51 Questions in 51 Days. PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27.
In the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers set the bar — and set it clearly above every other team. The defending conference champs are going to be healthy and deeper. That brings us to today’s question:
WHO IS THE SECOND BEST TEAM IN THE EASTERN CONFERENCE?
Kurt Helin: Washington Wizards
The second tier of the Eastern Conference is one of the fascinating storylines to watch this season, as the Wizards, Hawks, Bulls, Raptors and Heat could finish in about any order and I wouldn’t be shocked. Nor would I be shocked if the Bucks or Celtics jumped into the top six (especially if one of those other teams stumble). But enough caveats:
I’ll take Washington.
I’m not completely comfortable that pick, but I’m higher on the Wizards than most — this is the season they take a step forward and reach the conference Finals. For that to happen, I’m betting on Bradley Beal staying healthy all season and playing like the guy from the playoffs who looked like he deserved a max contract. I’m expecting Beal and John Wall to take a step forward together as clearly the best backcourt in the East. I’m betting on Otto Porter playing like the guy from the playoffs (actually better than that, it’s been overstated how well he played). I’m betting on Porter, Jared Dudley, and Alan Anderson being able to fill Paul Pierce’s shoes. I’m betting on (and expecting) coach Randy Wittman to play a lot more small ball with Porter/Dudley at the four, spacing the floor and allowing Wall to penetrate and break down defenses. I’m betting on Nene being healthy for the playoffs (I’m not crazy enough to expect an injury-free season from him).
That’s a lot that has to go right, but I think the odds of those things happening are better than rookie coach Fred Hoiberg being the missing ingredient in Chicago, or everything going right in Miami, or Atlanta playing as well as they did the first half of last season.
Dan Feldman: Chicago Bulls
This is a wide-open race with about five legitimate contenders and another few teams capable of surprising in a weak conference beyond the Cavaliers.
I’ll take Chicago, because the team is flush with talent, and I don’t think Tom Thibodeau’s defensive culture will erode overnight. I very well could be overrating Fred Hoiberg after watching Steve Kerr’s masterful job with the Warriors, but a new coach could do wonders in raising the Bulls’ ceiling. Simply splitting up the Joakim Noah–Pau Gasol combo and pairing each with one of Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson would go a long way.
An interesting side question: How many teams would you need to answer this question and feel you had at least a 50% chance of being right. It’s definitely at least two — probably three, but maybe even four.
Sean Highkin: Miami Heat
There’s no sure thing in the Eastern Conference once you get past Cleveland. All the likely candidates either lost a key player (DeMarre Carroll for the Hawks, Paul Pierce for the Wizards) or have major injury concerns (Chicago and Miami). But none of them are more intriguing — or have a higher ceiling — than the Heat. The starting lineup of Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside was one of the on-paper best last season, but they never actually got to play together after Bosh was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs immediately following the deadline trade for Dragic. This year, they will. There’s a lot of versatility in that lineup: everyone can defend, and the presence of Dragic and a healthy Bosh will limit the offensive burden on Wade. Even factoring in the 20-plus games he will inevitably sit out (that’s just his reality at this point), there’s enough scoring firepower there to get by.
Pat Riley has also done a good job retooling the bench. Justise Winslow fits the profile of a long-term replacement for Deng; even if he doesn’t start in his rookie season, he can still contribute, especially on the defensive end. Amar’e Stoudemire and Gerald Green were smart minimum signings who can still help a team in limited minutes. All of this could fall apart if one of the starters misses an extended period of time, or if Whiteside can’t sustain his out-of-nowhere success for a full season. But all the pieces are here for a team that could be dangerous.