Eastern Conference Preview Haikus

Milwaukee Bucks

Crown rests with Giannis

No Chick-fil-a nugs last year

Middy’s health the fix?

Giannis is the consensus best player in the NBA, and only Khris Middleton’s injury stopped the Bucks from a likely return trip to the championship (man, a Bucks-Warriors Finals would be incredible). While the rest of the East improved, and the Bucks mostly tinkered on the edges, they still have the top trio of players in the conference, and that might be the only thing that matters come playoff time. Jordan Nwora’s emergence and the return of Joe Ingles from injury will be critical X-factors.

Philadelphia 76ers

Few chances are left

Tougher, faster, better? Hmm

Redemption at last

I’m being a little dramatic here. As you all know, I’m quite high on the 76ers this season, but I do think that they are a bit of a ticking time bomb. Between Harden’s age and Embiid’s general fragility, it doesn’t feel like this team has much beyond a two-year window, at most. Good thing Morey stacked the roster with a deep, flexible collection of players who know their role and how to play around Harden. At the least, this team will be a regular-season juggernaut, but both Harden and Embiid have a lot to prove in the playoffs. Seeding could be important for Philly, as there are some matchups they’re better suited for than others, but this team has the talent to make a Finals run.

Boston Celtics

Knocking on the door

Green Monsters, defense hungry

Jays’ ceiling, no sign

Despite the tumultuous coaching situation and Robert Williams’ injury, I don’t think Boston should have an issue claiming a top seed in the East. They were two games away from a championship last season, and they’re hoping offseason addition Malcolm Brogdon will be the key that puts them over the top. Brogdon is like the good version of Jekyll-and-Hyde Derrick White, but all the time: a well-rounded player with good size at the point guard position who can provide a steady hand at the wheel when Marcus Smart is having one of his erratic days. Tatum and Brown will have to get even better than they were last season, though, particularly in terms of consistency.

Miami Heat

Keep on keepin’ on

Vice is dead, the grind is back

Wisdom of Haslem

Jimmy Butler’s last-second misfire in Game 7 against Boston put a thrilling but definitive end to a surprisingly dramatic season. PJ Tucker’s defection to Philadelphia hurts more in the postseason than the regular season, giving Miami plenty of time to figure out how to solve their power forward problem (Jae Crowder, perhaps?). At least two of the Herro, Lowry, and Bam need to be better this year than they were last year for Miami to improve their offense — and their playoff chances. Lowry, at least, can’t be worse, and it’ll be interesting to see if Miami lets Herro onto the starting lineup or not. Oladipo has shown glimpses of being the three-level scorer the Heat desperately need, but Heat fans probably shouldn’t be counting on that to happen every night yet.

Toronto Raptors

Foreboding forest

of limbs, long, grasping, hungry

swallowing offense

Toronto is just outside contender status for me. Still, their defense should be even better this season with maturation for Scottie Barnes, who, for all the hype, was easily Toronto’s worst starting defender last season (not a knock on him — rookies need time to figure out the NBA game). I think they still need a little more half-court offensive punch. Health from OG Anunoby would be a good start, and improved shooting from the bench would be hugely helpful (is Precious real?). Getting homecourt and/or avoiding Philly/Milwaukee/Boston in the first round would be massive.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Two swooping falcons

Two large, swatting sentinels

Who bridges the gap?

We know that Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell will cook on offense, and Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley will have to plug a lot of holes on defense. The fifth starter increasingly looks to be Caris LeVert, a talented but flawed player. I’d prefer to see the well-rounded Dean Wade or, if he can hit enough jumpers, Isaac Okoro for a little more defense, but the Cavs seem enamored with LeVert as a tertiary attacker who can theoretically be a stopper on the wing. I’ll believe it when I see it. But there’s no doubt the ceiling for this Cavs group is high. Mobley’s offensive development will be key. The Cavs’ roster construction is so unique that watching them will be an absolute treat.

Brooklyn Nets

Like Bloody Mary

Spooky tales told of killers

Ghosts aren’t real… are they?

You know nothing, Jon Snow… about Brooklyn. Or at least, I sure don’t! The paper roster should frighten opponents, but availability concerns, chemistry issues, regular old injury rust, and many other things could happen to turn Brooklyn’s season nightmarish (a surprising amount is riding on TJ Warren, Joe Harris, and Ben Simmons, three guys who missed all of last season — and Warren’s missed two straight!). I’m pessimistic, but there’s certainly a chance they look like world-beaters.

Chicago Bulls

Just like their namesake

Proud, bloodied; Lady Luck is

a cruel matador

The news from Lonzoland seems to get worse by the day, DeRozan seems unlikely to repeat his clutch-time heroics from last season, and newly-minted max-man LaVine is coming off knee surgery. But there are reasons for optimism. Third-year forward Patrick Williams and second-year guard Ayo Dosunmo seem primed for improvement. Maligned center Vucevic has to be better than he was last year. For his services, the team owes its first-round selection to Orlando (top-four protected), so they’ll be incentivized to squeak out as many wins as possible where other bubble playoff teams may start to “descend-y for Wemby” (h/t Chris S). It might not be pretty, but I still believe in Chicago to emerge from the play-in.

New York Knicks

Bing-bong will be cry

as the playoffs pass them by

(Unless RJ flies)

I thought the Knicks were a lock to make the playoffs until I started listing out the teams ahead of them. It gets crowded fast. Jalen Brunson will stabilize the point guard position, bolstering a starting group that was horrendous last season. The bench was arguably the league’s best, and it should remain a strength. I’m a bit worried about Thibodeau’s lack of defensive flexibility, but the Knicks are highly unlikely to tank, and they have enough pieces to swing a big trade if a star becomes available. As currently constructed, there’s not enough efficient scoring available (although early preseason signs have been encouraging). I view New York as a high-floor, low-ceiling team that should be smack in the middle of the play-in race with a reasonable chance of escaping into the first round. If Julius Randle rediscovers his All-NBA form or RJ Barrett makes a huge leap (both plausible, if unlikely), maybe they can do even better than that.

Atlanta Hawks

Chasing a mirage

with villains, Murray and Trae

Lobs are not defense

Atlanta will likely be visiting a play-in game this year as they try to find the optimal roster around the insta-offense Trae Young. De’Andre Hunter playing a full season would go a long way toward solving that problem. I’m not optimistic about Dejounte Murray’s fit, but he certainly could be the skeleton key unlocking the Hawks’ ultimate form. John Collins is quickly approaching Myles Turner “will they ever trade me?” territory. I’m excited to see if former Dukies Jalen Johnson and AJ Griffin can provide a spark to a depleted bench. Occasionally, you can hear Sir Foster’s in-arena organ music slinking through the broadcast — a League Pass delight.

Washington Wizards

Sexy unis, but

Competence without glory

Less than sum of parts

Here’s the thing: the Wizards will be solid. They have a startling amount of competency at all positions, but there’s just so little potential/variance in any of those players that it’s hard to see how they could crack .500 (especially given various health concerns — Kristaps Porzingis has had more comeback tours than the Rolling Stones). Beal is looking to rebound after securing the bag. Maybe Deni Avdija or Rui Hachimura pops, or Kyle Kuzma makes a mini-leap. It’s strange; I’m interested in many of these players individually, but the ceiling is uncomfortably low at the macro level.

Detroit Pistons

‘Merican muscle

V8 engines, veined biceps

Just raring to go

A flotilla of exciting athletes leads a young Pistons team. The Bojan trade surprised me, as it indicated that Detroit will be actively trying to win games to start the year. Bojan does make things easier for young, shooting-starved guards Jaden Ivey and Cade Cunningham. Did I mention this team has some athletes?

Saddiq Bey tantalizes but needs consistency. The frontcourt could use some clarity, with Jalen Duren/Isaiah Stewart/Marvin Bagley/Nerlens Noel overlapping too much to maximize their collective talents. At this point, getting anything positive on offense from Killian Hayes must be considered a win (also, he needs to stop fouling). I wouldn’t hold my breath for a play-in berth, but with all their best players still super young, Detroit is just a year or two away from making serious noise.

Orlando Magic

Bigs who can pass —fun!

Rebuilding with size AND skill

But where’s the shooting?

Orlando, like Detroit, is a young, bad team on a clear path to success. Their three bigs are all very talented, and if rookie Paolo can develop into a true alpha scorer, the pieces are in place for the Magic to be heavy hitters sooner than later. Orlando desperately needs to find a point guard who can actually shoot, but that’s a problem for next season, as they still need to determine what they already have in Jalen Suggs and Markelle Fultz. This is a year of experimentation and learning for the Magic, and it should be a fun ride.

Charlotte Hornets

Yikes! Spurned by a coach,

Arrests, injuries, but hey!

Good year to be trash

The haiku says it all. Charlotte’s various misfortunes could end up being a blessing in disguise. I predicted that Charlotte has a genuine chance of being the worst team in the East this year, but if they’re able to land one of the top prospects in the draft to pair with LaMelo, they can ignite a rebuild with the quickness. Terry Rozier seems destined to be traded this season, as does Gordon Hayward if he can rebuild trade value by actually playing games. This already feels like a lost year; I’m sorry, Charlotte fans, but at least the draft is supposed to be deep and great.

Indiana Pacers

Pretty Hali dimes

Benn trash-talk, grinders, coach Rick

Can’t be that bad, right?

I’m partial to this group of try-hards. Tyrese Haliburton adds a little sex appeal to a group without much established NBA talent. Myles Turner might be here forever. Buddy Hield is certainly getting traded. I LOVE Bennedict Mathurin, obviously, and Chris Duarte showed a lot of promise in his rookie season. It has to be refreshing for Indiana fans to know that their team will be terrible but fun to watch, as opposed to mediocre and a chore, as the Pacers have been for ages. 

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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.