Mysteries of the East

Who will win the Eastern Conference?

The question ranks right up there with "Who kidnapped the Lindbergh baby?" and "Does the Loch Ness monster exist?" The answer may be even more difficult to determine, though.

Every team is flawed in some way, and none is overwhelming in any sense. Still, unless David Stern decides to revamp the playoff system and let two Western Conference teams play for the NBA title, someone from the East has to show up for the finals.

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That said, underdog Eastern Conference teams have won two of the previous three NBA titles under similar circumstances, so a trip to the finals isn't necessarily a losing proposition.

By my count, six clubs have a shot at the East crown come June, with the Washington Wizards, Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic being the exceptions.

Let's take a look at the reasons why each team will, and will not, win the conference championship.


Why the Bulls will win the East: First, and most importantly, they play defense. Chicago ranks second in the NBA in field-goal percentage allowed at 43.7 percent. The Bulls are among the league leaders in blocked shots and steals, and they rebound the ball well (plus-2.6 differential). They do a lot of the things that championship teams have done historically in the NBA. They're deep, well-coached by Scott Skiles, and they're a great three-point shooting team. And assuming the current playoff seeds hold, No. 2 Chicago will avoid Miami, Cleveland and Detroit until the conference finals.


Why the Bulls won't win the East: They don't have an inside scorer. When was the last time an NBA champion didn't have at least one post-up scorer? Detroit? The Pistons at least had Rasheed Wallace. Points are harder to come by in the playoffs, and if you don't have a superstar player who can get you easy points – either in the paint or from the free-throw line – life can get very difficult. Also, this Chicago team has never won a playoff series. It's difficult to make the leap from first-round losers to NBA champs in one step.


Why the Pistons will win the East: Experience. They boast a roster that "has been there before," as the saying goes. Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton are great clutch shooters, and they'll make big shots when their team needs them. Detroit is the best in the league at taking care of the basketball (11.7 turnovers per game), and that is huge in the postseason when every possession matters. Even though the Pistons aren't quite the defensive power they were with Ben Wallace, they're still very strong defensively.

Why the Pistons won't win the East: They don't have a superstar or an inside scorer. Their reliance on perimeter shooting may eventually haunt them, particularly against a team that has a star player who is capable of taking over games. And with a potential second-round matchup against either Cleveland or Miami, that problem is very real. Remember, the Cavaliers took Detroit to seven games last year, and the Heat beat the Pistons in six.



Why the Heat will win the East: The star factor. In Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade, Miami will arguably have the two best players on the floor in any given game. Either one is capable of lifting his team out of a funk and personally delivering a victory. Toss in the experience and confidence the Heat gained by winning the title last year, and you've got a club that truly believes it can win it all.

Why the Heat won't win the East: A lack of health. This team has been ravaged by injuries all season, and it hasn't built enough momentum to plow through the playoffs. Shaq isn't what he used to be, and Wade can't possibly be playing at 100 percent after his shoulder injury. On top of that, Miami has a tough road to hoe. With Cleveland in the first round and then Detroit in the second, the Heat may not make it very far.


Why the Cavaliers will win the East: LeBron James. Did anyone see James' performance against New Jersey on Thursday night? It was his best offensive game of the season. He posted up, moved without the ball, mixed in different moves and was basically unguardable. If he plays that way in the playoffs, he can carry Cleveland past anyone. Don't forget that this club plays solid defense, too. A superstar plus great defense usually is a very good combination.


Why the Cavaliers won't win the East: They don't shoot well, both from the field and the line. Defenses will load up on LeBron and force others to make outside shots, which is a scary thought if you're a Cavs fan. Also, this is not a fluid offensive club – even with James, it will go through long dry spells, which is tough to get away with in the playoffs. The other issue is experience. Cleveland may be too young to handle postseason pressure.


Why the Raptors will win the East: They have the most underrated star in the league in Chris Bosh, who might be capable of dominating an entire series. This is also a club that takes great care of the ball, so they'll make the most of each possession. Toronto looks like it will get a great draw, too, playing a depleted Wizards squad in the first round and avoiding Detroit, Cleveland and Miami in the second.

Why the Raptors won't win the East: Is there any playoff experience on this team? Rarely if ever does a team go from the lottery to the finals in one season. Toronto is too raw to pull it off. Plus, its defense is mediocre at best. I'm not sure the Raptors can make a stop when they have to.



Why the Nets will win the East: They have the best point guard in the conference in Jason Kidd, and Vince Carter has had a terrific season. And with Richard Jefferson beginning to look like himself physically, New Jersey might boast the best trio of players in the East. The Nets' playoff experience from the past few years will help, too. If they stay in the seventh seed, they are on the easier side of the bracket and would be in a decent position to advance.

Why the Nets won't win the East: Their defense is no longer a strength – they give up six more points per game than they did a year ago. And without Nenad Krstic, New Jersey has no inside game. The reliance on perimeter shooting will be too much to overcome; the Nets (27th in the league at 44 percent) aren't a great shooting team.