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Posted: Tuesday August 26, 2008 1:18PM; Updated: Friday August 29, 2008 2:29PM
Marty Burns Marty Burns >
INSIDE THE NBA

Tide rapidly rising in Atlantic

Story Highlights
  • In just two years, the Atlantic Division has gone from afterthought to focal point
  • With its principals rested, Boston appears poised to defend its NBA crown
  • Philly (Elton Brand) and Toronto (Jermaine O'Neal) made great strides
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Toronto acquired Jermaine O'Neal from Indiana this summer in exchange for point guard T.J. Ford and center Rasho Nesterovic.
Toronto acquired Jermaine O'Neal from Indiana this summer in exchange for point guard T.J. Ford and center Rasho Nesterovic.
Adrian Wyld/AP

The Olympics are over. The free-agent buffet has been picked clean. Training camps are still a month away. In other words, it's a good time to look back at the offseason and hand out summer grades.

We'll start with the Atlantic Division, a group that has come a long way over the past two seasons. With the defending NBA champs (Celtics) and two other playoff teams (Raptors, Sixers) from a year ago, the division certainly isn't being called the Titanic Division any more.

The big news in the Atlantic over the summer was the arrival of Elton Brand (Philadelphia) and Jermaine O'Neal (Toronto). If these two former All-Star big men can come back from injury problems, they could give their respective clubs a huge boost and make them legit East contenders. Hey, it worked for the Celtics a year ago with Kevin Garnett.

Boston Celtics

What went right:

They re-signed House and Allen.
Seeking continuity for his NBA champs, GM Danny Ainge re-signed free agents Eddie House and Tony Allen to new contracts. The top reserves figure to play a key role again for Boston. Allen, in particular, will be counted on to help replace James Posey, who departed via free agency (see below).

The Big Three got some rest.
Unlike many top clubs, the Celtics did not have to worry about their main stars playing in Olympic competition this summer. Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen got a chance to rest their aging legs. After such an extended playoff run, they surely needed it.

Thibodeau didn't flee-bodeau.
Last spring it seemed all but certain assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, the architect of Boston's top-ranked defense, would be hired as an NBA head coach somewhere. Now it looks as if he will be back for at least one more campaign. Although still not technically signed for next year, Thibodeau is expected to get a new deal shortly, along with the rest of Doc Rivers' staff.

What went wrong:

Posey no longer in their pockets.
Posey, the veteran forward who hit some big three-pointers and played such a key defensive role opposite Kobe Bryant in last year's Finals, signed with the Hornets. The Celtics hope Tony Allen can fill the void, but that remains to be seen. Allen is coming off a knee injury, and lacks Posey's size and experience.

P.J. went back home.
After finally nabbing a long-sought NBA championship ring, veteran forward P.J. Brown has decided to hang 'em up again -- at least for now. Though not as big a contributor as Posey, Brown played key minutes down the stretch after joining the Celtics late in the season. If Brown, 38, indeed stays retired (or goes elsewhere), Glen "Big Baby" Davis will have to step up.

They got a year older.
If only Ainge could do something about Father Time. Even though the Big Three got rest, Garnett (32), Allen (33) and Pierce (31 in October) all have logged a lot of minutes over their careers and are at an age where many begin to slow down. It will be interesting to see how much they have left in the tank late in the season.

Grade: C

The defending champs didn't need to make many changes. But will the loss of Posey hurt them come playoff time?

New Jersey Nets

What went right:

They got some new blood.
Continuing a shakeup that began with last season's trade of Jason Kidd, GM Rod Thorn shipped Richard Jefferson to the Bucks for Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons. He also signed veteran free agents Jarvis Hayes, Eduardo Najera and Keyon Dooling. The new faces, along with point guard Devin Harris (who came over in the Kidd trade), should at least bring a jolt of much-needed energy to New Jersey.

They had a solid draft.
Few teams had a better draft night than did the Nets. First, 7-foot Stanford center Brook Lopez, projected as a possible top-five pick, slid down to the Nets at No. 10. Thorn then added two more quality prospects in 6-10 Cal forward Ryan Anderson (No. 21) and 6-7 Memphis guard Chris Douglas-Roberts (No. 40). All three were considered excellent picks for where they went on the board.

They paved the way for LBJ?
By shedding Jefferson's remaining contract (three years, $42.4 million), the Nets continued to clear cap space for the summer of 2010. That's when LeBron James, noted buddy of Nets part-owner Jay-Z, can become a free agent. If nothing else, it gives Jersey fans something to dream about while the rebuilding continues.

What went wrong:

They lost Nenad and Nachbar.
Nenad Krstic and Bostjan Nachbar left via free agency for better offers in Europe. Krstic's departure looks especially damaging, leaving the center duties to unproven Josh Boone and the rookie Lopez. The Nets had hoped to bring Krstic and Nachbar back for short-term deals that would not compromise that cap room in '10.

Their 'D' got weaker.
The loss of Jefferson cost New Jersey its best perimeter defender, a problem for a team that already features Vince Carter on the floor. Neither Simmons, Hayes nor Yi are known for their ability to stop people. It will be interesting to see how beleaguered coach Lawrence Frank, a stickler for defense, handles this problem.

The comp got better.
New Jersey's biggest problem this offseason was that so many other Atlantic foes made bigger moves. The Sixers (Brand) and Raptors (O'Neal) appeared to solidify themselves as the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the division. Even the Knicks underwent a dramatic front office shakeup that should have them headed upward soon.

Grade: B-

The loss of Jefferson will hurt in the short term. Carter and Harris will need to stay healthy and have big seasons.

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