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2022-23 NBA Western Conference Preview Haikus
And then no more actual poetry (until next year)
Edit: Technical issues mean some readers may have received this email twice. Sorry!
As before, these are presented in order of how I expect the teams to finish in the regular season (and for what it’s worth, my least-horrible attempts tended to be for the bad teams, so keep reading!). Check my Eastern Conference preview haikus here, if you can stomach them. Thanks for not unsubscribing.
Golden State Warriors
The disease of more
Eating away legacy
Can Steph steady ship?
Not much to say about Golden State that hasn’t been said a million times over. They’re the defending champs, and they’re at least as good now as they were last year — assuming The Punch doesn’t ruin everything. Some seasoning on young guys like Moses Moody (who is going to have a long, productive NBA career), Jonathan Kuminga, and James Wiseman has to help, and the additions of Donte Divincenzo and a revitalized JaMychal Green should offset the losses of defensive stud Gary Payton II and Otto Porter Jr. Like I said, there’s nothing novel to say about GS; if they can activate their Volumetric Sh*t Compressor, they will be a — or maybe the — favorite to win again.
Another Paul flop
Booker dared to poke the bear
Dallas roared, Suns quailed
The popular take is that Phoenix’s window is closed. Paul keeps getting older, and while his playmaking and command of the offense remain elite, his refusal to shoot threes (3.1 attempts per game last year is about half as many as he needs to take) and inability to play defense are increasingly apparent. The vibezzz, starting with the embarrassing collapse against Dallas, continuing with the DeAndre Ayton contract situation, and culminating in Jae Crowder’s trade demand, ain’t great.
But this team won an astonishing 64 games last year and remains mostly intact. I can’t fathom them falling off a cliff. I wouldn’t say I’m a believer, exactly, but I certainly think the public is giving them short shrift for what they’ve accomplished in the past, particularly in the regular season. I’m not willing to write them off yet.
Despite twin towers
In the Twin Cities, hope rests
On back of an Ant
Reasonable people can point out legitimate flaws on this Minnesota team. KAT could be a disaster having to defend on the perimeter more often. D’Angelo Russell is still here, not passing the ball in crunchtime and taking bad shots (he also won’t be able to resume his free-safety defense with Rudy Gobert in the middle, meaning he’ll have to go back to getting torched by his man). The depth pieces are mostly unproven or a strange fit.
But I’m not feeling reasonable. A top trio of Towns, Gobert, and Anthony Edwards is so, so promising. It could take a while for Minnesota to find their groove (especially with KAT missing most of the preseason), so don’t be surprised if they jump out to something like a 4-6 start, but I have faith this team is going to be a juggernaut by year’s end.
His paintbrush whirling
Blue backdoors, red oops, green screens
The best player to watch in basketball, Nikola Jokic, is back, and he has both new and lightly-used toys to play with. Bruce Brown is tailor-made to thrive with Jokic’s eyebrow-waggle-and-pass brand of chaos. Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray should provide a massive offensive punch to a team that already had a top-ten offense even without them. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope can guard the opposing team’s best ballhandlers, allowing Aaron Gordon to defend bigger wings, which is a more natural fit. I’m confident Bones Hyland will expand into his voluminous sixth-man role. Denver’s ceiling doesn’t exist, but it may take a minute for all the pieces to settle as rust is knocked off and chemistry develops.
Los Angeles Clippers
Shine bright, glass statues
Beautiful, rich, and brittle
Do or die for Klaw
I’m not sure more talent has ever been assembled on one roster. As the kids say, that Balmer money sure hits different. John Wall’s return from his ex-communication in Houston is exciting, and he should provide a welcome dose of tertiary playmaking and verve behind Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Norm Powell coming off the bench is a surprise, but he’ll still get his consistent 17 points per night. Almost everyone on this team is, at worst, decent on both sides of the ball; there will be few weak links. Ty Lue is one of the best coaches in the league. If PG and Kawhi are healthy in the playoffs, not even Golden State would likely be favored against them, and for good reason.
Hides a cold killer’s black heart
Doncic is looming
Jalen Brunson is out, and Christian Wood, whom I wrote extensively about, is in. It might be a wash, and I’m expecting a similar profile from Dallas this year as last: a good-not-great regular season team but a dangerous playoff opponent. Doncic is the kind of superstar that provides a high floor and surgically removes the ceiling from any roster. He’s in shape to begin the year for the first time in a while and is eager to finally earn his first MVP trophy. The most crucial question for Dallas is if they can replicate their superb defense from a year ago. In Milwaukee, Jason Kidd installed defensive schemes that troubled opponents in the first year before falling off drastically in future seasons; Dallas’ defense doesn’t rely on gimmicks like Kidd’s Milwaukee squads did, so I have higher hopes for the Mavs.
Bouncy, snarling beasts
What’s cooler than being cool?
Ja Morant, ice cold
The most challenging team for me to predict in the Western Conference. Last season, they were a nasty, thrilling group of brawlers who talked a whole lot of trash while piling up 56 wins, good for second in the NBA, despite missing Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks (their meanest motormouth) for big chunks of the year. You have to think both players will get more run this season. Most of Memphis’ core are young players who should further develop this season, too. Keep an eye on second-year forward Ziaire Williams, who could emerge as a major contributor this season.
On the other hand, shotblocking stalwart Jaren Jackson Jr. will miss several months with a stress fracture in his foot. As the linchpin of their defense, Jackson could be even more important to the team’s regular-season success than Ja. They also lost some depth pieces without adding anyone of significance. For reasons I can’t fully articulate, it feels like the Grizz caught lightning in a bottle last season, and they could be in for a bit of a rude awakening this year amidst beefed-up competition. I’m scared to bet against the Grizzlies, because they are frightening! But I can’t see them completely replicating last year’s success, even though this ranking is foolishly low.
New Orleans Pelicans
The behemoth lives
Slender killers and a thief
New pecking order
One of the most intriguing teams of the year. This squad went to the playoffs without Zion, but it has the strangest collection of A-/B+ players I could imagine. I’m not sure how Williamson, Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum, and Jonas Valanciunas will be able to coexist, although depth pieces like Larry Nance and super sophomores Herb Jones, Jose Alvarado, and the up-and-coming Trey Murphy should fit perfectly in any configuration. The core four here are just a little fuzzy, jigsaw pieces that don’t quite fit together, but you’re sure they should. I’ve seen some outrageous predictions from people about New Orleans winning 50+ games and having home-court advantage in a cutthroat Western Conference; I’m not there yet.
Los Angeles Lakers
Celestial light is fading
Swallowed by black hole
Russ finally coming off the bench was supposed to be a huge moment, a sign that maybe, just maybe, he was willing to acknowledge that he’s not the same MVP superstar he once was. Instead, he got hurt moments into his appearance, and who knows what’ll happen when he returns.
AD has looked like AD again in the preseason, and Kendrick Nunn (who was better than Tyler Herro when both were rookies on the Heat, don’t forget) looks ready to provide a considerable boost. Patrick Beverley might be a tumultuous fit in a locker room stuffed with combustible personalities, but his on-court style meshes perfectly with LeBron and AD’s needs for shooting and defense. (Seriously, though, having Russell Westbrook, Dennis Schröder, and Patrick Beverley sitting next to each other is like pouring Mentos into a Diet Coke bottle and praying nothing happens). I’m not high on Lonnie Walker, but his athleticism and youth stand out on a team that had little of either last year. Austin Reaves has been good for LA, but a lot more rides on Reaves’ shoulders than I’m comfortable with, particularly given how many other point guards on this roster expect to play significant minutes.
I have no idea what the Lakers will do with Westbrook, and I don’t think recently re-signed team architect Rob Pelinka does, either. A lot depends on how the season starts. If AD and LeBron are leading the Lakers to a top seed halfway through the season, look for a splashy addition to the roster (likely requiring Westbrook’s departure), but if AD is hurt and the team is sinking… chaos could erupt. I’m cautiously optimistic about this team, but there are genuine concerns.
Portland Trail Blazers
Dame time back, perhaps
Will need each point if no stops
Can he turn back clock?
I was higher on Portland until the preseason. You shouldn’t draw too much meaning from inherently meaningless games, but Portland’s defense looked abysmal despite the addition of several defensive-minded players in the offseason. I’m starting to worry that coach Chauncey Billups isn’t up to the task of wringing stops out of this wet-paper group. Despite some solid box scores, rookie Shaedon Sharpe looked overwhelmed for much of the preseason; he’ll need time to adjust to NBA-speed basketball. The team has zero depth at center, which is not great when your starter (Jusuf Nurkić) is fragile and clearly losing a step. Damian Lillard has looked decent in the preseason, but he’ll need to be a lot better than decent to carry this team.
The glass-half-full view is that Portland has a deep roster full of veterans who should be able to shake off these ugly preseason performances. Lillard and fellow small guard Anfernee Simons should be a top offense by themselves, so if Nurkić can stay healthy and the barrage of talented two-way wings play to their capabilities, this team’s potential is still solid. The paper product has promise, but I’m uneasy.
The Fox and the Ox
Red Velvet, Off-Night, Black [Bird],
Nicknames are best part
Alright, so Harrison Barnes’ nickname is Black Falcon, but give me a break. I’ve written 30 of these; they can’t all be good.
Just like this haiku, the Kings’ defense will be tremendously terrible. Nevertheless, they should score oodles of points, and it’ll be fun to see how supporting characters like Malik Monk and Kevin Huerter do in a new environment. De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis will be a top pick-and-roll duo in the league and already have the nudge-wink chemistry of longtime teammates. Rookie Keegan Murray’s development is critical, particularly on the defensive end, where he’ll need to be at least average eventually. When the Kings look good, they will look good, but they’re not going to show it consistently through 82 games.
Hyper rockets taking flight
Charting new orbit
Another fun team with zero expectations of wins today. Eric Gordon is still here,as captain of the All-Underrated Team; will he be moved, or do the Rockets want to keep him as a veteran presence? Jalen Green has an outside shot at being a 30-point scorer in just his second year. Kevin Porter Jr.’s unlikely development into a defensive-minded, pass-first (or at least, think about passing before shooting) point guard is pivotal to Houston’s future. They just signed him to an absurd extension that will easily let them cut bait if he doesn’t pan out. Alperen Şengün is my favorite non-Jokic passer in the league, with 110% of Joker’s audacity but 70% of Joker’s skill. Rookies Tari Eason and Jabari Smith Jr. look like studs already, gritty defensive warriors with significant offensive potential. Haven’t even mentioned Josh Christopher, Jae’Sean Tate, or other fun young guys, either. I will be spending a weird amount of time watching the Rockets lose 56 games this season.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Winning is abstract
Roster, a Jackson Pollack
Squint, shapes are forming?
Unfortunately, Chet Holmgren’s injury has deflated much of the excitement I had for the Thunder this season, but this should be an improved team compared to last year. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander worms his way into spaces that nobody else sees, and grinder Kenrich Williams is a winner stuck on a losing team. Josh Giddey is a passing savant, and his ability to develop even a hint of a jumper is the most critical non-draft Thunder storyline; there’s a reason they hired revered shooting coach Chip Engelland from the Spurs (and Giddey shot lights out in the preseason on a small sample).
After those three, OKC has an endless array of intriguing-but-unproven young guys, from rookies Jaylin Williams, Jalen Williams, and Ousmane Dieng, to athletic forward Darius Bazley, to newly-rich Lu Dort, to Tre Mann, to Jeremiah Robinson-Earl… the entire roster, really. The Thunder will be at the bottom of the standings as they try again to find that tentpole superstar to build around, but if you screw up your eyes, you can start to see the hazy outlines of a competitive team forming.
Ainge, green wrecking ball
Demolishes and reseeds
For brighter future
The Utah hate has gone too far. I’m genuinely interested to see what Lauri Markkanen and Collin Sexton do free from expectations and with as many touches as they want. Jarred Vanderbilt is a Basketball Poetry favorite, diving everywhere and fighting for any loose ball. There are way too many shoot-first players on this team right now, though, in Sexton, Jordan Clarkson, Talen Horton-Tucker, and Malik Beasley. Point guard Mike Conley, among others, is destined to be traded to a playoff team (Chicago? Philadelphia? Milwaukee? There should be a lot of suitors.). I had Utah 29th in my League Pass rankings, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons to watch. For Utah fans, though, it’s all about the lottery, and they’ll be better served watching Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson footage than actual Utah basketball.
San Antonio Spurs
Never seen darkness
As bleak, black as this; cruel hope
San Antonio fans have never been exposed to the level of terrible basketball they’re about to endure, at least in recent memory. I’m not sure this will be the worst team in the league, but I am sure they will be the least watchable. Can any of Keldon Johnson, Josh Primo, or Devin Vassell leap into star territory? Doubtful, but someone has to fill the scoring void left by Dejounte Murray’s trade to Atlanta. Three different first-round picks provide some fun: Jeremy Sochan is often juxtaposed with Dennis Rodman in a cheap-but-accurate comparison; Malaki Branham has the midrange game Coach Pop loves; Blake Wesley desperately wants to shoot and isn’t particular about how, when, or where. Jakob Poeltl is the best-defending and worst-free-throw-shooting big you never actually watch.
This year isn’t about the on-court product, however. It’s about gaining as many lottery balls as possible so that San Antonio doesn’t have to tank again for another two decades. The only win that matters happens in May’s lottery drawing.