NBA

Five best single-season turnarounds in NBA history

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Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen {NBA Getty Images]

The Phoenix Suns punched their ticket to the 2021 postseason when they defeated the LA Clippers 109-101 at home on April 28 (EST) with 10 regular-season games still remaining.

Thus, booking their first playoff berth since the Western Conference Finals appearance in 2010, snapping the second-longest active playoff drought in the league.

Entering the final stretch of the 2021 regular season, the franchise is jostling with the Utah Jazz for the best record in the league.

Barring a highly unlikely collapse, in the matter of two seasons, the Suns would have made the remarkable recovery from being owners of the second-worst record in the league (19-63 in 2018-19) to placing among the two best teams in the league.

Irrespective of how their campaign ends in the playoffs, this kind of a turnaround is rare.

However, courtesy of historic landmark moments in the draft or free agency, the NBA has witnessed such drastic change-in-fortunes a few times before. There are have been five instances in NBA history when franchises have improved by more than 30 wins in the matter of one offseason.

2007-08 Boston Celtics - 42-win turnaround

At the end of the 2007 season, the Celtics had won just 24 games - the second-worst tally in the league and the worst in the Eastern Conference. 21 years removed from their last championship, the illustrious franchise wasn't in a position to contend for a division title, let alone an NBA Championship.

However, Danny Ainge, then the Executive Director of Basketball Operations, pulled off two superstar trades that changed the face of the league as the Celtics went from the bottom of the standings to contenders almost overnight.

On draft night in 2007, Boston acquired Allen and the Seattle SuperSonics' 35th pick in the 2007 Draft (which turned into Glen Davis) in exchange for Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, a 2008 second-round pick and the rights to Jeff Green, the Celtics' No. 5 overall pick in the draft. Nearly a month later, the franchise landed Kevin Garnett by shipping Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Al Jefferson, Theo Ratliff, Sebastian Telfair and two 2009 first-round picks to Minnesota.

Adding two All-Star caliber players in Allen and in Garnett (the 2004 MVP) to their franchise cornerstone in Paul Pierce, the Celtics dominated the following season and finished with a 66-16 record. Their win total was best in the league and the third-best in franchise history.

Spearheaded by Garnett, the turnaround began on the defensive end as the Celtics were owners of the best defence in the league, improving from 16th the previous season. Garnett would go on to win the Defensive Player of the Year and Ainge would win Executive of the Year.

However, the 42-win NBA record turnaround was made sweeter when the franchise capped it off by winning their 17th championship in franchise history. They had to sweat it out in the postseason, playing as many as 26 games, but in the end, they defeated their arch-rival Los Angeles Lakers in six games in the NBA Finals to be crowned champions once again.

1997-98 San Antonio Spurs - 36 wins

In the 1996-97 season, with their franchise superstar David Robinson playing only six games, the Spurs only managed 20 wins. Despite being the third-worst record in the league, San Antonio won the lottery and chose Tim Duncan with the No. 1 overall pick.

On the back of their two twin towers, the Spurs powered their way to 56 wins. Although it was only good for the fifth-best record in the West and sixth overall, given the top-heavy Western Conference that year, the 36-win turnaround was at that time an NBA record. It usurped the 35-win record they set nearly a decade earlier in 1990.

Tim Duncan had one of the greatest rookie campaigns in NBA history with averages of 21.1 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.5 blocks over the course of all 82 games. David Robinson had himself a year as well, nearly posting identical numbers of 21.6 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.5 blocks.

1989-90 San Antonio Spurs - 35 wins

While he combined with Duncan to turn things around in 1998, Robinson almost did it by himself in 1990.

En route to winning Rookie of the Year unanimously, the 7-foot-1 center, who was initially drafted No. 1 overall in the 1987 NBA Draft but joined a couple of years later after his military service in the U.S Navy, finished with remarkable averages of 24.3 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.9 blocks and 2.0 assists.

Combining his stellar play with key role players like Rod Strickland and Sean Elliot, the Spurs set the NBA record for the biggest improvement in wins, going from 21 in 1997 to 56 in 1998.

2004-05 Phoenix Suns - 33 wins

The Steve Nash effect!

The rest of the Phoenix roster from the conclusion of the 2004 campaign to the start of the 2004-05 season was more or less the same. Although Nash was keen to remain in Dallas, the Mavericks were reportedly reluctant to match the money the Suns were offering the 30-year-old, and thus the Canadian guard moved Westward to Phoenix.

Surrounded by a young talented core in Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson and Amar'e Stoudemire, Nash led the Suns and their newly adopted seven-seconds-or-less playing style to 62 wins - the best record in the league - after finishing with just 29 the prior year.

The undeniable impact he had on the turnaround earned him the first career league MVP award with season averages of 15.5 points, 11.5 assists and 1.0 steals per game. The outstanding improvement in wins also resulted in Mike D'Antoni receiving the Coach of the Year Award and Bryan Colangelo being named Executive of the Year.

1979-80 Boston Celtics - 32 wins

Much like they would 27 years later, the Celtics bounced back from a 29-win season by amassing talent. Only this time, back in 1979, they entrusted their future in two rookies - Larry Bird and Kevin McHale.

Bird was picked sixth overall in 1978 NBA Draft but joined the team a year later, while McHale was acquired in a trade as a draft pick, along with Robert Parish from the Golden State Warriors. The trio, who would go on to become one of the greatest frontcourts ever assembled, was instrumental in the team corralling 61 wins.

The trio of Bird, McHale and Parish would play together for a period of 12 years from the 1980-81 season to the 1991-92 season. They were a part of every one of the Celtics' three championships in the 1980s - 1981, 1984 and 1986.

While Bird beat out Magic Johnson for the Rookie of the Year Award, the turnaround also helped Bill Fitch win Coach of the Year and Red Auerbach win Executive of the Year.

Honourable Mentions: 1969-70 Milwaukee Bucks (29 wins), 2008-09 Miami Heat (28 wins), 2009-10 Oklahoma City Thunder (27 wins), 1988-89 Phoenix Suns (27 wins) and 2001-02 New Jersey Nets (26 wins).

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