Western Conference Preview Haikus

Folks, it’s here. The NBA season tips off tonight. I can’t wait to have new games to write about!

Here are my Western Conference haikus and previews. I promise this is the last poetry you’ll see from me until next season’s preview.

As with my Eastern Conference preview, I don’t focus too much on health, although it is factored into my standings. You know Zion and Kawhi need to be healthy for their teams to have a chance. That’s boring analysis, and we’ll go deeper than that.

In case you want more stuff to fill these last few hours before the season, I wrote a cool piece for The Step Back about why the MVP race always sucks. It dives into how social media, advanced stats, and League Pass have all contributed to voter ballots that increasingly look the same. I even got to interview Jared Greenberg of TNT and NBA TV fame (and got him to say a bad word)! So please give that a click.

I also wrote some League Pass rankings for Hoops Habit. If you need a guide for which teams to watch (and which to avoid) from a neutral fan’s perspective, I’ve got you covered.

With that, let’s carry on. These previews are roughly ordered in how I think the teams will finish the regular-season standings, but the West is absurdly jumbled from 2-11, and picking precise seeding is a fool’s errand.

Next time you read Basketball Poetry, we’ll have new stuff to talk about. Huzzah!

Denver Nuggets

Atop the mountain
Jokic rests, content, happy —
His horse won the race

The best-fitting starting five in the league should stroll through the regular season without much trouble. I expect Jamal Murray to take a leap, brimming with confidence after his exemplary playoff run and starving for All-Star recognition. Jokic may cede a little of the offensive workload to his running mate, but he’s still the best player in basketball (and arguably the most well-rounded offensive player of all time).

The development of the bench prospects is massive for regular-season success and to keep the minutes load on Jokic and Murray down a bit. The Nuggets know their home-court advantage (yay altitude!) is worth fighting for, and they won’t coast through the regular season like some previous champions.

X-Factor: Julian Strawther

Strawther — selected using a draft pick that general manager Calvin Booth traded for during the NBA Finals — had a monstrous preseason, carrying the offensive load whenever he was on the court. The Nuggets bench is filled with young question marks and run-down has-beens (sorry, Reggie Jackson!), so Denver needs someone to pop. As good as sophomore Christian Braun looked during last year’s Finals run, Denver needs a more traditional offensive fulcrum when Nikola Jokic or Jamal Murray rests. With his whirring off-ball game, Strawther is a natural fit next to either star. If his defense holds up in games that matter, he seems primed to seize a significant role. Denver’s bench stunk to high heaven last year; Strawther is reason to hope that stench won’t linger.

Stat to watch: Jokic’s rim defense. Here’s a funny thing. The reason why many, including myself, didn’t end up picking Jokic for MVP was a sense that he didn’t give a ferret’s fanny for the regular season. This was most evident in his defensive effort, which was increasingly poor down the stretch. I’ve always been a defender of and believer in Jokic’s defense. Still, last season did nothing to help my case, as evidenced by the fact that opponents actually shot 0.5% better than expected within six feet of the rim with Jokic as the nearest defender, the worst mark he’s put up in a half-decade.

Then, the playoffs came, and we saw him transform into a whole new animal. In the playoffs, opponents shot ten percentage points worse at the rim than expected when Jokic was the closest defender.

It’s unlikely he’ll be that dialed in during the regular season, but it does prove his underlying defensive potential.

Phoenix Suns

Suns live up to name
Hoarding stars: constellation
Brightness blots out foes

Phoenix’s peak form might be the greatest in the league, but it isn’t easy to judge how often they’ll get there. The three-headed hydra of Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, and Bradley Beal has overlapping skill sets, but all three can shoot and play off the ball, so I’m not concerned about fit. The defense will be better than people expect, and the depth makes up for a lack of high-end talent with multimodal versatility (free Jordan Goodwin!).

Cutting-edge analysis: Phoenix will be really good.

X-Factor: Jusuf Nurkic. Nurkic has become less effective as he’s gotten older, but the Suns think he has something left in the tank. Phoenix will likely close important games with Durant at center, but he can’t absorb that pounding for an entire game, much less a full season. Nurkic will need to hold up defensively. He isn’t a great fit for the switching defensive schemes preferred by Durant and Beal, but I think he’ll surprise people. He’s at least as good on the boards as Ayton and a better passer:

[optimize output image]

Certainly, I’d take Ayton in a vacuum, but I don’t hate the Suns’ wager that Nurkic will be as helpful on this particular team, particularly with coach Frank Vogel manning the controls. But it is a bet.

Stat to watch: Pick-and-roll defense. According to Synergy, the Suns allowed the second-fewest points per possession in the league to pick-and-roll ballhandlers last season, a stat that surprised me. Switching out Chris Paul for Bradley Beal isn’t a huge difference, and although Nurkic is a downgrade from Ayton in this regard, Josh Okogie is still here, and the team added Jordan Goodwin as a break-glass emergency point defender. Asking the Suns to be second again is a lot, but concerns about Phoenix’s point-of-attack defense may be overblown.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Bad relationship
KAT’s back, Ant ascends
But oh! This is it

Placing the Wolves here is an acknowledgment that I’m high on Minnesota, again, like my toddler continuing to try and pet the cat that already scratched him. Maybe short-term memory loss runs in the family.

It might take some time for everyone to gel, but the high-end outcomes for this team include a Finals appearance. Gobert can’t be worse, Towns should fit in better, Edwards is primed for a tremendous season, and Jaden McDaniels might be the best defender in basketball. Naz Reid, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kyle Anderson, Troy Brown, Shake Milton… the bench will be great.

That said, I won’t be surprised if the Wolves start 7-8 and inspire thousands of poorly-thought-out fake trades. And for the love of all that is basketball, will someone please grab a defensive rebound?

This team is financially unviable; no matter what happens, moves will be made before next season starts. I’d like to see Minnesota give it one good go first.

X-Factor: Karl-Anthony Towns

I hate picking stars as X-Factors, but there’s no other option for Minnesota. If Towns plays well, the Wolves will be good, maybe very good. If he struggles, they will likely have to ship him out for pieces that fit better around the Anthony Edwards/Jaden McDaniels/Rudy Gobert core. It’s that simple.

Stat to watch: Gobert-Towns net rating. The Gobert-Towns pairing wasn’t a complete disaster last season. They couldn’t score to save their lives, but their defensive rating was in the 98th percentile for duos! The offense should come; KAT is too talented, and Gobert has a clearly defined role. A full season of Mike Conley to set them up should help, too. There’s no way that defensive rating will stand the test of time, but it’s a promising sign that KAT at power forward isn’t defensively untenable. I’m not sure how Minnesota fares in the playoffs, but I think they can be a regular-season juggernaut. It starts with the twin towers.

Golden State Warriors

Wintering lions
the pride still prideful, hungry
Is hunger enough?

Last year felt like the beginning of the end for the Warriors, as they were pushed to the brink by the Kings before succumbing to LeBron and the Lakers in the second round. The loss of Jordan Poole should be addition by subtraction, and Curry looked as good as ever last season. But are Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andrew Wiggins likely to be as good as they were during the 2022 championship run? Can the rest of the supporting cast step up? Does Chris Paul have anything left in the tank for a deep playoff push? Golden State has never felt so vulnerable, but Curry single-handedly props open contention windows.

X-Factor: Jonathan Kuminga. Kuminga has had a monster preseason, showcasing an improved shooting stroke and better tenacity on the boards, two areas Steve Kerr had implored him to improve. He’s even dropped a handful of nice passes, something I never thought I’d say.

Kuminga is still firmly behind Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins in the frontcourt, but if he can translate his play from the preseason into the regular season, coach Kerr will find him minutes. His on-ball defense and athleticism would be a huge boon to a Warriors team that sometimes lacks both.

Stat to watch: Home/road splits. The Warriors were an inexplicable 11-30 on road games (11-30!) and 33-8 at home. No version of this team should ever be 11-30 in any schedule permutation. The reasons given (which amount to VIBEZZZZ) are, frankly, dumb. We’ll see if swapping out the youthful selfishness of Poole for the curmudgeonly rigidity of Chris Paul helps as much as the Warriors think it will, but either way, the team’s road record will be a telling sign of the team’s zen.

Sacramento Kings

Sacramento might be as good or better than last season and still end up a worse seed. The offense seems unstoppable, and even if a couple of guys have worse shooting years, improvement from Keegan Murray or De’Aaron Fox can counteract that. If the defense can go from execrable to meh, they can win a playoff series against anyone.

X-Factor: Murray. The rookie had his ups and downs last season, as all babies do, but one thing never wavered: he took and made a whole lot of three-pointers.

This year, though, Murray may be asked to do more. With Harrison Barnes declining, there will be room for Murray to stretch himself. The Kings will need a third star to emerge behind Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox, and they are desperately hoping that Murray will be that guy. To meet those expectations, he must show signs of becoming a more all-around player. I think he will.

Stat to watch: Defensive eFG%. The Kings’ offense was the best in league history last season, and while they might not reach those heights again, getting buckets won’t be a problem. However, they need to approach something resembling defensive competency to be a real playoff threat. The Kings allowed the fifth-best rim accuracy and the fifth-best three-point accuracy on average volume, which is the opposite of what modern NBA defenses want to do.

Sacramento’s defense didn’t take things away from opposing offenses. Instead, they set the fancy china, pulled the chair out, and presented the chef’s specially chosen wine pairing, letting opponents feast whenever and wherever they wanted. Opponent three-point percentage may fall on its own due to the semi-random nature of long balls, but the Kings have a glaring dearth of rim protection. Work must be done.

This rotation might have less defensive talent than any playoff team in the league, so it falls to coach Mike Brown and his staff to develop something functional using all the smoke and mirrors they can find. At the very least, sell out to prevent something.

Los Angeles Lakers

The man, the legend
Banner 18 incoming
James? No, Hillbilly!

Are you tired of Austin Reaves talk yet? If he comes out of the gates firing, you may need to avoid the Internet entirely.

The Lakers have shed themselves of the Russell Westbrook experience and repositioned their roster to add more shooting around LeBron and AD, and Reaves will be a featured part of the offense. The Lakers still don’t match up well with Denver, but they’re a legitimate threat to everyone else in the West.

X-Factor: Austin Reaves. I had to restrain myself from picking a name more appealing to basketball hipsters (Max Christie?). But if Reaves can ascend to true third-banana status, the Lakers will look like an entirely different team. He’s a free-throw machine with legitimate shooting and playmaking chops. I’m not ready to pencil him in for 20 points per night just yet (and we’ll see how jealously D’Angelo Russell guards his turf), but I — and the entire basketball world — will be watching closely.

Stat to watch: Three-point frequency. The Lakers remodeled their team both at the trade deadline and during the offseason to make more room for LeBron and Anthony Davis to splash around, but it doesn’t stop there. Coach Darvin Ham reportedly wants AD to shoot six triples per game despite his 26% three-point shooting last season (comments he’s since walked back a bit). The Lakers’ offense was mediocre last season and relied almost entirely upon free throws even after the trade deadline, so getting up more (and more accurate) attempts from deep will be necessary.

Memphis Grizzlies

Even the moai
Gather moss, erode in wind
Proud, strong, but fading

I was planning on putting the Grizzlies at least third in this preview before word came that Steven Adams, Setter of Stone Screens and Voracious Vacuumer of Rebounds, was out for the year. A moment of silence, please.

With Brandon Clarke likely to miss most of the season, if he returns at all, the Grizzlies’ iffy big-man depth has become a full-blown disaster. Adams’ screen-setting unlocked the best version of Ja Morant, and nobody can replace that. Santi Aldama is a more than capable power forward, but putting human flyswatter Jaren Jackson Jr. at center will leave him liable to even more foul trouble. Xavier Tillman is solid but will be overtaxed as a starter, particularly in the playoffs. Kenny Lofton looks like he took a wrong turn at the sumo convention and landed on a basketball court; he isn’t a big-minute answer. A trade seems imminent.

But Desmond Bane is primed for a breakout year, and if the team can stay afloat until Ja Morant returns, they’ll still be one of the better teams in the West. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see them winning a playoff series as currently constructed.

X-Factor: Tillman. Tillman had a strong regular season last year, but he can’t replicate what Adams does on the boards, as a pick-and-roll partner, or defending the rim. He’ll have to find a way to lean into his strengths (passing, quick hands, some switchability) for the Grizz to be successful, and that’s as much on Tayler Jenkins as Tillman.

Stat to watch: Jackson at center minutes. The recent World Cup debacle and Jackson’s famous foul trouble have convinced people he can’t play center. But with or without Morant, JJJ-at-center minutes performed well on both ends in reasonably large samples last season, particularly defensively.

Of course, the caveat is that most of those minutes occurred with Brandon Clarke playing next to him. Replacing Clarke with David Roddy or Aldama likely makes things worse, as neither provides the rim pressure (on both sides) that Clarke did. The Grizzlies will have to figure something out, though, and barring a trade, Jackson at center is something we’re sure to see bunches of simply due to a lack of other options. His foul avoidance is arguably Memphis’ most crucial early-season storyline.

Los Angeles Clippers

The untradeable
Terance Mann. Perhaps this season
He might even play

It’s hard to write about this team without knowing what happens with James Harden (does that move Russell Westbrook to the bench?). The depth pieces, headlined by Norm Powell, Mason Plumlee, and KJ Martin, are better than people think (although now that I’ve typed that out, maybe I’m thinking wishfully). PG and Kawhi still can be the best duo in any seven-game playoff series. And even if Ty Lue hates his life, I believe in him as a coach.

But this is the last year for both Kawhi and PG on their current contracts (assuming they decline their player options for 2024-25 to get one last giant payday). It’s now or never.

X-Factor: Terance Mann. With the way the Clippers talk about Terance Mann, you’d think he’d have cracked, like, 24 minutes per game last season. But nope! Mann hasn’t quite found his role on the Clippers, toggling back and forth between pseudo point guard, three-and-D player, and bench afterthought on a seemingly nightly basis. He needs to be more aggressive shooting from deep no matter what role he finds himself in (2.4 attempts per game last season doesn’t cut it when you’re a career 38% shooter). Mann’s stats undersell his well-rounded talent, but he’d really benefit from a stable role.

Stat to watch: Potential assists. The Clippers went from dead last in the league in potential assists per game before the trade for Westbrook to 14th afterward, a massive jump that speaks to both their improved pace and his drive-and-kick bonafides. (Paul George is the Westbrook whisperer, the cowboy who can tame even the snortiest mustang.)

Westbrook is a one-man fastbreak who toned down some of his wild shots to re-emphasize his passing. An offense that features him careening toward the rim before kicking out to a shooter doesn’t have the zip-zap-zing pinball panache of the best Kings’ or Warriors’ moments, but Westbrook has spent most of his career generating solid looks for teammates on one- and two-pass possessions.

Dallas Mavericks

Two masters, no pawns
Luka complains, whines, and flops
sure; then drops 40

Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving are a heck of a duo, but the talent dropoff from two to three might be the largest chasm in the league. If Grant Williams is your third-best player, you might need to temper expectations.

While Doncic’s on-court demeanor is off-putting, his on-court production is unassailable. There isn’t a player more respected by opponents than Kyrie. If the Mavs do surpass regular-season expectations, nobody will want to face them in the playoffs.

Dante Exum, Jaden Hardy, and Josh Green are all fascinating guards for different reasons. I’m not sure what the rookies will bring, but they’ll be given ample opportunity to perform. Maxi Kleber is still here doing Maxi Kleber things.

X-Factor: Derrick Jones Jr. His defensive versatility and outrageous oop-gathering should be a perfect match with Luka. I wonder if coach Jason Kidd will dare to run any DJJ-at-center or DJJ-and-Kleber frontcourt minutes; what they lose in rebounding and size, they’ll make up for with impossible scoring.

Stat to watch: Fouls. Dallas was hackier than a cruise-ship comedian last year, ending with the league’s fourth-worst free throw rate allowed. With two rookies expected to play prominent roles on defense, the addition of Grant Williams, and the likelihood of playing small for long stretches, the Mavs may be even more foul-prone this year, which could sink attempts to put up a defensive fight.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Is rolling Thunder
the sky, or team’s description?
Chet’s snarls and Shai’s swag

The Thunder are an overstuffed piñata bursting with fun stories. Can Shai Gilgeous-Alexander repeat last year’s performance (or even improve)? Can Jalen Williams build upon his incredible run in the latter part of his rookie season? What does Chet Holmgren look like in the wild? Can Giddey change his game to complement Shai better? Will Jaylin Williams set the NBA record for charges drawn in a season? Can Lu Dort make a layup?

These are all thrilling questions on their own; taken together, the Thunder may well be the new spokespeople for Dos Equis. The core is still too young to really make much noise in the playoffs, but a feisty first-round playoff exit could well augur their arrival as a serious team as soon as next season.

X-Factor: Giddey. Giddey is awesome but needs to change. He turned 21 two weeks ago and has plenty of low-hanging fruit to pluck, from his three-point shooting to his foul-drawing abilities. His passing is the kind of thing that should elevate everyone around him. If Chet and Jalen Williams can up their three-point volume, his lack of a shot becomes much less damaging. If Giddey develops one of his own… look out, league.

Stat to watch: Dort’s finishing. Dort is closer to Dillon Brooks than people realize — his 20% usage rate over the last few seasons is too high for a guy who shot 49% at the rim last season. 49%! Some of his misses look like there’s a magnet repelling the ball:

[optimize output image]

Dort shot 48% on long midranges last year; he might be the only player in the league who’s as good shooting 20-footers as two-footers.

Dort is a great defender with an aggressive mindset, and he rampages to the rim without regard for defenders, teammates, or officials. He doesn’t settle for bad contested jumpers often — everything is a layup or a three. But he has to do better than Lilliputians like Fred VanVleet and Jevon Carter at the rim, or he’ll be a lead albatross around the Thunder’s neck in the playoffs.

New Orleans Pelicans

Zion bends, takes flight
The earth groans, seismographs wild
Colossus unchained

The Pelicans were one of the best teams in the West last season until Zion went down. They’ll look to repeat that feat for longer this time. New Orleans has an intriguing mix of young talent and solid veterans, and fans will be hoping for breakout seasons from Herb Jones, Trey Murphy (when he returns), and/or Dyson Daniels. I’m curious to see if their surprisingly bulletproof defense can hold up for another season or if luckier opponent shooting sinks them back to league-average levels.

X-Factor: CJ McCollum. Since I just wrote about Jones, I’ll pick McCollum. Last season, McCollum put up fine numbers but looked a quarter-step slower. As an undersized 32-year-old without athleticism to spare, any physical decline could have devastating trickle-down effects on his ability to get in the paint and create separation for his still-excellent three-ball. New Orleans doesn’t have as much shooting around Zion as they’d like, so McCollum will need to hold the line.

Stat to watch: Zion’s assist rate. Each year of his career, Zion’s assist rate has jumped. He assisted on 12% of his teammate’s made buckets as a rookie, 19% in his second year, and 23% last season. When Zion brings the ball up the court, he builds up a head of steam like an out-of-control locomotive. He churns right to the hoop, and defenses have to either build a wall, opening up drive-and-kick opportunities that Zion adeptly finds, or concede layups to one of the world’s most dominant paint players:

[optimize output image]

Given the Pel’s sometimes-iffy shooters, the former often seems like a safer choice.

Utah Jazz

The mountain breeze chills
Lauri blows on his hands, rubs
Time to get to work

The Jazz are in a strange spot — too good to tank, not talented enough to make a big push — and will take the year to see what they have. The frontcourt is crowded but intriguing. Lauri Markkanen looks to build upon last year’s surprise All-Star campaign as a giant Swiss Army Knife scorer. The Jazz hope to rehabilitate John Collins, and last year’s standout rookie, Walker Kessler, hopes to mount an All-Defensive-caliber season. First-round pick Keyonte George’s ascension in the backcourt will be a crucial story.

X-Factor: Talen Horton-Tucker. THT is an untraditional point guard — his arms are endless (7’1” wingspan), and he’s more of a self-creator than a traditional table-setter. But he’s had moments as a passer and scorer in the preseason, and he’ll have first crack at the starting job in Salt Lake City. It feels as though Horton-Tucker has been around forever, but at just 22, he can still improve upon the shooting woes and tunnel vision that have plagued him in the past.

Stat to watch: Three-point accuracy. Utah put up the fifth-highest three-point rate last season but ranked 20th in accuracy. Guys like Kessler, THT, and Kris Dunn aren’t threats from beyond the arc, rotation mainstays like John Collins and Jordan Clarkson are more willing than accurate, and the youngsters (Ochai Agbaji, George, Taylor Hendricks) are unproven. If a few of those players find the range, the Jazz’s offense — already a top-10 unit last year — could be fearsome.

San Antonio Spurs

The seed is planted
fertile dunks, blocks, and sunshine
Wembanyama sprouts

I wasn’t sure what to expect from alien rookie Victor Wembanyama, as I’m no draft guru. But he already looks like he could plausibly push for an All-Star bid this season (and you know he’ll have the fan vote). Wembanyama’s development is all that matters this season.

Of course, that’s a bit of a lie, because his growth is directly tied to the environment around him. Devin Vassell, Zach Collins, Jeremy Sochan, Keldon Johnson… everyone needs to figure out how to change their game to accommodate Wembanyama’s strengths and weaknesses. The Spurs will be watching closely to see who can help unlock Wemby’s final form the fastest.

X-Factor: Jeremy Sochan. The Spurs have tabbed Sochan as the starting point guard to begin the season, a move I love. Tre Jones is a better pure passer than Sochan, but he’s not much better of a shooter, and Sochan’s immense defensive versatility will make life much easier for everyone around him. The Spurs will likely do everything in their power to put Wembanyama on a weak opposing player to let him roam around and create havoc as a helper. Sochan’s ability to guard the other team’s best player regardless of size makes that a much easier proposition.

Stat to watch: Zach Collins’ three-point attempts. The Spurs love Collins, a sneaky-good passer, solid defender, and antagonist extraordinaire. But they are banking on a large uptick in three-point volume from the center to help space the floor for Wembanyama — I’d expect him to double his 2.3 attempts per game last season. If Collins can make himself a threat from beyond the arc instead of just a guy who occasionally stands behind the three-point line, the Spurs offense might not be the weak link most expect.

Houston Rockets

Green, human rocket
Turns in midair, mouth agape
as Thompson soars past

The Rockets might have more interesting young pieces than anyone in the league, and only the Blazers have as dynamic a set of athletes. New coach Ime Udoka is the sort of stern disciplinarian that Houston desperately needed last season (despite his own off-the-court issues), and he’ll be tasked with juggling a suddenly very crowded roster. Some very intriguing players will be squeezed out of minutes like an orange at brunch, and smart teams will sniff around for flyers after the pecking order is established. Maybe the Rockets make a play-in run, but that’s irrelevant. All that matters is figuring out which young guys look like they can be part of a serious team in two or three seasons, and that starts with their tentpole scorer, Jalen Green.

X-Factor: Amen Thompson. I love Amen’s game and the theory of his fit next to Jalen Green as a defensive monster who can get to the rack at will and sling the rock around. But I’m not sure how stable his role will be, given a crowded Rockets roster. It’s unusual to see a young, developing team put the fourth overall pick on the bench to start the year, but here we are. I hope he doesn’t stay there for long.

Stat to watch: Transition defense. Boston had the best defense in the league with Udoka at the helm, including the seventh-best transition defense. Last year, Houston was 30th in that category, an unfathomable ranking for such an athletic team, even given their youth. Cleaning up the D starts by plugging the biggest holes, and Houston’s transition defense could’ve sunk the Titanic without an iceberg’s aid.

Portland Trail Blazers

What’s that in the air?
A bird? A plane? A comet?
No…it’s Sharpe dunking!

For once, it seemed like draft luck may have gone Portland’s way. Super-rookie Scoot Henderson already looks like a stud. He’ll join Anfernee Simons and Shaedon Sharpe to form the most athletic backcourt in the league, even if they check defense at the door like an unwanted coat when they walk into the Moda Center.

Offseason big-man pickups Deandre Ayton and Robert Williams could develop and thrive in larger roles without the pressures of championship contention. Jerami Grant is still here as a strong two-way power forward. Portland has done a wonderful job of finding fascinating prospects without delving into the Lovecraftian horrors of a Process (although having Henderson fall to them at the third pick sure makes life easier!). They’ll be competitively bad this season with one of the league’s best highlight reels. Given that they just lost their tentpole superstar for the last decade, that’s a pretty good spot to be in.

X-Factor: Ayton. I’m fascinated to see what Ayton can become on both ends. The move to Portland isn’t a breath of fresh air as much as a windstorm of salvation for the talented but inconsistent big. Even with a bunch of shot-hungry teammates, Ayton will get far more touches here than in Phoenix. We’ll see if the former number-one overall pick can become more than just a decent starter.

Stat to watch: Henderson-Simons-Sharpe minutes. Most ancillary stats don’t really matter for Portland. Like Marco Polo or James Cook, the Blazers are in discovery mode, and it starts with their trio of high flyers. Can those three play together? I’d expect the offensive fit to be fine, but the defense might set coach Chauncey Billups’ brain on fire.

Sharpe is in his second year of real basketball after sitting out his lone collegiate year, and although he climbed his steep development curve with alacrity last season, he’s still lost on defense. Henderson is a rookie point guard — enough said. Simons has never been particularly interested in that side of the floor (his quote from today about how he thinks he’s “always been a great post defender” literally made me LOL. Synergy put him in the 24th percentile of post defenders.)

It’ll be a train wreck to start, but that’s okay! The youngsters have to show improvement as the year goes on for the season to be a success; otherwise, Simons seems a likely candidate to find a new home. 

Share this article:

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.