51 Questions: Who is the second best team in the East?

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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 NoahPau 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.

Rumor: Patrick Beverley may meet with five teams before Clippers

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The Los Angeles Clippers want to bring Patrick Beverley back next season, his spark was at the heart of why this team made the playoffs and impressed with their potential.

First, however, the Clippers are going big game hunting for the likes of Kawhi Leonard and/or Kevin Durant (even with the Achilles injury). Beverley isn’t just going to sit around and wait for them, reports longtime NBA reporter Sean Deveney Tweeted.

The Bulls need a point guard and Beverley — a Chicago native — has said he is interested.

The Lakers also are reportedly big game hunting, but Beverley is the kind of guard they could use around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Phoenix and other teams have been mentioned.

Beverley is going to have options, but he loved his time with the Clippers last season, and that means something.

Pelicans reportedly pick up option year on coach Alvin Gentry

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David Griffin, the guy with the hammer in New Orleans, likes Alvin Gentry. They have a relationship that goes back to Phoenix, where Gentry was the coach and Griffin was in the front office (and was eventually GM).

Gentry also has a style of play — he wants to run and be up-tempo. That should fit very well with soon-to-be No. 1 draft pick Zion Williamson.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise the Griffin and the Pelicans want to keep Gentry around, as reported by Malika Andrews of ESPN.

This is another smart, stabilizing move by Griffin. The Pelicans want to build an athletic, fast-paced team and Gentry is the right coach for that style.  Maybe it doesn’t pan out, maybe the Pelicans ultimately need to go another direction with their coach, but right now this seems a good fit.

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.