2016 NBA Playoffs: Eastern Conference Preview

Tom Bogert, CBS Local Sports

Eighty-two games have come and gone. The 16 “best” teams in the NBA are positioned for a run at the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. Who will hoist it come June? We lay out the reasons why each team will and won’t win the title as well as their x-factor.

The Eastern Conference isn’t as top heavy as the Western Conference this season, nor did they have such historic stories playing out in the national spotlight. Still, their 2016 playoffs should be much more exciting than the 2015 version, where it was a foregone conclusion that the Cleveland Cavaliers would walk straight into the finals. Every series in the East should prove competitive and exciting for basketball fans.

Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25) – 1st Seed

Why They’ll Win It All

There’s no doubting the wealth of talent in The Land, even if it hasn’t always meshed well. Neither David Blatt nor Tyronn Lue has made this team better than the sum of its parts, especially with Kevin Love. But LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Love are some great parts, and any one of them can dominate a game. If the three can take the next step in evolving their coexistence, this is a team that could challenge the winner in the West. And even if they don’t, no one in the East can stop them.

Why They Won’t Win

If Irving and Love cannot blend with James, and vice-versa, then Cleveland plays like a rotating isolation team in a your-turn-my-turn-his-turn style of basketball that seems archaic in today’s NBA. That’s not enough to challenge the Warriors or Spurs. It may not even be enough to get past the Raptors or Heat. The Cavs may be the class of the East, but they’re not dominant.

X-factor – LeBron James

Not to be redundant and boring, but, this game is driven by stars. Its dominated by them. Just think back to the 2015 Finals when James was the lone standing member of his new big three. The Cavs had no business making that Warriors series close, but he did because LeBron played out of his mind. How far the Cavs go depends on how much LeBron elevates his game.

DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry Toronto Raptors

DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry (Photo Credit: David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)

Toronto Raptors (56-26) – 2nd Seed

Why They’ll Win It All

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have each taken steps forward in their development. Lowry, especially, and he is likely to make an All-NBA team this year for his efforts. The Raptors have been the real deal since November, even if most eyes outside of Canada have been turned elsewhere. Everyone’s watching now, and Raptors have something to prove.

Why They Won’t Win

The Raptors made the playoffs for the third straight season. But will they actually show up? Two seasons ago they lost to the Brooklyn Nets in the first round in seven games. Last season they got bounced by the Washington Wizards again in the first round… in four games. If DeRozan and/or Lowry don’t play well, the Raptors won’t go much further this time around either. They certainly won’t overcome the Miami Heat or the Cavs. The Raptors can’t match up talent-wise with the East’s top teams, especially if their stars don’t shine.

X-factor – Proving They’re Not a Fluke

It was very tempting to make Drake the X-factor, hoping that maybe he’ll cause another pivotal 5-second violation. Seriously, can the Raptors prove they’re not a fluke after a surprisingly good season? The Atlanta Hawks were the overachiever last year, and they didn’t challenge the Cavs at all when it mattered. Toronto is that team this season. Can they elevate their game in the postseason? Will they become legitimate contenders? These questions need to be answered.

Dwyane Wade Miami Heat

Dwyane Wade (Photo Credit: Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)

Miami Heat (48-34) – 3rd Seed

Why They’ll Win It All

Goran Dragic is rounding into form. Dwyane Wade isn’t playing like he has the extremities of a 45-year-old man this season. Joe Johnson has breathed life into a team that could have spiraled into despair with the loss of Chris Bosh again. The Heat nicely blend that experience with the youth of Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson.

Why They Won’t Win

Dragic likes to run and keep pace with other teams. But Wade and Johnson… not as much. Their older guys can’t always run with some of the younger blood in the East. And that may be an issue.

X-factor – Hassan Whiteside

Whiteside is an enigma, and super-important for the Heat. If he can keep his concentration, play with consistency and check his temper, the Heat will be a legitimate threat. Bosh could be another X-factor, if he plays, but he probably won’t.

Paul Millsap Atlanta Hawks

Paul Millsap (Photo Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Atlanta Hawks (48-34) – 4th Seed

Why They’ll Win It All

After a deep playoff run last year, the Hawks returned the same core. Despite a disappointing 2015-16 regular season, thanks to elevated expectations from a stellar 2014-15, they still managed a respectable 48 wins. Experience gained will only help this perennial playoff team. These Hawks have been here before.

Why They Won’t Win

One more win would have kept them from facing Cleveland until the Conference Finals. But they couldn’t get it done against a John Wall-less Wizards team not playing for anything. Clearly the Hawks need to get in playoff mode for their first-round series against the Boston Celtics —  an extremely difficult out. The Cavs will probably await the Hawks, should they advance.

X-factor – Regular-season offense translating to postseason

The Hawks’ offensive machine, when it’s well oiled and operating smoothly, is beautiful to behold. Lots of crisp passes lead to lots of open shots; that’s how they won so many games last season. But then when proceedings bogged down in the playoffs, Kyle Korver couldn’t run free and get those same shots. The machine sputtered and crapped out.

Isaiah Thomas and Kelly Olynyk Boston Celtics

Isaiah Thomas and Kelly Olynyk (Photo Credit: Steve Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Boston Celtics (48-34) – 5th Seed

Why They’ll Win It All

Without stars, this group of solid players has coalesced into a team playing far above the level its talent would suggest. We can thank head coach Brad Stevens, one of the NBA’s better coaches, for that. It’s much harder to beat five guys playing as one than it is one guy playing for all five.

Why They Won’t Win

Without a true star, who can get his shot whenever he wants, the Celtics have no one to turn to in tough times. And a fifth seed will face many tough times if it’s lucky enough to advance. Plan A doesn’t always work in playoff basketball, and Boston has no plan B.

X-factor – Stardom

The biggest knock on the Celtics this season has been their star power… more specifically their lack of star power. If someone (and we’re looking at you, Isaiah Thomas) can step up, get their shots and make tough, contested buckets, then Boston will be a handful. If not, then Atlanta will roll.

Al Jefferson Charlotte Hornets

Al Jefferson (Photo Credit: Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images)

Charlotte Hornets (48-34) – 6th Seed

Why They’ll Win It All

It’s insane to think an 82-game season could yield four teams with the same record in the thick of a playoff race. With one more win, the Hornets would have had home-court advantage in the first round, but they don’t. They’ll face the Heat to start. Thankfully, the Hornets didn’t slip to seventh or eighth and a tough series against either the Raptors or Cavs. Their defense will translate well to the postseason.

Why They Won’t Win

The talent on the Hornets roster just doesn’t measure up to other teams in the conference. The Heat, despite losing Bosh, have been playing great basketball since picking up Johnson. Led by Dwyane Wade, they’re playoff-tested and ready. Charlotte, on the other hand, has two playoff appearances in the last 10 years and hasn’t won a playoff game in 15 years.

X-factor – Professor Al Jefferson

Jefferson was born into the wrong basketball generation. A great player on the block, Jefferson’s skills get devalued a bit thanks to the pace-and-space nature of the modern NBA. However, the game can slow down in the playoffs. There will always be value in dumping the ball into the post and letting the professor lecture his defender into two points.

Paul George Indiana Pacers

Paul George (Photo Credit: Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)

Indiana Pacers (45-37) – 7th Seed

Why They’ll Win It All

Great coaching, staunch defense and Paul George… that’s how the Pacers will be competitive in this postseason. They’re only a few years (and some players) removed from giving those LeBron-led Heat teams a real problem. And those Heat teams were better than the current LeBron-led Cavalier team. They’ll first have to get past Toronto — a beatable playoff team — to even dream of that matchup.

Why They Won’t Win

Toronto seems to have it figured out. The Raptors, led by Lowry and DeRozan, finished just a game behind the Cavs in the Eastern Conference. Assuming they’re not a regular-season fluke, and they don’t appear to be, this series won’t last long.

X-factor – Paul George

Thanks to a strong foundation of defense and coaching, not to mention a great home atmosphere, George can provide trouble for Toronto if he plays otherworldly. With a soaring George, one can easily see the Pacers pushing the Raptors. This series, like others in the East, isn’t a gimme.

Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson Detroit Pistons

Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson (Photo Credit: B. Sevald/Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Detroit Pistons (44-38) – 8th Seed

Why They’ll Win It All

The Pistons have had success against the Cavs this season, taking three of the four matchups. (Granted the last win came with James, Irving, Love and J.R. Smith sitting out.) Coach Stan Van Gundy is running a lite version of his Orlando Magic team that made the Finals in 2009. Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson are formidable.

Why They Won’t Win

There isn’t a rich history of eight seeds upsetting one seeds, particularly against LeBron. Jackson came out on how much he wanted to play the Cavs, poking the proverbial beast. James played on cruise control for much of the regular season but has recently stepped on the gas pedal. All of this spells doom for Detroit.

X-factor – A witch doctor placing a hex on James

That’s really what Detroit can hope for, because if the Pistons play perfect basketball, they’ll still probably lose the series. They’re going to need a little help from the Cavs and beyond, as well as gargantuan efforts from their top players.

Conference Finals prediction: Cavaliers over Heat 4-2

While my prediction might be boring, it might be unadventurous and it might be predictable, Cleveland is the East’s heavy favorite for a reason. James is still at the tail end of his prime, even if he’s being overshadowed by Steph Curry and Kawhi Leonard. He’s still an absolute basketballing freight train with a coach’s brain. Even with the turmoil and less-than-desirable performances this season, the Cavs are just too good to resist in the East.

With the Heat’s pedigree and form, they’ll get through Charlotte and Toronto, if that’s how it shakes out. But James will prove too much for his former team.

As a fan of repetitive disappointment and frustration, Tom holds Liverpool FC, the New York Knicks and New York Red Bulls near and dear to his heart with occasional joy coming from the New York Giants and New York Yankees.

Questions or comments? Feel free to follow Tom on Twitter or send him an email.

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