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Five NBA teams that made explosive returns after a playoff drought

Winning the championship is the ultimate goal of every NBA franchise. However to get there, every team must first qualify for the playoffs. And to do that, teams must finish within the top 10 of their conference to have a shot. Although it was previously only the top eight, with the implementation of the NBA Play-In Tournament, the list has expanded to ten with the bottom four teams vying for the final spots of the postseason.

With a stacked NBA field, there’s no doubt it is a challenge to make the postseason. Because of this, it is common to see teams go through a playoff drought especially during their rebuilding process. However, some teams compensate their absences by making an impactful return to the postseason.

2012-2013 Golden State Warriors

Draymond Green, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Warriors

The Warriors finished with a winning record during the 2012-13 NBA regular season at 47-35, which was good for the sixth seed. Thanks to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson’s hot-shooting, the Warriors emerged to become a Western Conference contender for the first time since 2007.

In the Warriors’ playoff return, the team put up a decent postseason showing. They finished the higher seeded Nuggets in six games during the first round. However, they would falter against the Spurs in the following round. The Warriors put up a gallant stand against the eventual Western Conference Champions by pushing the series to six games.

Curry and Thompson would showcase their potential to the NBA world that would brand them as the “Splash Brothers.” Curry would make 39% of his threes, while Thompson knocked down 42.2% of his shots from downtown. The Splash Brothers averaged a combined 38.6 points per game in their explosive playoff debuts.

Although the Warriors were knocked out early, this would serve as the foundation of the Warriors’ decade of dominance under the Splash Brother’s watch. The Warriors would make the postseason six consecutive times and win three NBA championships in the coming years.

2018-2019 Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets were pushed out of relevancy, especially when they went into rebuilding mode after Carmelo Anthony’s departure in 2011. Although they did make the playoffs in the two succeeding years, the franchise would suffer two straight first round exits and would miss the NBA postseason for the next five years.

However, a glimmer of hope came for the Nuggets as they garnered a few exciting pieces in Malik Beasley, Monte Morris, and the 2021 MVP Nikola Jokic. At that time, Jokic showcased his potential and started his rise to the all-star realm. In the 2018-2019 season, he became the first Nuggets All-Star since Melo in 2011. Furthermore, the Nuggets center led his team to a dominant 54-28 record, which was good for the number two seed.

In the NBA playoffs that year, the Nuggets outlasted the dangerous Spurs in seven games. This marked the first playoff series victory for the franchise since 2011. Jokic impressed in his playoff debut. In the first round series, he averaged 23.1 points, 12.1 rebounds, and 9.1 assists per game.

Unfortunately, their magical run would come to an end in the Conference Semifinals. The Nuggets and the Blazers engaged in a down-to-the-wire series that needed seven games. In fact, Game 3 saw two teams battle it out through four grueling overtime periods. The Nuggets would eventually run out of gas in Game Seven, as they blew a 17-point lead to end their season.

Nevertheless, this team impressed. The Nuggets marked a new era by ending their NBA playoff drought. But also, this was the starting point for Jokic’s rise to elite levels, which we are witnessing in the present day.

2020-2021 Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks were pretty much a bottom feeding team since 2017. Since that year, the team has been going through the rebuilding process. However, they certainly proved critics wrong in 2021 after their tremendous showing.

Atlanta ended its playoff drought after clinching a playoff spot in 2020-21, as they posted a 41-31 record to go into the playoffs as the fifth seed. Despite the odds stacked against them by facing the Knicks and the Sixers in the first two rounds, the Hawks didn’t disappoint.

Trae Young had one of the most explosive playoff debuts in recent memory. The spitfire guard registered 28.8 points and 9.5 assists per game in the postseason. In fact, he was a focal point in the Hawks’ series victory over the Knicks in the first round. Young made the game-winning basket to take Game 1 away from the Knicks. And eventually, the Hawks would send the Knicks home and give them a rude welcoming return to the NBA postseason.

The Hawks’ victorious run wouldn’t end after they finished the Knicks in five games. Despite facing a heavily favored Sixers led by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the Hawks pulled off the upset by eliminating Philly in seven games. Young had another monster series that saw him register 29.0 points and 10.9 assists per outing.

But unfortunately for the Hawks, their victorious run in the NBA playoffs would end against the Bucks. With a hungry Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Hawks simply couldn’t find an answer. However, there’s no question Young is certainly a worthy player to become the face of the Hawks’ franchise. But more importantly, this only proves that the Hawks’ rebuild around these young players is heading towards the right direction.

2020-2021 Phoenix Suns

Suns, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton

The Suns have come a long way in 2020-21. It is worth noting that Phoenix has not made the postseason since 2010. And this year, CP3 and crew ended that drought by finishing as the second seed in the West with a 51-21 record.

The duo of CP3 and Devin Booker has been unstoppable throughout the year. Furthermore, the rise of Deandre Ayton in the postseason certainly made Phoenix the greatest team in the West, as they punched their way through for an appearance in the NBA Finals.

Despite CP3 dealing with a shoulder injury and contracting COVID-19 in the earlier stages, the Suns remained steady throughout the NBA postseason. The Suns made an emphatic statement in their return to the playoffs by eliminating the defending champions. The Lakers, led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, simply had no answers for Booker’s hot-shooting and Ayton’s dominance.

And after eliminating the defending champs, the Suns wasted no time in getting past their Western Conference rivals. They first swept the Nuggets, who were led by newly crowned MVP Nikola Jokic. Then to clinch their Finals spot, the Suns finished off the Clippers in six games.

As of this writing, the Suns are currently down 3-2 in the NBA Finals against the Bucks. It remains to be seen, whether or not they can win it all. However, there’ no question that this Suns team has made one of the most explosive returns to the NBA playoffs in recent memory.

2019-2020 Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers had struggled to make the postseason after Kobe Bryant’s retirement. Switching into full rebuilding mode, the franchise endured six seasons without seeing action in the playoffs. It wasn’t until 2020, when the Lakers would make arguably the most explosive return to the playoffs in history.

With Anthony Davis reinforcing the Lakers team that was led by LeBron James, the rest of the field simply couldn’t match the firepower that this duo provided. Despite dealing with homesickness and adhering to COVID protocols, the Lakers defied all odds to bring home a championship.

The Lakers made easy work of the Blazers and the Rockets by finishing the series’ in five games. LBJ and crew would also get past the dangerous Nuggets in six games who were headlined by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. And lastly, the Lakers got the job done by defeating the Heat in the NBA Finals in six games to give the Lakers its 17th title. It would also be the first championship since 2010.