Western Conference Haikus and Previews
I'm sorry in advance for this assault on the arts
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 Western Conference team, listed in order of how I expect them to finish the regular season. Part II coming soon.
Will rewind be kind?
Like rock, eroding away
Never change, improve
Without better perimeter defense and improved playoff health, the Jazz will continue to be an elite regular season team and a playoff disappointment. Gobert plus shooting is clearly enough to get 50+ wins every regular season, but some sort of midseason trade for a defensive wing is an absolute necessity to deal with the brutes in the West.
The Jazz will play beautifully precise basketball, whirling and driving and splashing and blocking their way to a top seed yet again. And nobody will care.
Jump shooters galore
Ayton and Bridges see green
Whole greater than parts
They haven’t gotten much love, but the Suns are elite on offense and defense and return all of their important players, so a conference finals run is again very much in play. Any age-related decline in Chris Paul’s ability could be offset by growth from Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton, and Mikal Bridges.
The latter two are embroiled in tense contract negotiations with the Suns, which could become a distraction (Update: Bridges has signed a 4 year/$90 million extension). But overall, I expect their few on-court weaknesses (thin big-man and PG depth) and numerous strengths to push them to a top seed once again.
Bulbs left on too long
Dimming giants, at the end
The assumed favorites have a lot of question marks, most notably Westbrook’s fit with Lebron in the playoffs (my take: not great, but good enough). Has-beens Rondo, Anthony, and Howard project to be mostly bit players by playoff time, but strong performances from some unheralded young’uns like Malik Monk (finally got threes to go down last year!) and Kendrick Nunn could be the boost they need to bring home another championship.
Vogel’s coaching on the defensive side will be put to the test with less talent on that end receiving regular minutes. A healthy Lebron and AD (far from a certainty) are enough to guarantee a Western Conference Finals appearance.
Easter Island moai strength
Fish flopping: Jokic
Last year’s Nuggets team looked like a title contender (favorite?) after the Aaron Gordon trade, but Jamal Murray’s ACL tear right before the postseason was cruel. This year will push reigning MVP Nikola Jokic to the limit. He will have to bear an even greater offensive burden without his longtime running mate.
Monte Morris will finally have a chance to be a long-term starter but needs to be more aggressive than he’s shown in the past. Will Barton is healthy and will inject some chaos into one of the league’s more deliberate offenses. Michael Porter Jr. will be a key to early-season success. He’s positively Durantian with his high release point and the way he can drill jumpers right in the teeth of an opposing defense. Aaron Gordon will need to look for his shot more often. Jokic is good enough to keep this team in the thick of the Western playoff race, but their ceiling depends on when Murray gets back to full health.
Luka needs some help
The troubling hiring of Jason Kidd and an emphasis on rim attacks instead of threes won’t change the result: statistical dominance for Luka but a middling-low seed and early exit. Reggie Bullock for Josh Richardson? Alright. Added Sterling Brown? Sure, why not. This is basically the same team as last year, with way too much responsibility riding on Kristaps Porzingis. The Mavs have never proven they can be a real threat despite Luka’s outrageous statistical performances.
A chorus of crickets sings
Sadly, no one cares
Similar story to the Nuggets. Most of the same crew is back, but Kawhi Leonard’s eventual return (maybe?) is the only story that matters. Look for Paul George to regain some of his OKC Thunder MVP-level form. Replacing Pat Beverley with Eric Bledsoe was panned at the time but makes a lot of sense. Defensively, the switch is a wash (although Bledsoe was much worse than his reputation last year, when he didn’t deign to try). Though Bledsoe isn’t the spot-up shooter PatBev is, he’s a better driver and passer than Beverley. It would help if Justise Winslow turns out to be a real person and not simply a name on an injury list.
Were playoff Reggie Jackson and Terance Mann legit? If so, the Clippers should be good enough for a 6-8 seed, and if Kawhi comes back, this team’s underrated two-way play could be a successful playoff recipe once again.
Green conducting orchestra
Splashing in the Poole?
The Warriors having the fourth-best title odds this season is a joke. Their defensive play last season was astonishing for a team without many great individual defenders, and Draymond Green deserves all the credit. It’s not hard to imagine Steph Curry being MVP-good once more, but even if he does lead the league in scoring again, there just isn’t enough offensive firepower here to propel them beyond a round in the playoffs.
Klay’s return will be interesting, but it’s too much to expect someone coming back from a two-year hiatus after suffering the most devastating injuries in basketball to become a two-way stud. All that said, the Warriors are always a great watch, and they play a mesmerizing and exciting brand of basketball on both sides.
Rage against the dying light
Defense still a blight
Moves around the margins (changing coaches, adding the underrated Larry Nance Jr., and re-signing Norm Powell) don’t change this team’s future: great on offense, terrible on defense, and destined for the play-in.
Without swinging a trade for a certain shooting-averse giant point guard, it’s hard to picture these guys having much of a best-case scenario. Simultaneously, they’re too good to fall below the 9 or 10 seed. At this point, we know who the Blazers are. The individual brilliance of Lillard and CJ McCollum always makes for a fun watch, but the Blazers need a wake-up slap.
Bunch of kangaroos
Bouncing and bopping on heads
Bears really can fly!
This team is in desperate need of a consolidation trade. Dillon Brooks is a preeminent agitator, and he looks ready to inherit Patrick Beverley’s crown as the “most irritating player” in the league. His shot selection needs work, but he has shown big game potential. Desmond Bane looks like a solid 3-and-D guy who is young enough to expand his game further. Kyle Anderson quietly had a tremendous year, playing solid defense and tripling his three-point volume while knocking them down at an acceptable 36% rate. Ja Morant has an insane highlight reel just from his missed dunks, but his superstardom is limited by his lack of range.
The Grizz have a lot of guys who are solid NBA players on good contracts, but nobody besides Morant who is likely to crack an All-Star game (Jaren Jackson Jr. has a chance if he stays healthy and stops fouling). I’d love to see them swing for the fences and make an unexpected trade, but until then this team has a strong chance of making the play-in tournament for a third year in a row.
KAT, Russell, Edwards
Offense won’t be a problem
The Wolves finished strong with Edwards, Russell, and KAT healthy, and the play-in is absolutely a possibility if they can field even a mediocre defense. It’s hard to see a team with this many gunners (including Malik Beasley) and a lack of starting-caliber forwards pushing much further, however.
They should be exciting viewing: a motivated and aggressive Karl Anthony-Towns is a sight unlike anything else in the NBA, Edwards’s insane finish to last season could portend big things, and Jarred Vanderbilt flings his body around dangerously. There’s a lot of individually interesting pieces here that don’t quite seem like they fit well enough to make a good team.
Like a mini giant squid
The Kings will chase the playoffs, and the Kings will fail. A story as old as time. Fox has improved every year (although he needs a credible three-pointer to make the next leap), Hield is a human flamethrower, and Haliburton showcased his jack-of-all-trades skills in a shortened rookie season. Mitchell mauling offended people on defense is going to be hilarious. Richaun Holmes’ astonishing push shot is more effective than it has any right to be.
But this squad won’t play a lick of team defense (despite Mitchell’s individual brilliance) or rebound. In a crowded West, that’s not a recipe for success. Two interesting questions: what becomes of Hield (a valuable trade chip), and can Luke Walton make it to the All-Star break before getting fired? My guesses: Hield requests a trade, and Walton’s looking for a new job soon.
Pop’s final hurrah
Living legend, he won’t go
Literally decades of success do have a lead lining: no good draft picks to refill the talent coffers. The Spurs haven’t missed on many picks, but haven’t been in position to snatch All-Star caliber guys either. Keldon Johnson, Derrick White, Dejounte Murray, and Jakob Poeltl are all good players who aren’t likely to become great (Johnson, coming back from the Olympics, may be the best bet of these four).
The outlier here is Lonnie Walker, who has been worse than the four mentioned above but looks unstoppable in small flashes. He just can’t string together consistently great games, or even consistent quarters. If Walker or Johnson don’t both make leaps this season, it’s hard to see the Spurs scoring enough to make the playoffs.
In humid moonlight
Orleans behemoth looms, jumps
Silently breaks foot
New Orleans had a weird offseason that saw bizarre (and spurious?) reports about David Griffin courting Zion with his piano skills, coach Stan Van Gundy fired for Willie Green, a whole mess of trades to open up cap space for Kyle Lowry despite the fact that Lowry clearly had no interest in Cajun cooking, and astonishing news right before preseason that Zion had broken his foot (!!) and was without a timetable to return (!!!!!!!). Public reception to many of the trades was quite negative, but I believe in some of these moves. Jonas Valanciunas is a huge upgrade over overrated Steven Adams. Graham can shoot the heck out of the ball, and they added some nice depth with Satoransky and Temple.
The problem is, if Zion isn’t around for 60 games, this team has zero chance of making noise despite Brandon Ingram’s best efforts. Williamson looks even more bowling-ball-shaped than usual, and he will take some time to get back to playing weight whenever he does return to the court. The NBA is better when Zion is shoulder-checking fools into oblivion, so here’s hoping the Pellies can string together enough to at least make a play-in. But right now, it seems unlikely.
Jalen Green will lead
Greatest twenty-one win team
In league history
The Rockets are in a full-bore retool, but unlike some of the previous rebuilds we’ve seen (*AhhThunderchoo*), this team already is stacked with exciting players. Aleperen Sengun is a wild man who in a few preseason minutes has already tried more no-look passes and wild spin moves than any center should. His court vision and stronger-than-expected rim protection have been a revelation. Jalen Green projects to be an aggressive gunner as a rookie, with numerous 5-15 shooting nights punctuated by moments of incandescent brilliance. Christian Wood’s offensive game is versatile and underrated. He will put up substantial numbers as the alpha big man. Kevin Porter Jr. seeks to prove that he can run a team from the point position and balance his playmaking and scoring instincts.
Danuel House, Casanova himself, is still present, as is Jae’Sean Tate, bulldozing his way to the rim like the boulder in The Temple of Doom. Eric Gordon and Daniel Theis are here for, uh, veteran guidance, I guess? Or something? Anyway, this team will be horrendously, historically bad on defense, but it should be appointment viewing anyway.
A Pollack painting
Basketball player-ish guys
M1 Abrams tank
This team is going to be unbearable. The Thunder have a couple of interesting players in rookie Josh Giddey and second-year player Aleksej Pokusevski, both guys with shaky shots and audacious passing skills, but this is not a roster designed to win basketball games.
Watching Shai Gilgeous-Alexander start and stop and worm his way to the basket, where defenders are shocked to suddenly find themselves giving up layups, is a rare treat. But if they are more successful than expected, like last year, expect the Thunder to shut down key performers like Shai (whose arrhythmic game reached new heights last season) yet again.
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