Damian Lillard of the Milwaukee Bucks and Kristaps Porzingis of the Boston Celtics

2023-24 NBA Eastern Conference Preview Haikus

As I have in years past, I’ve created a season preview haiku for every NBA team. (Please don’t click away!)

This year, I’ve included an X-Factor and statistic to watch for each team to add some analytical meat (tasty!).

As a heads-up, there will be no mention of health. We all know that guys will miss games. You don’t need me to tell you Zion’s availability is the key to the Pelicans’ seasons. That’s lazy, boring analysis, even if it’s true. We’ll dive a little deeper than that.

These haikus are ordered by my expected final regular-season standings. Western Conference is coming soon!

Boston Celtics

17 banners
Hang up high; proud, old, lonely
Looking for a friend

The Celtics have long been good enough to win an NBA title, but they couldn’t crest the summit despite years of getting close. Bringing in Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis for Marcus Smart increases the team’s variance in a good way, and if Tatum and Brown keep improving, Boston will have their best chance yet to snag a ring. The C’s still have a few chips left to play, too (two picks and a handful of swaps, although finding matching salary may be tricky).

X-Factor: Porzingis. I believe in his shooting and defense, but he must accept a smaller role. There will likely be some nights where he doesn’t close games, particularly if he and Horford struggle together defensively. His ability to mentally adjust is as important as his actual ability to produce.

Stat to watch: Jays’ three-point percentage. Both Tatum (35.0%) and Jaylen Brown (33.5%) had downright poor long-distance shooting seasons, yet the Celtics still had a top-five offense. If they can tick up a couple of percentage points, we could see a team with the league’s best offense and defense. Not likely, of course, but certainly plausible.

Milwaukee Bucks

Thunder and lightning
Yin/yang, Batman and Batman
Dominant duos

Yep, the Bucks have two Batmans now (sorry, Kendrick Perkins, Middleton isn’t one of them). Lillard and Giannis’ fit should be sock-on-foot (at least on offense), but the team will need its depth pieces to take a step forward. Jae Crowder and Pat Connaughton will get time, but point-of-attack defense will be problematic. Perhaps Giannis and Lopez are so good on the backline that it doesn’t matter who’s in front. Either way, the Bucks are willing to take a small step back in the regular season to future-proof their habitually terrible playoff offense. New coach Adrian Griffin could tweak things, too.

X-Factor: Malik Beasley. As the initial starting shooting guard, Beasley will likely be relied upon to space the floor and defend the other team’s best guard. He’s well-equipped to do one of those things (although his three-point percentage did fall to 35.7% last year).

If Beasley can survive in a featured defensive role, I’m even higher on the Bucks. He spent much of last season losing his man off the ball and running smack into screens, seemingly on purpose. But when he’s dialed in (which wasn’t all that often last season), he’s shown a nice ability to get skinny around picks and fight hard:

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That play will have to be the norm, not the exception, for the Bucks to continue their dominant defensive ways. Beasley’s star has fallen in the last year or two (did you remember he averaged nearly 20 points per game for Minnesota across 2020-2021 before an injury and legal troubles?), but at just 26 years old, he still has a chance to rewrite his narrative.

Stat to watch: Opponent shot share at the rim. The Bucks have been a top-five team in preventing shot attempts at the rim in each of the last five seasons (and were bottom-five for seven straight seasons before that!). Brook Lopez anchoring the middle and Giannis lurking in help scares people away, but that success was partially dependent upon a great point-of-attack defender — first Eric Bledsoe, then Holiday — limiting easy drives from opposing guards. Now, with Lillard, Beasley, and an older, less hale Middleton in the starting lineup, the driving lanes to the rack will be cleaner than ever. Last year’s Bucks did not want to send help and open up the perimeter; this year’s version may have to. I’m not sure what the domino effects will be.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Learning from failure
Mitchell, shooting, empty gym
Splash! — silence again.

The Cavs were last season’s darling, the sexy young team that ran into some hulking Brooklyn brutes and got bloodied for the first time. I’m expecting a major bounce-back.

Offseason additions Max Strus and Georges Niang were added for their shooting, of course, but their positional flexibility is underrated. Donovan Mitchell struggled in the playoffs; he’ll be on a redemption tour. Darius Garland is a goldfish, and it’s up to the Cavs to make room for him to grow. Jarrett Allen is ready and willing to be on either end of a poster. Evan Mobley’s growth is one of the defining stories of the NBA season; if he finds a jumper and some confidence, he’ll singlehandedly put the Cavs’ ceiling on stilts.

X-Factor: Strus. For as ballyhooed a summer as the Cavaliers had, Strus kind of sucked in the playoffs last year. Just the threat of his shot opens up things on offense, but it would be nice if he actually, you know, made them on occasion. Defensively, Strus is surprisingly athletic but a little spacey. He’ll be good enough, and nobody will target him with Garland and/or Mitchell on the court.

If Strus can’t hit shots, coach Bickerstaff might give Isaac Okoro another shot as the starting three. But that’s the beauty of the Cavs’ new depth; they can play matchup games in a way they never could before.

Stat to watch: Rebounding without Jarrett Allen. Cleveland was a mediocre rebounding team with Jarrett Allen, and they couldn’t get a single freaking board with him sitting. I love Allen, but playoff matchups may dictate certain times when the Cavs have to run small. If the Cavs can’t protect the glass when he’s on the bench, those lineups may be untenable.

New York Knicks

Batter and bludgeon
Beat, bully, bulldoze, and bonk
Bloody, bash, and bop

That haiku appropriately sums up New York’s second-ranked (!!) offense last season, which relied upon generating as many shots as possible so as to dyson up offensive rebounds and draw fouls. In some ways, this feels more sustainable than if the team had simply shot well! If the defense can force a couple of turnovers, something it virtually never did last year, it could lead to a two-way improvement.

Otherwise, the Knicks project to be about what they were last year: a good team that’s unpleasant to play against and eventually capped by the lack of high-end talent. Unless, of course, they find the right superstar to unload for…

X-Factor: Josh Hart. He plays right into almost everything the Knicks want to do but still refuses to shoot threes. Coach Thibodeau and the Knicks have put up an above-average number of triples in the last two seasons, a surprisingly modern shot profile for an old-school team. I’m tired of saying this about Hart, but he has to let it fly more often to maximize his impact and row with the team.

Stat to watch: R.J. Barrett’s steal rate. If the Knicks want to force more turnovers, it would help if they got anything from Barrett. His 0.5% steal rate is in the oneth percentile for wings. Oneth percentile! Oneth is an uncomfortable word, and I don’t like looking at it. So do better, R.J.

Philadelphia 76ers

New year, new drama
A beard hides an albatross
MVP, but sad

Yet another Harden standoff with a team; yawn. I’m bored with that story, just like I’m bored with the regular-season 76ers. They’ll be a firm playoff team without threatening for the top or the play-in again, and while they made nice moves on the margins (Patrick Beverley is here!), the gap between them and the East’s top teams widens further if and when Harden leaves town. Let’s fast-track them to the playoffs intact and see if they can finally make some noise.

When Harden leaves (via trade or banishment), I want to see to what degree Maxey can fill the playmaking vacuum. He gets into the lane at will with one of the league’s quickest first steps, but he hasn’t had to develop his passing beyond the basics. Patrick Beverley isn’t enough of an initiator at this point, and there isn’t another point guard on the roster, so the playmaking burden may fall to ‘Rese by default. He won’t lead the league in assists like Harden, but if Maxey can generate good looks for teammates, shaving the Beard might not hurt as much as anticipated.

X-Factor: Nick Nurse. For all his flaws, Doc Rivers was an underrated regular-season coach. He constantly tweaked Embiid’s use cases to maximize the big man, culminating in last season’s MVP run, and the 76ers were always a top team in the East.

But Philly no longer gives a weasel’s rear about the regular season. Nurse was brought in to give hope to a beleaguered team and fanbase. Given the remarkable differences in roster construction between Philly and Toronto, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of impact Nurse has on the 76ers. I’m not sure we know who Nick Nurse is as a coach yet; after this season, we should have a better idea.

Stat to watch: Isolations. The 76ers ran the second-most isolations in the league last season and averaged a strong 1.04 points per possession. However, even above-average isolation efficiency makes for a below-average offensive play in general. Nurse may try to implement more ball movement, particularly if Harden isn’t running the show.

Miami Heat

Left at the altar
Boutonnière drooping, and yet
More fish in the sea

Sure, the Heat didn’t get Damian Lillard. The summer hasn’t gone according to plan. But it shouldn’t be hard to replace Max Strus and Gabe Vincent in the regular season, and with a healthy Herro, this team might be better in the playoffs than last year. In his second stint with Miami, Josh Richardson is the exact kind of versatile role player Erik Spoelstra maximizes. While I’m not a Thomas Bryant fan, he can’t be worse backing up Bam Adebayo than the desultory duo of Dewayne Dedmon and Cody Zeller. After whiffing on Lillard and Holiday like a blindfolded drunk swinging at a piñata, Miami will sniff around other big names to upgrade their roster.

X-Factor: Herro. He has to become a better playmaker and defender, and he can! He also may be traded for whoever demands out next. Either way, though, Herro will change Miami’s season.

Stat to watch: Opponent three-point shooting. The Heat’s defense bucks conventional wisdom by giving up a metric rumpload of three-pointers (they’ve been last or second-to-last in each of the last four years). This is partially due to Miami’s reliance upon wacky zones and dogged determination to wall off the rim.

Two years ago, when Miami was the #1 seed in the East, Heat opponents had the worst three-point percentage in the league (34.1%). Last year, when Miami was a play-in team, opponents had the 10th-best three-point percentage (37.0%). Given the volume of triples Miami allows, how this year’s opposition shoots will dramatically impact their regular-season success.

Atlanta Hawks

Trae comeback season
Obligatory caw-caw
Jalen or Saddiq?

There doesn’t seem to be much national chatter about the Hawks, which undersells what a fun team they should be next year. Trae Young is an offensive engine unto himself, and a full offseason with Quin Snyder to cook up some evil could spell danger for the rest of the league.

The removal of John Collins is addition by subtraction at this point, even though I’m excited to see what he can do in Utah. Dejounte Murray can’t be worse defensively than he was last year. De’Andre Hunter and/or Onyeka Okongwu may finally make a leap.

X-Factor: Saddiq Bey. I’m super intrigued by Jalen Johnson, the hyper-athletic youngster from Duke who brings defense and playmaking to the power forward spot. But my hunch is that for this team to hit its ceiling, they’ll need a big year from Bey. He shot 40% on solid volume from deep for Atlanta but played some lackadaisical defense and put no effort into rebounding. No one’s asking him to be Jayson Tatum, but if he’s playing the four, he has to be acceptable in those areas to prevent Johnson from stealing his starting spot.

Stat to watch: Dejounte Murray catch-and-shoot threes. Murray has always been more comfortable pulling up from deep off the dribble, but playing with Trae Young generates plentiful catch-and-shoot opportunities. Murray has to do better than last year’s anemic 32.4%.

Toronto Raptors

Sludgy and kludgy
Offensive morass, unless
Barnes sets long jump mark

It isn’t easy to project the Raptors. Even though their lightly protected pick will likely convey to the Spurs, they still might trade Pascal Siakam and/or O.G. Anunoby for new parts. Everything comes down to Scottie Barnes. If he can make an extraordinary jump, everything becomes about building around him. If he shows signs of stagnation, it might be back to the drawing board.

Gradey Dick brings some desperately needed movement shooting (and is underrated in other facets). A full season of Poeltl will stabilize the defense. Although the half-court offense was and likely will be ugly, the Raptors should once again be kings of the possession game, keeping their overall offensive rating afloat. If their defense stays top 10-ish like it was after they added Poeltl and the offense makes minor improvements, the Raptors could surprise some people.

Or, they might be an unwatchable mess. Who knows!

X-Factor: Anunoby. He’s wanted more of the ball in his hands, and I think he’ll get it. Anunoby will either show that he has heretofore-unseen abilities as a ball-on-the-floor playmaker for himself and others, or he’ll boost his trade value with inflated counting stats. Either one is a win for the Raptors.

Stat to watch: Barnes’ pick-and-roll scoring. Per Synergy, Barnes averaged just .73 points per possession when he shot out of a pick-and-roll, well below average. The team wants him to be a true point forward, and he’s a tremendous passer. But he wasn’t the sort of slippery screen-riding point guard who creates tons of advantage for himself or others — he wasn’t quite quick enough, he couldn’t quite shoot well enough, and his handle wasn’t quite tight enough.

But I used the past tense because this is a new season, and young players can improve all those attributes. If Barnes can better use the pick-and-roll for himself as a scorer, it will open up more options as a passer, too, putting some WD-40 on a creaky offense.

Indiana Pacers

It’s fast, but looks slow
ball floats, seraphic dunker
Haliburton oop

The Pacers will be a frantic, fast-paced team with Haliburton at the controls — they were the best transition team in the league last year and should be even better this year. Obi Toppin has many flaws, but he’s a one-man fast-break able to corral the most wayward of alleys into oops. Bruce Brown is an underrated dunker, and Isaiah Jackson is a human pogo stick. Expect to see Haliburton launching beautiful, slow-motion, arcing lobs from weird angles all season long:

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Unfortunately, the defense should be execrable unless the Pacers turn Buddy Hield into someone(s) who can defend. Poor Myles Turners will be putting out so many fires he may need a helmet and red jacket. Improvement from Haliburton and second-year bull-in-a-china-shop Bennedict Mathurin is essential to stabilizing this side of the floor.

The Pacers are hoping the offense is so good that the defense doesn’t matter, like the Kings last year. They likely can’t reach those historically great heights, but they should be fighting for a play-in spot and maybe even more.

X-Factor: Aaron Nesmith. Nesmith has the best chance of any Pacer to be a proper 3-and-D wing. He’s the only one (give or take Andrew Nembhard) who can guard multiple positions, hit threes, and, if the preseason is any indication, maybe even put the ball on the floor a bit. Nesmith’s improvement (particularly at the rim) in his fourth year will be critical if Indiana wants to make the playoffs. If he pops, the Pacers could cut Toppin’s minutes in favor of smaller lineups with Nesmith.

Stat to watch: Half-court offensive rating. One of the reasons the team pushed so hard on the break last year was because they were frightful in the half-court. There, the Pacers scored just 96.5 points per 100 possessions — good for 24th-best in the league, a surprisingly gloomy rank. They were below average even before Haliburton got hurt. If Buddy Hield is traded or comes off the bench, that’ll hurt even more. Indiana will need other players to pop in ways they haven’t before to boost this rating.

Chicago Bulls

Grimacing, sweaty
Caruso, one-man defense
Holding like Hodor

The Bulls were the fifth-best defense in the league last season despite starting Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic. Billy Donovan has his flaws, but he’s an underrated defensive coach who managed to concoct an effective scheme relying heavily upon the defensive freneticism of Alex Caruso (and, to a lesser extent, Patrick Beverley) to bottle up the point of attack. This team also had an elite defense the year before until Ball and Caruso got injured; it’s not a fluke.

The Bulls know their offensive profile has to shift, but you can find those words on sale at Aldi. The proof is in the work.

I’m a little more intrigued by Chicago’s youth than most — Patrick Williams, Coby White, etc. — but this looks like a team that’s locked squarely in the middle of the conference without much wiggle room either way.

X-Factor: White. White is emerging as the frontrunner to start at point guard. He’s talked this summer about re-embracing his scoring roots and showed significant defensive improvement last season. A little extra paint penetration from him could be enough to jumpstart the offense, and if Chicago’s defensive principles hold with White sopping up Patrick Beverley’s minutes, a top-six seed is in play.

Stat to watch: Drives per game. The Bulls averaged just 43 drives per game last season, sixth-fewest in the league. Drives per game aren’t the be-all, end-all of offense. Denver had the fewest in the league, for example. But it’s safe to say the Bulls don’t have an offensive fulcrum like Nikola Jokic.

The Bulls want to shoot more threes (29th in three-point frequency last year). To do that, they’ll need to generate more drive-and-kicks. As the most dynamic off-the-bounce guys on the roster, LaVine and White will need to get two feet into the paint more frequently. It’ll be interesting to see how much the ball ping-pongs around from there and if the Bulls can find enough corner shooting to make a difference.

Brooklyn Nets

Mikal on the rise
The Island of Misfit Toys
Who stays, and who goes?

I have no idea what to make of the Nets. Mikal Bridges had a bat-out-of-hell start to his Brooklyn tenure before cooling off at the end of the season. His ability to sustain All-Star-level production is the most important storyline here. Nic Claxton will mount a DPOY campaign after missing the All-Defensive Teams. Cam Johnson is a smooth fit on any team as a solid defender, excellent shooter, and shockingly aggressive body-bagger:

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Okay, so that clip isn’t actually of him dunking on anybody…but look at how Sacramento’s Kessler Edwards (a good defender!) sprints out of the way like a frightened mouse as Johnson approaches the paint. Other NBA players know what Johnson can do with a head of steam.

I’m not sure what the Nets look like after this coming summer. This will be a trial year for several major rotation players. If things are looking up, maybe the Nets become buyers, but if the team struggles to make the play-in, they have many pieces that would look good in more colorful uniforms.

X-Factor: Ben Simmons! I feel queasy about this pick, but Simmons has looked undeniably solid in the preseason. If he’s 90% back (and has a functioning back!), my entire perception of the Nets and their ceiling changes.

Stat to watch: Defensive rebounding. After Bridges and Johnson were traded to the team, the Nets ranked 28th in defensive rebounding and just 17th in overall defensive rating despite above-average marks in opponent shooting, forced turnovers, and foul rate. Preseason indicates the Nets may be playing less switch and more drop coverage, which should better protect the boards, but at what cost?

Simmons could help with rebounding, but other than Claxton, the rest of the starting five were mediocre-to-bad positional rebounders. Someone will have to step up because rebounding is the heavy albatross on what should be a top-10 defense.

Orlando Magic

Me Encanto Franz
Shooting guards, a whole new world?
Paolo, be prepared!

Alright, that was a tough read even for me; my toddler’s on a Disney kick, and I got out over my skis. Can’t stick every landing.

Either Franz or Paolo could make an All-Star leap this season in the Magic Kingdom, but for that to happen, someone in the backcourt has to hit a shot. It likely won’t be Markelle Fultz, an underrated but ill-fitting piece on this roster. Gary Harris is cool, but he’s Gary Harris. I have no idea why the Magic drafted Anthony Black, even though I like him as a prospect. Joe Ingles will be helpful, but he’s also a fifty-year-old who moves like he’s eighty. That leaves…

X-Factor: Jalen Suggs. Suggs must sustain and build upon his strong-shooting end to last season. He’s a fantastic, mean defender with questionable accuracy and decision-making. The ball will usually be in the hands of Banchero and Wagner, so it’s up to the supporting cast to hit open shots. If Suggs can be even a modest 36-37% on reasonable volume, it’ll make a huge difference for the rest of the team.

Stat to watch: Banchero’s center minutes. Banchero had an uneven but encouraging World Cup performance playing mostly small-ball center. I’m a big Wendell Carter fan, so I’m not sure taking him off the court is a great plan, but it’ll be interesting to see how often Jacque Vaughn goes to a Banchero-anchored lineup to add more shooting and playmaking (likely in the form of Ingles). The Magic would be the rare small-ball team that doesn’t have much shooting on the floor, but they do have an abundance of good passers and might be able to generate offense by roaring up and down the court like a bullet train.

Charlotte Hornets

The shadow of Scoot
LaMelo lobs, ‘Melo sobs
Mark Williams brings hope

The Hornets are likely in for another tough year record-wise, but unlike last season, they should be fun again. LaMelo is ready to remind people why he was an All-Star at 20. He should have a fantastic sky-running oopmate in sophomore Mark Williams, who looked like a one-man defensive system at the end of last season. The Hornets owe their pick to the Knicks from the Kai Jones trade (super yikes), but it’s lottery-protected, so if the team looks too competent, expect to see the vets flipped like a fixer-upper.

X-Factor: Miller. I hate picking rookies as X-factors, but Miller has to show signs of being a future star for the team’s direction to make sense. Rookies are rarely winning players, and that’s okay. But the Hornets need Miller to do things that second-overall picks usually do: have a few big scoring days, play some stretches of lockdown defense, shoot confidently from behind the arc. The hazy outline of Miller makes so much sense, but it’s up to him and the team to ensure any slight breeze doesn’t turn him into so much smoke.

Stat to watch: LaMelo’s free throw attempts. Ball contorts himself, Exorcist-style, to avoid any and all contact at the rim, resulting in poor finishing numbers and an anemic 3.4 free throw attempts per game (although he’s a top-10 crier about non-existent fouls; get back on defense, my man!). That number has to improve if Ball wants to level up his efficiency. He doesn’t need to be Trae Young, but I’d like to see him eke out at least five attempts per game. It’s hard to be an All-Star without free throws, and the ones who make it with few freebies, like Jrue Holiday, do so by being beasts in other areas. Sure, I’d love for Ball to metamorphose into a defensive menace like his brother, but becoming craftier around the rim seems like a more attainable goal.

Detroit Pistons

Volcano rises
Ripping through earth, lava spews
Cade unfurls his wings

This will be a hell of a year for the Pistons. They’ll still be bad; nobody with a rotation this young is ever good. But Detroit faithful finally get to see if Cade can be The Guy, the dragon who covets gold and will stop at nothing to get it.

Figuring out who is next in the pecking order will be a secondary but essential task. I hate the idea of consigning sophomore Jaden Ivey to the bench after his vast improvement during his rookie season, but I understand the appeal. I hope Ausar Thompson sticks in the starting lineup, but I’m unsure whether Ivey, Isaiah Stewart, or Bojan Bogdanovic makes more sense on the bench. Watching coach Monty Williams juggle playing time like lopsided chainsaws will be fascinating.

But it all comes back to Cade.

X-Factor: Ivey. Best case, Ivey looks like the second coming of Tyrese Maxey, who struggled from range his rookie year before turning himself into one of the league’s deadliest artillerymen in his next seasons. Worst case, the shot doesn’t come around, and Ivey is banished to the bench, a disappointing outcome even if he’d be a natural fit.

Stat to watch: Potential assists. The Pistons, battling youth, archaic offensive schemes, and general suckiness, averaged the fourth-fewest potential assists in the league last season despite having decent passers. They don’t necessarily have the shooting yet to convert a high percentage of those potential assists, but increasing the number of quality looks they get would speak to both a faster-paced game (they ran at an average pace last year despite all their youth and speed) and a more robust offensive framework.

Washington Wizards

There isn’t much here
But there’s something new, priceless:
Hope for the future

The Wizards finally have a clear direction. They’ll be quite horrendous this year, but Poole is a reasonable buy-low candidate who should generate near-infinite highlights and lowlights alike.

Tyus Jones provides a real offensive framework for the team to play in. His value isn’t in winning games today but in providing a structure for the Wizards to judge if players like Poole can contribute to future, better teams — they want to avoid the Houston Rockets’ problem from last year, in which it’s impossible to tell which players were capable of playing winning basketball.

Rookie Bilal Coulibaly’s meteoric rise in the last year gives some tangible reason for future optimism. We’ll see if Johnny Davis or Patrick Baldwin can earn that distinction.

X-Factor: Deni Avdija. The Wizards are the only team in the East that won’t be trying to win games right out of the gate, so picking an X-Factor is silly. Jordan Poole is the obvious answer, but I’m going with Deni Avdija. He’s a poor man’s Draymond Green or Ben Simmons trapped in a 3-and-D role he’s ill-equipped for. Seeing how he’s used will be just as interesting as seeing if he can finally develop a three-pointer.

Stat to watch: Turnover rate. The Wiz were below-average in turnover rate before they added Jordan Poole. Poole was one of the most charitable high-usage players in the league, donating the ball to the other team on nearly 15% of his possessions. Washington will have a lousy defense without giving the other team free fast breaks, and their ability to tone down the turnovers will go a long way toward deciding if this team is competitively bad or straight-up ghoulish. 

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.