Titanic, as in Gigantic

Atlantic no longer a joke as Philly, Toronto look to challenge Boston

The addition of Jermaine O'Neal to the Raptors' frontcourt should make for a powerful combo with Chris Bosh.
Ron Turenne (NBAE/Getty)
Editor’s note: Pistons.com today continues a six-part series examining the off-season moves made by the NBA’s 30 teams in a division-by-division analysis. In today’s Part IV, we look at the Atlantic Division: Coming in Wednesday’s Part V: Southeast.

Two seasons ago, the five teams of the Atlantic Division finished a combined 50 games below .500 and was slammed with the label “Titanic Division” for its collective incompetence.

But Boston added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen last off-season and affected a 42-game turnaround in the standings before capping things with the 2008 NBA title, prompting the rest of the division to action.

Philadelphia and Toronto made the biggest off-season noise this summer and head into the 2008-09 season hoping the payoff is similar to Boston’s. New York and New Jersey, on the other hand, are retrenching in hopes of creating favorable salary-cap situations for the summers ahead.

Here’s a look at the summer work turned in by the Atlantic’s five members ranked in order of significance of activity:

PHILADELPHIA

COMING – If there was one off-season move with the potential to have the impact Garnett’s acquisition had on Boston a year ago, it was the fairly stunning free-agent signing of Elton Brand by the 76ers. Not only is Brand a career 20 and 10 guy over nine seasons, he’s exactly what Philly needed – a low-post scorer who’ll have a ripple effect on the rest of the starting lineup. Samuel Dalembert now can focus exclusively on rebounding, defense and shot-blocking; last year’s lottery pick, Thaddeus Young, gets to swing to his more natural small forward position; Andre Igoudala will spend more time at shooting guard; and Willie Green moves to the bench, where he becomes a quality reserve instead of a marginal starter. Philly also got a talented big man in the draft, Marreese Speights, whose role will be greater while second-year 7-footer Jason Smith recovers from ACL surgery. Two solid vets, point guard Royal Ivey and swingman Kareem Rush, give Philly adequate depth.

GOING – As part of the price paid in clearing cap space to make the Brand signing possible, Philadelphia had to give Rodney Carney away to Minnesota. A 2006 first-rounder, Carney came on down the stretch last season, and his athleticism and improved outside shooting will be missed. Other than, nothing of significance was lost.

PROJECTED LINEUP – Point guard: Andre Miller (Louis Williams, Royal Ivey); shooting guard: Andre Igoudala (Willie Green); center: Samuel Dalembert (Marreese Speights); power forward: Elton Brand (Reggie Evans, Jason Smith); small forward: Thaddeus Young (Kareem Rush).

BOTTOM LINE – Philadelphia became a legitimate contender in the East with the Brand signing. His ability to command double teams and put up numbers will open space for slashers Igoudala and Young. Miller will get Brand the ball when and where he wants it. Louis Williams is still on an upward career arc and now has a $25 million contract rewarding him. It was a young, athletic, improving team without Brand; now it’s a team that has a drop-dead scorer to carry it through the offensive droughts it couldn’t avoid last season.

TORONTO

COMING – If Jermaine O’Neal is healthy – and reports out of Las Vegas, where he trained throughout the summer, were unanimously encouraging – then the Raptors’ off-season could challenge Philadelphia’s as the NBA’s most significant. The frontcourt combo of O’Neal – maybe the best on-the-ball defender among big men in the NBA – and Chris Bosh should erase the Achilles heel of the Raptors. They won’t be nearly as vulnerable to powerful frontcourts any longer. As a New Jersey rookie two years ago, Hassan Adams had some nice moments as an athletic slasher who showed defensive potential. Two rookies, 2005 point guard draftee Roko Ukic and Australian big man Nathan Jawai, could work their way into the rotation and bolster some of the depth depleted in the O’Neal trade and free-agent defection.

GOING – Though T.J. Ford still held considerable trade value and gives Indiana a huge upgrade at point guard, the cost to the Raptors wasn’t great in the O’Neal trade because Jose Calderon is ready to assume a heavier workload. Rasho Nesterovic, another casualty of the O’Neal deal, was playing his best basketball late in the season after moving 2006 No. 1 pick Andrea Bargnani out of the starting lineup. Ex-:Piston Carlos Delfino left to sign a lucrative deal in Russia after emerging as Toronto’s sixth man.

PROJECTED LINEUP – Point guard: Jose Calderon (Roko Ukic, Will Solomon); shooting guard: Anthony Parker (Hassan Adams): center: Jermaine O’Neal (Andrea Bargnani, Nathan Jawai); power forward: Chris Bosh (Kris Humphries); small forward: Jamario Moon (Jason Kapono, Joey Graham).

BOTTOM LINE – In the same way Brand’s presence will have a domino effect on the rest of the 76ers’ lineup, so will O’Neal’s in Toronto. Bosh won’t have to carry the offense for long stretches any more – nor will he draw the No. 1 big man defensive assignment every night, or even most nights. O’Neal will be happy to defer to Bosh offensively, providing scoring when needed and making defenses pay for shading to Bosh, while anchoring the defense. The Raptors are still a player or two away along the perimeter and might not enter the playoffs as a top-four seed, but they’ll be a tougher postseason out this time around.

NEW JERSEY

COMING – Aside from Vince Carter, this isn’t going to look much like the New Jersey Nets you’ve come to know. The draft brought in three players that could factor right away – 7-foot lottery pick Brook Lopez, sweet-shooting big man Ryan Anderson and unorthodox scoring wing Chris Douglas-Roberts, who fell to the second round and has a chip on his shoulder for it. A draft-night trade yielded 2007 lottery pick Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons from Milwaukee. Three solid vets – ex-Piston Jarvis Hayes, Keyon Dooling and Eduardo Najera – at least give the rebuilding Nets a sturdy bench.

GOING – The big loss is veteran small forward Richard Jefferson, sent to Milwaukee partly for salary-cap relief – the Nets hope to be major players for the 2010 free-agent crop that includes LeBron James – and partly for the international appeal and long-range potential of the 7-footer Yi. DeSagana Diop, who spent two months with the Nets after being included in the deal for Jason Kidd, returned to Dallas as a free agent for the full mid-level exception. The Nets dealt disappointing second-year point Marcus Williams to Golden State and lost two Europeans back to their native continent, Nenad Krstic and Bostjan Nachbar, though they’ll retain Krstic’s NBA rights.

PROJECTED LINEUP – Point guard: Devin Harris (Keyon Dooling); shooting guard: Vince Carter (Chris Douglas-Roberts, Trenton Hassell, Mo Ager); center: Josh Boone (Brook Lopez, Sean Williams); power forward: Yi Jianlian (Eduardo Najera, Stromile Swift, Ryan Anderson); small forward: Bobby Simmons (Jarvis Hayes).

BOTTOM LINE – On nights the 31-year-old Carter doesn’t have it or is injured, you wonder where this team is going to get its points. The season will be a raging success if, when it’s over, management can look at Yi, Lopez, Douglas-Roberts, Anderson and Williams and count them all as players they’d like to have around for another seven or eight seasons. If only one or two fit that description, then there isn’t going to be much on hand to attract free agents with all that cap space they’re creating now.

BOSTON

COMING – Danny Ainge was happy to have a quiet summer after last year’s whirlwind that spawned the greatest turnaround in NBA history. The Celtics might not have added anyone who’ll factor in the rotation this season, though draftees J.R. Giddens and Bill Walker are going to have the chance to fight for perimeter minutes caused by the loss of one very valuable member of the 2008 championship team. Giddens was something of a surprise as the last pick of the first round. Both he and Walker have high ceilings but red flags. Giddens finished his college career at New Mexico after immaturity got him in all kinds of trouble at Kansas. Walker has had two ACL tears, but, like Giddens, is a top-tier athlete. The only other addition to the roster is 2006 lottery pick Patrick O’Bryant, who quickly found his way into Don Nelson’s doghouse in Golden State. A long-limbed 7-footer with a nice touch, O’Bryant lacks strength and a killer instinct. But he’s a worthwhile low-risk gamble.

GOING – One of the most underrated signings of 2007 was Boston getting James Posey for a below-market, one-year deal. Posey was critical in the postseason for both his perimeter defense and 3-point shooting. He doesn’t do much else offensively, but his clutch shooting gave Boston huge momentum boosts throughout the playoffs. The Celtics didn’t lose anyone else and Ainge had reasons for not overpaying a 31-year-old with a nine-point career average, but in the short term Posey leaves a pretty big void.

PROJECTED LINEUP – Point guard: Rajon Rondo (Gabe Pruitt); shooting guard: Ray Allen (Eddie House, Tony Allen, J.R. Giddens); center: Kendrick Perkins (Glen Davis, Patrick O’Bryant); power forward: Kevin Garnett (Leon Powe, Brian Scalabrine); small forward: Paul Pierce (Bill Walker).

BOTTOM LINE – The great question surrounding Boston is how hungry will veterans like Garnett, Pierce and Allen be after last season’s year-long crusade to prove all their doubters, individually and collectively, wrong. The Celtics played hard every night last season, a testament to Garnett’s intensity foremost among many factors. But they’re going to find it a lot more difficult to muster that sort of resolve after playing deep into June and getting toasted and feted all summer.

NEW YORK

COMING – After years of splashy moves that usually turned catastrophic under his predecessors, Donnie Walsh was forced to exercise great patience due to a nightmarish salary-cap picture this summer in remaking the Knicks. With his lottery pick at No. 6, Walsh plucked Italian Danilo Gallinari, who probably isn’t ready to help. Other than that, he focused on getting a competent point guard with a few things in mind – someone who would play selflessly amid a sea of selfish players and someone who would allow the Knicks to buy out Stephon Marbury’s contract. Toward that end, Walsh picked up Chris Duhon, a victim of backcourt crowding in Chicago, and also added Anthony Roberson .

GOING - Renaldo Balkman is a high-energy guy who plays with an edge, but with the chance to shave a little payroll and dump a player who didn’t seem to fit new coach Mike D’Antoni’s system, Walsh sent Balkman packing to Denver for two players the Knicks then waived. He also let Randolph Morris walk away as a free agent. Walsh would have loved for this list to be about three times longer and include some of his more onerous contracts, but that’s all he could get done in one summer.

PROJECTED LINEUP – Point guard: Chris Duhon (Nate Robinson, Stephon Marbury, Anthony Roberson); shooting guard: Jamal Crawford (Mardy Collins); center: Eddy Curry (Jerome James); power forward: Zach Randolph (David Lee, Jared Jeffries, Malik Rose); small forward: Quentin Richardson (Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari).

BOTTOM LINE – Tough to see any team in the East losing more often than the Knicks this season, though it will at least be intriguing to see what D’Antoni’s offensive creativity can make of weapons like Crawford, Randolph, Curry and Robinson, as ill-suited as they seem to be with each other.