundy unleashed Williamson as a point-forward, and watched defenses crumble as they attempted to keep the All-Star out of the paint.
Williamson's 1.153 points per possession ranked in the 92nd percentile, according to Synergy, and he became the first player in NBA history to average 27 points per game while shooting over 60 percent from the field. An All-NBA selection is likely on the way for Williamson, who has already exceeded the monumental hype with which he entered the league.
The defensive effort invigorated by Tom Thibodeau certainly deserves acclaim, but the Knicks wouldn't have had the regular season that they did without the unforeseen emergence of Julius Randle. The seventh-year forward averaged career highs in points, assists and rebounds, while improving his 3-point shooting by unprecedented levels. In his first six seasons, Randle shot 29.5 percent from deep on 1.5 attempts per game. This season he shot 41.2 percent on over five attempts per game, earning his first All-Star nod in the process.
In what most thought would be a rebuilding year for the Knicks, we kept waiting for Randle to come back down to earth -- but it simply never happened. New York basketball is back, and Randle deserves a lot of the credit.
The real success story for the Thunder this season was tanking their way from 17-22 to 21-50 over the course of two months, but let's keep things a little more upbeat by highlighting the development of Gilgeous-Alexander, who proved he can be one of the faces of the franchise moving forward (or potentially fetch a mighty haul in a trade because, you know, Sam Presti). SGA raised his scoring average by nearly five points per game while significantly improving his efficiency, and was often the best player on the floor in any given matchup.
When you include assists, Gilgeous-Alexander was in the 88th percentile in the league with 1.379 points per possession, according to Synergy, putting him on par with Giannis Antetokounmpo and ahead of Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Though his season was cut short due to a foot injury, Gilgeous-Alexander did more than enough to prove that he'll be in the All-Star conversation for years to come.
After losing Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz to season-ending injuries, the Magic finally bottomed out by trading away Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier. This allowed them to take a closer look at their young talent for the remainder of the season, with Bamba standing out -- and not just because of his 7-foot frame. The third-year center averaged 11.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks over his final 20 games of the season, as his minutes were extended for the first time in his career. Bamba averaged 21 minutes per game over that stretch and crossed the 30-minute threshold twice after never playing more 25 in his first two seasons.
Bamba's 3-point percentage still falls under league average, but he made two or more 3-pointers in a game 10 times this season, including a career-high five in six attempts against the Bucks in April. Defensively, Bamba blocked two or more shots in 16 games this season, and was in the 85th percentile in defense around the rim, allowing 0.891 points per possession, according to Synergy. Who knows how Bamba will develop over the coming years, but it was good to see him produce in extended run toward the end of the season.
The question of whether Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons could coexist offensively had permeated the Philadelphia (and national) sports landscape for years, but the entire discussion has been put to bed after the duo's performance this season. With Simmons and Embiid on the court, the 76ers put up a monster plus-15.5 net rating, including an offensive rating of 118.2, which would be better than the league-leading Brooklyn Nets.
First-year Sixers coach Doc Rivers played his two stars together much more frequently than his predecessor, Brett Brown, as Embiid and Simmons logged nearly 300 more minutes together than last season in virtually the same number of games. Obviously the addition of Seth Curry and Danny Green to the starting lineup did wonders for the spacing, allowing room for both Simmons and Embiid to operate successfully together. The result was a No. 1 seed in the East, and an MVP-caliber season for Embiid.
"Not that the previous years we haven't been on the court very close, but this year has just been different," Embiid said in January of his relationship with Simmons. "I can't even explain it. He's just been different. I love playing with him, and I'm sure he loves playing with me too. I don't know how to explain it. It's just been fun having someone like that."
A Most Improved Player candidate, Bridges has been an essential factor in the Suns' ascent this season. In his third NBA season, the 24-year-old increased his scoring average by over four points while continuing to be a lockdown perimeter defender. He shot 42 percent from 3-point range after making just 34.5 percent of them in his first two seasons, and his 1.236 points per possession on offense are the best of anyone in the entire NBA with a significant sample size, according to Synergy.
He's clearly benefited from the addition of Chris Paul, as Bridges took just 15 3-pointers that NBA.com designates as "tightly" or "very tightly" guarded, compared to 291 attempts logged as "open" or "wide open."
Bridges has become one of the best 3-and-D wings in the NBA this season, and is vital to the future success of the franchise.
You never know how a player is going to respond to injury, particularly when that player has been on the court for only 25 games over the course of two calendar years. Nurkic's comeback from a nasty leg injury that started last summer in the bubble was cut short less than a month into the 2020-21 season, when a broken wrist kept him out until late March. Understandably, it took a while for Nurkic to get his conditioning, but he's been excellent of late, averaging 14.7 points, 11.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists over his last 13 games.
Additionally he's been one of the few Blazers to have a significant impact on defense -- the team allows 116.6 points per 100 possessions with Nurkic on the bench, and that drops to 108 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. The fact that Nurkic has worked his way back into being an impactful player after his injuries is a major win for Portland, and shouldn't be overlooked.
Nobody's quite sure how Haliburton fell to No. 12 in the 2020 draft, but the Kings are sure glad that he did. The 21-year-old put up a phenomenal rookie season, joining Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson (decent company) as the only rookies in NBA history to average at least 13 points and five assists with a true shooting percentage of .580 or higher. A deadeye shooter despite unorthodox mechanics, Haliburton shot 41 percent from 3-point range and showcased advanced playmaking ability. Including assists, he averaged 1.409 points per possession, according to Synergy, putting him in the 91st percentile. He's particularly adept in transition -- a useful quality on a team that plays at one of the fastest paces in the league.
The thought of a Haliburton-De'Aaron Fox backcourt for the next several years has to fill Kings fans with hope that their playoff drought will end in the not-too-distant future.
The maturation process continued this season for Murray, who notched career highs in points (15.8), rebounds (7.1) and assists (5.4) per game while leading the team in minutes. San Antonio's net rating was 9.2 points per 100 possessions better with Murray on the court compared to when he was off, and the offensive rating climbed from 105.1 to 111.9.
Murray's 3-point stroke hasn't quite developed yet, but he proved this year that he's more than capable of impacting winning while he continues to work on it. The Spurs have a lot of good, young guards, but with his defensive capabilities and burgeoning offensive skill set, Murray could be the best of the bunch.
It was kind of a lost season for the Raptors, who were forced to play their home games in Tampa due to travel restrictions during the pandemic. The benefit of losing a lot, however, was the ability to get a good look at their young players, and it looks like Flynn will be ready to contribute if Toronto returns to contention next season. The 23-year-old rookie point guard averaged 11.2 points, 4.2 assists and 3.8 rebounds on 36 percent 3-point shooting over his last 25 games. In 13 starts, he averaged 14 points and 5.5 assists on 37 percent from deep.
Clarkson proved that what he did with Utah after the trade deadline last season was no mirage, becoming an integral part of a Jazz team that led the league in wins. He cooled off after a torrid start, but still scored at a career-high clip in fewer than 27 minutes per game. Clarkson was particularly adept in the pick-and-roll, where he landed in the 88th percentile with 1.094 points per possession including passes, according to Synergy.
Clarkson also improved his shot profile, essentially eliminating mid-range jumpers (he took just 47 all season) in lieu of more 3-pointers and shots at the rim. He notched career-bests in 3-pointers (3.0) and 3-point attempts (8.8) per game. All of this spells a likely Sixth Man of the Year award for the seventh-year guard.
The Wizards didn't have a whole lot going on outside of Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook this season, but Gafford certainly opened some eyes after coming over from Chicago before the trade deadline. The 6-10 center didn't get a ton of playing time due to a platoon with Alex Len and Robin Lopez, but Gafford put up jaw-dropping per-36 numbers of 20.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 3.7 blocks on 69 percent shooting in 22 games with Washington.
Of course it's a tiny sample size, but the Wizards' offensive rating went from 109.4 with Gafford on the bench to 118 with him on the floor. He showed immediate chemistry with Westbrook, as lineups featuring those two put up a plus-13.4 net rating in 291 minutes.
With Len and Lopez both free agents and Thomas Bryant's timetable unknown after ACL surgery in February, it wouldn't be shocking to see Gafford get a crack at starting center next season.