Eastern Conference Haikus and Previews
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For the eighth-ish year running, I’ve done my NBA Season Previews in haiku form. I’m sorry. Below are my thoughts on each Eastern Conference team, listed in order of how I expect them to finish the 2021-2022 regular season. Click here for Western Conference haikus and previews, if you have the stomach for it.
A crown of antlers
Giannis, still hungry
The Bucks are finally vindicated! They project to be even better this season, with PJ Tucker’s loss offset by the additions of Grayson Allen and Rodney Hood and the return of Donte DiVincenzo, which should boost their surprisingly poor outside shooting. Coach Mike Budenholzer addressed pretty much all of the criticisms that skeptics had levied against him. Giannis answered the bell with 50 (!!) points in a Finals-clinching game, including 17-19 free-throw shooting, and showed off his improved offensive versatility. Jrue Holiday, despite some uneven shooting performances, consistently causes chaos on the defensive end. Middleton’s run as the ninth-inning closer is secure. And Pat Connaughton, who had been maybe one of the worst starters in the league during the regular season despite career-best long-distance shooting, started hitting everything in the Finals and played rock-solid defense, earning his playoff stripes.
This season projects to be much of the same for Milwaukee. They will roar through the regular season before entering the playoffs trying to prove last year wasn’t a fluke. With what we’ve seen, it’s tough to bet against Giannis and Co.
I’m gonna do this
Whole haiku without talking
The Nets are a prohibitive favorite to win the Finals if Kyrie returns and Harden/Durant stay healthy. This team might still be the favorite as long as two of those three are playing. It seems unfair a team this star-studded could also be this deep. Patty Mills will be a perfect fill-in for Kyrie and is an accomplished bench gunner if (when?) Irving returns. Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nic Claxton, and James “Bloodsport” Johnson provide versatile options for coach Steve Nash to mix and match at the big-man spots. Cam Thomas looks like a bench sparkplug, and Bruce Brown and Jevon Carter bring needed grit (why Carter couldn’t get any run in the Finals for a Suns team needing a boost is beyond me). Those are twelve names that could legitimately earn minutes for most NBA teams, and feeding all those mouths will be the toughest task for Nash. But it’s a hell of a problem to have.
Fans booed Santa Clause
What will they do to Simmons?
Need shot creation
The Ben Simmons thing looms over everything, but a resolution doesn’t seem likely in the near future. It hasn’t been talked about much, but he is the only player who is an above-average ball-handler and passer on this team. His absence (or dogging it in games) will deprive the 76ers of their only real playmaker. Shake Milton and Tyrese Maxey have shown flashes but are scoring guards at this point. Seth Curry tries his best, but if Curry has the ball, he can’t be utilized as an off-ball threat. None are starter-level NBA point guards yet.
Signing Georges Niang adds a legit stretch four. Korkmaz is underrated, and Danny Green is still doing Danny Green things despite looking immobile at times. Embiid is good enough that this should be a solid regular season team with or without Simmons, but they’ll need some playmaking juice (CJ McCollum wouldn’t be a terrible fit…) to make a splash in the ‘yoffs.
Captain of his ship
Haslem, unflinching, sails on
Goal never changes
People are focusing on the wrong things for Miami. Kyle Lowry is quickly approaching the age of no return, and PJ Tucker looked incapable of anything on the offensive end in last year’s playoffs. These are the two guys expected to revitalize the entire team? Less attention needs to be paid to the offseason additions and more to the internal improvements of Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro.
Bam’s postseason against Milwaukee was disastrous. He looked uncharacteristically timid and uncertain, and I expect him to come roaring out of the gates this year with renewed fire. Herro’s out here making people crash their cars, but he also looked like a superhero in the preseason, where he eviscerated defenses and bombed away from deep. His emergence as a playmaker is key to replacing the traded Goran Dragic’s production. It will be interesting to see if his tightened handle and improved shot let him get into the teeth of the defense more often.
These two guys and Lowry will need to reduce the playmaking pressure on Jimmy Butler, who looked exhausted and overtaxed by the end of last season’s Milwaukee series. Max Strus is in line for more minutes, as the Heat’s player development machine keeps churning out modest hits. Overall, this team will be solidly fighting for the 3-6 seed in the East, and Miami’s defense should be fearsome. Is there enough firepower on this team to match up with Brooklyn and Milwaukee? Only time will tell.
New York Knicks
Barrett’s on the rise
Randle the rhinoceros
Thibs needs a new throat
Last season’s Julius Randle explosion was incredible to witness, culminating in his Most Improved Player award, but it overshadowed some quiet improvement from RJ Barrett, as well. The limits of an all-Randle, all-the-time offense became apparent in the playoff loss to the Hawks, and so the Knicks went out and signed Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, two guys who can both create on the ball and threaten off the ball.
Nerlens Noel finally received consistent run and rewarded coach Thibs with a career year in blocks and improved defensive discipline. Obi Toppin showed flashes late in the year and in preseason, and he might have a longer leash this year. Immanuel Quickley looks to improve on a stellar rookie season, and Derrick Rose was New York’s best player as recently as the playoffs. Overall, this team should take a small step back on defense but a leap forward on offense if a healthy Kemba Walker can be effective.
Joyless as school on Monday
Engine dead: no spark
Boston is a good team that’s flying under the radar, but it can be tough to watch. A team with Jaylen Brown’s shooting, Jayson Tatum’s balletic footwork, and Marcus Smart’s insanity should never be described as “mechanical,” and yet here we are. Smart has been the de facto point guard for a while now, but this year he officially takes the reins. He’ll need to curb some of his worst shot-selection impulses and provide flow to an offense that has never seen an extra pass.
Tatum and Brown have improved greatly every year, but too often settle for high-difficulty mid-ranges that stall the offense. The Celtics should have a monstrous defensive unit with Smart/Tatum/Brown/Josh Richardson/Robert Williams, but Time Lord’s inability to stop slapping shooters in the face could be a problem if Al Horford has lost a step. This team has been so good for so long that they’re taken for granted, but it still feels like they would benefit tremendously from a true pass-first point guard, like Ricky Rubio (sorry, Dennis Schroder doesn’t count). Aaron Nesmith bears watching as yet another sharp-shooting wing for this team.
Like cartoon bad guy,
Trae curls end of waxed mustache
Collins’ shirts on point
Remember when all the Hawks’ players were injured, they were mired in mediocrity, and someone was leaking stories to the press about how everyone hated playing with Trae Young? Those days feel so long ago. A coaching change (and, probably more importantly, a return to health) quickly fixed all woes, and the Hawks looked like a different team in the second part of the season on their way to an Eastern Conference Finals berth. This year, the Hawks feel like a dark horse “where the heck did that come from” trade candidate. They are packed to the gills with quality players, and several deserving guys will be riding the pine this year.
Trae shushed his doubters by absolutely torching the East in the playoffs last year until an injury slowed him down. Capela exceeded even the most optimistic projections and should pick up right where he left off, dominating the boards and playing the best defense of his life. John Collins’ willingness to accept a reduced offensive role and play with tougher grit on defense is a pleasant surprise and changes the trajectory of this core. Delon Wright and Gorgui Dieng provide huge upgrades at backup point guard and center, respectively, that should keep the Hawk afloat when Trae and Capela rest. I have no idea which of the Bogdanovic/Hunter/Huerter/Reddish/Gallinari quintuplet fills the last two spots in the Hawks’ closing lineups down the stretch, however, and I expect Atlanta to move at least one of those guys soon just to provide some roster clarity.
Below-average D enough?
Zoom-zoom and kaboom!
The Bulls are a fantasy draft come to life. Their offense should fill it up with impressive highlights every night. All-Star Zach LaVine has improved every year, San Antonio unleashed DeRozan’s vision, Vucevic can facilitate or knock down shots, and Lonzo is a good-enough shooter and excellent ball mover who can keep things fluid.
This team should be fast, even with the plodding Vucevic bringing up the rear. Billy Donovan is an underrated defensive coach (last year’s team somehow finished 11th in defense), and if he keeps their defensive rating in the teens, Chicago’s ceiling is high.
Depth is a concern, particularly finding scoring from their second unit if Coby White struggles to earn minutes. There was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth when the Bulls pulled off their flurry of moves to sell the future for the present, but they are a solid squad with a puncher’s chance to be this year’s Hawks.
Carlisle, cranky wizard
Under the radar
Man, if these guys could just get healthy for one freaking season. Rick Carlisle is one of the best coaches in the league and will look exceptionally good compared to the gruesome Nate Bjorkgren era (remember when a player and a coach tried to fight each other?). There is a lot to like about this deep, talented roster.
Sabonis unlocked new levels to his game last year, shooting threes and leading the league in several of my least-ballhoggy-player stats. His ability to act as a mini-Jokic sets a solid offensive foundation for Carlisle. Malcolm Brogdon and Caris LeVert would be a tantalizing backcourt with a great mix of on-ball creation and off-ball shooting, but neither of them (especially LeVert) can stay healthy. Myles Turner improved nicely on defense but still looks a little lost and underutilized offensively. TJ McConnell harassing innocent ballhandlers for ninety-four feet is one of the great unheralded viewing pleasures of the NBA.
I’m sure the Pacers will do what they always do, and end up a lower seed in the East. But if Indy stays healthy and Carlisle does his crazy basketball warlock things, then they have an opportunity to win a playoff series.
Can Lamelo leap?
So many wings and powers,
Smallest team in league
The Hornets have basically decided to lean into their strengths and just run. All the time. Forever. Even at 31, new center Mason Plumlee can get up and down the floor and has underrated passing chops. LaMelo was a highlight-reel sensation last year, throwing full-court underhanded outlet passes and shooting surprisingly well from deep. Terry Rozier turned into a deity during crunch time and shot the ball at tippy-top-of-the-league-elite levels. If that’s real, the Hornets project to shoot solidly as a team. Kelly Oubre’s offensive struggles last season for the Warriors were immense, but he should add some more energy and chaos to both sides of the ball.
Gordon Hayward’s all-around game is the engine that makes this team go and, when healthy, the Hornets should be competitive. Defense is going to be a struggle, and they can’t finish at the rim as a team, so a lot is going to ride on their shooting abilities.
Raptors, pack hunters
Masai is their messiah
Barnes like old Scottie?
This team is tough to project. Losing long-time stalwart Lowry will hurt. A bunch of intriguing young guys, led by rookie Scottie Barnes, equates to a high-variance squad that will look like a world-beater some nights and the worst team in the league on others. Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet are nice two-way players that are being asked to do too much on offense. There are rumors, whispers in the night, that OG Anunoby is about to take his place among the elite wings of the game. If that’s true, and he can be a twenty-plus point scorer, then this team’s ceiling is considerably raised.
Everyone on this team can defend, but rebounding and scoring could be difficult, so Anunoby’s ascendance as an alpha bucket-getter would be huge. The unhappy Goran Dragic actually would be a great fit on this team, so keep an eye on if he buys in or drags while pining for a new home. The Raptors are either a 6-seed or an 11-seed, and we should know by the All-Star break which way they are headed.
To turn John Wall into dudes
What a two-year turnaround for the Wizards. As a team, they’re probably going to be fighting for the final play-in spot just like they always are, but instead of being stuck under Wall and then Westbrook’s gigantic contracts, they have a bunch of nice players on nice contracts that provide nice upside and flexibility. Nice job, GM Tommy Sheppard!
A healthy Spencer Dinwiddie fits well with Bradley Beal in the backcourt. Kyle Kuzma has a chance to emerge as a core two-way piece. Daniel Gafford looks like a steal from the Bulls as a rim-protecting, hard-rolling center (although he needs to foul less). Rui Hachimura, if healthy, is an improving player with an increasingly smooth jumper.
I’m not sure this team is better than last year, exactly, but they’ve positioned themselves to be players as either buyers or sellers at the trade market. I wouldn’t count on this team having anything resembling this roster at the start of next season, one way or another.
More than meets the eye
Evan Mobley! Transformers!
Defense in Disguise
This will be yet another tough season for the Cavs, but at least they are trending up. Count Steph Curry among Darius Garland’s many fans. Evan Mobley has looked like a defensive stud in the preseason. His teammates hate him, but Collin Sexton scored efficiently last season (although these numbers hide the split between a scorching early-season start and a much colder finish). Jarrett Allen is overrated but tries hard. Lauri Markannen is an intriguing piece; a change of scenery could unlock a player who looks a lot like the old Kevin Love, without the temper tantrums or anvil salary. Regardless, the Cavs will be quite bad this year on both ends and await another trip to the lottery. At least their young core will have some fun moments.
Still several years away
Hope springs eternal
The opposite of Boston, the Pistons will be a joy-filled disaster of a team. They’ve assembled a bunch of precocious young players like Cade Cunningham, Isaiah Steward, and Saddiq Bey. Jerami Grant is out to prove last season’s breakout was not a fluke. Josh Jackson somehow has inspired yet another round of, “Really, he’s better this year!” articles, and maybe this is the season it actually turns out to be true. It should be a blast for Detroit fans to watch their youngsters grow and develop with no expectations. The only real concern, of course, is how high Cunningham’s ceiling can rise. Detroit would be doing everyone (especially Cade) a favor if it stopped trying to make Killian Hayes a thing.
Like Wiseau’s “The Room”
Cult classic, so bad they’re good
Fun pieces, weird fits
Finally, an interesting Magic team! Let’s be clear: they will be terrible on both ends. But I like what I’ve seen in the preseason from Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter, both of whom are at make-or-break crossroads. RJ Hampton shows beguiling flashes, then lapses back into ineffectiveness. Fultz and Jonathan Isaac do the same, but substitute “ineffectiveness” for “street clothes.”
People were high on rookie Jalen Suggs coming out of the draft, and he’s expected to bring a steady playmaking presence…but rookie point guards have a rough development curve, and this team’s lack of stable veterans outside of Terrence Ross and Gary Harris won’t help. This team is crowded at point guard and center when everyone’s healthy. The standings won’t matter, but player development will, as the Magic need to decide who can be part of a future winning core.
And there we have it! If you’re reading this, thanks for plowing through to the end. For your convenience, here are the Western Conference haikus. If you found any of these poems even remotely enjoyable, please share, forward, etc. Comment below if you think you can beat me (it shouldn’t be hard!). The NBA season is here! Until next time, enjoy basketball.