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51Q: Who’s the second-best team in the East — and does it matter?

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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season.

The Bulls have just Taj Gibson left from 2011. The Celtics have only Avery Bradley left from 2012. The Pacers are down to just Paul George from 2013 and 2014. The Hawks have already moved on from three starters (Jeff Teague, DeMarre Carroll and Al Horford) from 2015. The Raptors are largely in tact from 2016, but for how long?

LeBron James hasn’t just won the last six Eastern Conference titles. He has torn apart his conference-finals opposition.

LeBron is going for a seventh straight conference title this year, and his Cavaliers are heavily favored to get it.

Toronto will take another stab at unseating Cleveland, and a new-look Boston appears formidable. But the rest of the East lags well behind the Cavs.

LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love form an untouchable trio in the conference. Tristan Thompson is an excellent fourth wheel, and assuming J.R. Smith eventually signs, he’ll fit well as a 3-point sniper and push Iman Shumpert into being an effective sixth man.

But there are cracks in the foundation. Cleveland is short a reliable backup point guard after losing Matthew Dellavedova to the Bucks and Mo Williams to retirement. Several key contributors – Channing Frye (33), Mike Dunleavy (36), Richard Jefferson (36) and Chris Andersen (38) – are old. This is where LeBron’s Heat teams got into trouble, asking too much of over-the-hill veterans no longer capable of providing quality depth.

Again, though, it didn’t matter until the Finals, if it did at all. Miami still won the East all four years LeBron played there.

LeBron been so dominant within his conference, there’s virtue in second place.

The Raptors should probably be thrilled with repeating last season’s results (a franchise-best 56 wins and their first two victorious best-of-seven playoff series). With Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas returning, it’s possible not to slip. A healthier DeMarre Carroll could even make Toronto more threatening, though losing Bismack Biyombo hurts.

The Celtics should be better with Al Horford, a true-way contributor built for the playoffs. A solid core with Horford, Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, a treasure trove of extra draft picks and plenty of cap flexibility have Boston well-positioned for the next several years. If that means finishing second in the East this year, that’s an excellent step in the right direction – one that could help the Celtics lure their much-coveted next star.

Other teams – like the Pistons, Hawks, Pacers and Hornets – should be over the moon with losing to the Cavs in the conference finals. That’d be a major breakthrough for those upstarts.

But it’s still likely to be Cleveland in the end – even if there’s room for false hope first. LeBron’s teams have fallen short of the No. 1 seed most years of his NBA Finals streak. They’re just good enough to win in the playoffs regardless.

LeBron is 72-20 Eastern Conference playoff games and 18-0 in Eastern Conference playoff series the last six years. His Cavaliers had won 17 straight Eastern Conference playoff games before dropping its guard against Toronto last season. Cleveland still regrouped to dominate the last two games of the Eastern Conference finals and advance to face the Warriors.

The Warriors could be even better this year, with Kevin Durant joining Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. But Golden State might not even be the most likely team to win its conference. The Cavs are that much ahead of their Eastern Conference foes.

Everyone is fighting to face Cleveland in the conference finals – to be the last team standing in case. In case LeBron gets hurt, in case the Cavs’ shooters go cold, in case Kevin Love fits out, in case…

In case the longshot pulls through.

But we know the resounding favorite.

Zion Williamson’s attorneys work to avoid him answering questions about improper benefits at Duke

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MIAMI (AP) — Attorneys for NBA rookie Zion Williamson seek to block his former marketing agent’s effort to have the ex-Duke star answer questions about whether he received improper benefits before playing for the Blue Devils.

In a Florida court filing last week, Williamson’s attorneys say those questions are “nothing more than a fishing expedition aimed at tarnishing Williamson’s reputation” and designed to “maximize potential embarrassment and media coverage in an attempt to improperly gain settlement leverage.”

“Plaintiffs’ irrelevant and invasive requests are designed to harass and not calculated to lead to discovery of relevant evidence,” Friday’s filing states.

It is the latest exchange in the fight over the No. 1 overall NBA draft pick’s endorsement potential.

Prime Sports Marketing and company president Gina Ford filed her lawsuit last summer in Florida, accusing Williamson and the agency now representing him of breach of contract. Williamson filed his own lawsuit a week earlier in North Carolina to terminate a five-year contract with Prime Sports after moving to Creative Artists Agency LLC.

Ford’s attorneys had submitted questions this month asking whether the New Orleans Pelicans rookie or anyone on his behalf sought or accepted “money, benefits, favors or things of value” to sign with Duke. Those filings – offering no evidence of wrongdoing by Williamson or his family – sought answers within 30 days to establish facts under oath in the pretrial discovery process.

Williamson’s attorneys seek a stay while appealing the December denial of their motion to dismiss the Florida case based on lack of jurisdiction, or a protective order as an alternative.

At the heart of the dueling lawsuits over Williamson’s marketing rights is this: Williamson says the contract he signed with Prime Sports is illegal under North Carolina’s Uniform Athlete Agent Act (UAAA) because Ford was not registered with North Carolina to negotiate with amateur athletes (which Zion was at the time, having just played for Duke). Ford and Prime dispute that, saying this was a legal and binding negotiation.

One key reason NBA may return with 22 teams: Players want regular-season games

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Nothing is set in stone about an NBA return — at least not until next Thursday — but momentum seems to be building behind a plan that would bring 22 teams to the Orlando bubble.

That plan brings every team within six games of the playoffs when the season was halted into the competition, a total of 22 teams (13 from the West and nine from the East, the playoff teams plus Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Washington). There would be some regular-season games played, likely five to eight, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff seeds, then the playoffs with full seven-game series each round. Exactly what that play-in tournament would look and if the NBA would stick with the conference playoff alignment or seed 1-16 is up in the air (although the conference alignment seems to have more backing).

Why that plan? For one, it gets more cities and more fan bases involved — and it happens to bring Zion Williamson and the Pelicans into the mix, a big television draw. It also could help a few teams reach a 70-game broadcast threshold with local broadcasters.

Mostly, however, the players want it because they get some games under them before the playoffs start, something Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne reported on at ESPN.

Regardless of how many teams are ultimately included in the playoffs, the National Basketball Players Association has consistently stressed that it wants several regular-season games to be played prior to the start of the playoffs, sources said. That has been a prevailing sentiment among several contending teams that prefer a tuneup before beginning the postseason, sources said.

A lot of players — influential players — have pushed for some regular season or meaningful games before the playoffs start. It’s about health, as trainers told us at NBC Sports, go from zero to 100 jumping straight into the playoffs and teams are asking for injuries. Players understand that.

Maybe only 20 teams end up in Orlando, that plan is on the table as well, but either way expect some regular-season games before the playoffs start. If the powerful players want it to happen, it will.

PBT Podcast: 2020 NBA Mock Draft crossover podcast, Part Deux

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We’re back at it… and not just drinking beer during a podcast. Although we do that, too.

For the third consecutive season, Rob Dauster of College Basketball Talk and I collaborated for a first-round mock draft. Rob knows the prospects better than anyone; I provide some knowledge about what the teams might be looking for. The result is a unique listening experience breaking down who will be picked where based on fit.

The first ten picks can be found over on the College Basketball Talk feed.

Here we finish off the lottery and run through the entire rest of the first round.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant make top 10 of Forbes highest-paid athletes list

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LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant make more money off the court in endorsements than they do in salary from their teams. Which is not a surprise.

It’s enough money to vault them into the top 10 of FORBES Magazine’s list of highest-paid athletes for the last year.

LeBron is fifth at $88.2 million, of which $37.4 million is salary (although Forbes lists it as much less). Stephen Curry is sixth at $74.4 million, and Durant is seventh at $69.3 million.

Rounding out basketball players in the top 20 are Russell Westbrook at 12th ($56 million), James Harden at 17th $47.8 million, and Giannis Antetokounmpo at $47.6 million. Overall, 34 NBA players are in the top 100, including rookie Zion Williamson at 57th ($27.3 million).

Tennis legend Roger Federer topped the list at $106.3 million, and he was followed by soccer stars Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Neymar, before we got to LeBron.

Despite all the work that goes into them, these Forbes estimates have a reputation for being off the mark. That said, it makes for a fun debate and ranking, and we could all use that right now.