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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.

Report: NBA asked Drake not to attend games in Oakland

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Emotions were running high during the NBA Finals among the fan bases: The Raptors were on their way to their first-ever title and their fans were loud even on the road; In Oakland, there was a part-owner of the team shoving Kyle Lowry.

Drake giving Nick Nurse a shoulder massage on the sidelines at Oracle would not have gone over well.

So the NBA encouraged Drake not to come to the games in Oakland, according to a report from TMZ.

The NBA reached out to Drake and asked him not to travel to Oakland for any of the NBA Finals games at Oracle Arena due to “security concerns,” multiple sources tell TMZ Sports.

We’re told the league expressed concern about potentially angry Warriors fans doing something stupid like taunting Drake or throwing stuff at him … which wouldn’t just put Drake at risk, but also other people sitting near him.

In the end, they all agreed it was best for Drake to stay in Toronto for the away games — with Drake ultimately leading the Raptor fan watch party at Jurassic Park during Game 6.

They chose… wisely. I have no doubt the NBA encouraged this move, it only makes sense.

Besides, the last thing these Finals needed was more Drake.

Winners and Losers in blockbuster Anthony Davis trade

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It is very possible both teams at the heart of this blockbuster trade — the Lakers and Pelicans — get what they want out of this deal. Which is rare. It’s the goal, no GM makes a trade thinking they lost the trade, but usually someone comes out on the short end.

This time, the Lakers — a team that has missed the playoffs six years in a row — got their man now have two of the top seven players in the league. Meanwhile, the Pelicans have (or will after Thursday’s draft) Zion Williamson and are set up in the short term to be entertaining, and in four years or so could be a beast in their own right.

But there are losers to go with the winners in this trade, here is the breakdown.

Winner: Anthony Davis.

The man got where he wanted to go. He felt he toiled in obscurity in New Orleans, and that the small market franchise had done a poor job building a team around him (which is absolutely true). Davis believed he wasn’t getting the endorsements and attention he deserved. That changes now (and be careful what you wish for). This summer he will lead Team USA at the World Cup in China, then come back and play next to LeBron James in Los Angeles — the brightest of all spotlights — with a team that has the potential to contend. Davis got exactly what he wanted, now he just has to stay healthy and take advantage of it.

Winner: LeBron James.

At LeBron’s first press conference in Los Angeles, he said he knew he needed to be patient as they built this team to contend around him… and everyone knew that wasn’t going to happen. He’s 34, he not at that point in his career where patience is an option. Now he has another elite star around him — and a perfect complementary player for his game. It should work. The pressure now is on Laker GM Rob Pelinka to fill out the roster with role players who can make this a contender, because star power alone is not enough in today’s NBA.

Loser: Boston Celtics.

Danny Ainge had a plan and haul of assets to pull it off (thanks again Brooklyn). The Celtics signed Gordon Hayward, traded for Kyrie Irving, drafted well and developed those players, things were coming together… and then it all fell apart. Boston didn’t land Paul George or Kawhi Leonard in trades. Hayward had the freak injury and is not back to his old self yet. Irving became disenfranchised this season and now he has one foot out the door (likely to Brooklyn). Rich Paul kept saying Davis would only be a rental in Boston. All of that meant Ainge couldn’t go all-in on a Davis trade like he had planned (throwing in Jayson Tatum specifically), and once again Boston missed out. Ainge is a great GM, don’t get me wrong, but this shows how hard to put together these multi-year plans in the NBA and pull them off. In an East with Toronto (who may or may not be the same after this summer), Philadelphia, and Milwaukee, Boston has a lot of work to do to get back to contender status.

Winner: Rich Paul.

Fans may not like his tactics — and there were miscalculations along the way — but the job of an agent is to get his clients where they want and what they want. Rich Paul has done precisely that. The man orchestrated this. His client LeBron is in Los Angeles where he wants to be, and now has a running partner in another Paul client, one who now has the spotlight he wanted. It may not have happened on the timeline Paul wanted, but he may be the biggest winner in this whole thing.

Loser: The New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers.

The Knicks have big free agent plans this summer, and maybe Kevin Durant still comes (and plays, eventually). However, the longshot dream of landing Davis is dead, and worse yet now there is another major player for elite free agents in the game. One that is a better draw than New York as you read this. Maybe this summer works out for New York, but in the past week the market got a lot more complex.

Twenty-four hours ago, the Los Angeles Clippers were the best free agent destination in Los Angeles. Now…. they may still land Kawhi Leonard (or he may choose to stay in Toronto for a year or two, who knows?) but the Lakers are still the Lakers in that market. And now the Lakers are the big free agent draw.

Winner: David Griffin and the New Orleans Pelicans.

When the Pelicans won the NBA Draft Lottery — and essentially the rights to draft Zion Williamson — the calculus of this trade changed a little. They now had the potential superstar/top-five player, it became a matter of building along that timeline. This trade does that. New team VP David Griffin had leverage (the Lakers needed a star and this was their best chance) and he used it to get a haul. Maybe the Pelicans keep Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, maybe those two get flipped for other players, and that same thing is true of the draft picks, starting with the No. 4 in this draft. Bottom line, Griffin got this franchise the building blocks to contend, and while there is work to do to reach that level in the short term this team is going to be fun to watch.

Loser: Dell Demps and Magic Johnson.

The nuts and bolts of this trade could have been worked out at the trade deadline if egos and emotions had been put aside. They weren’t. In New Orleans, there was anger at the timing and nature of Rich Paul’s trade request, which led to people above Demps shooting down the idea of any trade with the Lakers. Demps wouldn’t even talk to Pelinka — only Magic, and barely that — and wasn’t able to manage up and get the people above him on board (Griffin pulled that off). Magic, when he was in the office, bungled this and killed the Lakers’ locker room chemistry in the process. That it got done this June, and with far fewer back-and-forth rumors, doesn’t reflect well on the guys out the door.

Winner: Lakers fans (and their sense of exceptionalism).

There is some pushback on this trade in Lakers nation. Fans become emotionally attached to and overvalue draft picks the team brings in, fans watch them develop and see them as “their guy.” Those fans don’t want to give up Ingram and Ball and Josh Hart (and a lot of picks), and they are right that is a lot of assets… and the Lakers got Anthony freakin’ Davis. The Lakers now have two of the top seven players on the face of the earth. This is what Lakers fans expect — stars to come to them, and for them to contend. In Los Angeles, Lakers’ exceptionalism is a real thing. That faith has been rewarded. Savor that.

Loser: LaVar Ball.

Does this even need to be explained?

Pelicans get haul in Anthony Davis trade; become League Pass favorite

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Picture Lonzo Ball in transition throwing lobs to Zion Williamson

The New Orleans Pelicans just became must-watch television. They are early contenders for League Pass favorites next season.

Teams never get equal value back when trading a superstar, but the Pelicans did as well as could be hoped in the Anthony Davis trade agreed to on Saturday (it can’t be executed until July for salary cap reasons). You can make an argument the Pelicans won that trade in the long term. New Orleans landed Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, three first round picks (including this year’s No. 4) and a series of pick swaps. The Pelicans are not committed to that group, they could flip those players and the picks for something they want more, but one thing remains clear:

The Pelicans are going to be fun to watch.

Zion Williamson was already the kind of player that makes you stop and watch, the kind of player you can’t take your eyes off of. Thunderous dunks in transition are coming.

Coach Alvin Gentry likes to play fast — New Orleans played at the second-fastest pace in the NBA last season. That is the style where Lonzo Ball thrives. Ball plays an instinctual style of game suited to the open court, where his court vision and passing can take advantage of a scrambling defense. It’s kind of a playground style. It worked well with the Lakers when they ran two seasons ago (they played fast this season, but when LeBron was on the court it was different). Brandon Ingram can finish in transition, plus he will become a go-to shot creator in the half court for New Orleans. He’s going to get the kind of touches he wants.

Jrue Holiday with Ball will form an outstanding defensive backcourt.

And the Pelicans have the No. 4 pick in this draft, which means Jarrett Culver could join them on the wing, a shooter and finisher with a great feel for the game.

Make no mistake, Pelicans president David Griffin rolled the dice here, he chose to go young rather than get an established All-Star back. Ball has an injury history already and Ingram has not lived up to the hype. The picks (including Williamson) may not pan out as hoped, and if the Lakers are as good as they think they will be those could be some late round picks.

Still, the haul from this trade is the kind that transforms franchises. New Orleans has a real chance to be good fast.

Whatever happens, it’s going to be must-watch television.

These Pelicans are going to be entertaining.

LeBron James welcomes Anthony Davis to Lakers

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LeBron James got exactly what he wanted — a young superstar to play with him, a guy who can be a force on both ends of the court. The kind of elite player the Lakers needed to not only make the playoffs next season but be a threat to win the West.

Anthony Davis got what he wanted — out of small market New Orleans to the brightest spotlight in the NBA, the Los Angeles Lakers. He will go unnoticed by casual fans no more.

A happy LeBron welcomed Davis to Los Angeles.

The Lakers gave up a lot to get Davis — some Lakers fans would argue too much — but they have landed two of the top seven players in the world (when healthy). Round out the roster wisely with veterans (and get some shooters this time) and the Laker can move into a crowded list of contenders next season (with the Warriors headed for a down year, teams are lining up to take their shot).

Lakers fans should be happy, what is in this Instagram post is going to win them a lot of games.