It is not even three full years into this decade, but if there's any recurring trend, it's that plenty of teams were finally able to overcome years of mediocrity and make the playoffs. Whether it has been adjusting to COVID, a major acquisition, or a well timed winning streak, teams such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns, and Phoenix Suns finally managed to break long standing playoff droughts. The Seattle Mariners and Philadelphia Phillies also recently added their names to the list.
Here's why this pattern continues:
Surprisingly, the first cause has been the effects of the COVID pandemic. Although all teams were challenged with adapting to empty venues, COVID actually might've helped teams who were previously struggling.
Some teams who benefited from these unusual circumstances include the Cleveland Browns, who allowed more fans and only played three games in empty stadiums, unlike many of their opponents whose stadiums were empty all season. In another example, the Miami Marlins and San Diego Padres. were particularly fortunate to play in a shortened season. While some might see these seasons as fluky, it is fair to say that they benefitted from these unusual circumstances as both teams underachieved the following year.
Regardless of COVID, there were other teams who were already well-positioned to break their playoff droughts and were just one player away.
In 2019, the Buccaneers boosted a talented roster that was competitive, but missed the playoffs for the 12th straight year. However, their progress was enough to lure Tom Brady in free agency. The rest was history, as Brady won an seventh Super Bowl in a convincing 31-9 triumph. The following season saw them lose in Divisional Round but there's no question Brady has changed the culture in Tampa Bay.
The Phoenix Suns, with a young roster led by Devin Booker, went 8-0 in the NBA bubble but narrowly missed out on the play-in tournament. Despite this, they established a foundation and would soon trade for Chris Paul whose greatest ability is elevating his teammates. Since then, the Suns not only broke their 10 year drought, but have won more games than any other team, and made the 2021 Finals.
If there's one thing great teams have in common, it is the ability to embark on a winning stretch at the right time. This is also how some teams were finally able to get over the hump to make the playoffs. Just as they would slowly start to fall out of the playoff picture, they heated up at the perfect time.
The 2021 New York Knicks are a perfect fit for this category. While they had already showed significant improvement, it looked like their luck was starting to run out with just over a month left. What followed was a nine game winning streak, culminating into 16 wins in their last 20 games: good enough to clinch the fourth seed. Their first playoff series in eight years against the Hawks lasted only five games, but witnessing their game 2 win in person was an incredible experience for me.
Unlike the Knicks, this year's Seattle Mariners were looking to take the next step after falling short of the playoffs the previous season. They started slow but found their stride in July: the exact time baseball games become significant. Seattle won an amazing 14 consecutive games, which boosted them into the wild card picture, a position they would not relinquish. Last Friday, they finally put an end to their 21 year drought; the longest out of any American sports team at the time.