NBA is starting to become Atlantic City

As far back as anyone can remember, the Atlantic division in the East has been the laughing stock of basketball. After the early 2000s, the Knicks, Nets and 76ers all had fallen off into mediocrity or worse. Gone were the days of Allan Houston, Jason Kidd and Allen Iverson. Then there’s the Celtics. Before their recent five-year span of top play, they too were a disgrace, with Paul Pierce getting essentially no help. And don’t forget the Raptors. They were pretty bad.

But now, the argument can be made for the Atlantic division to be the best in the NBA. Four of the teams are above .500 and firmly in playoff spots. No other division in basketball can say that.

So what’s behind the Atlantic’s resurgence? Let’s take an in-depth look.

Carmelo is scoring at a torrid pace. (AP Photo)

Of course, the team to start with is the New York Knicks. After an incredibly hot start, the Knickerbockers are 9-4 and sit atop the Atlantic division. Carmelo Anthony has been playing like a true superstar. He plays with a passion and effort that not all superstars give during the regular season. Playing him at power forward has been a godsend.

Mike Woodson has been orchestrating his defense to a tee. Tyson Chandler is once again the anchor, but everyone is helping out. Adding Ronnie Brewer on the perimeter has paid immediate dividends for a defense that will only get stronger when Iman Shumpert returns from injury.

One of the biggest assets has been J.R. Smith and his willingness to come off the bench. Sure, Smith has the talent to start, but having him as the sixth man not only improves the second unit, but also controls the damage he does with his sometimes-erratic shot selection and play.

Right there with them are the Brooklyn Nets. I was skeptical of this team, but even though Joe Johnson is underperforming and Gerald Wallace has been injured, the Nets have just been winning ball games. Brook Lopez has really stepped up for their high-powered offense, although he does have to crash the boards more.

Something also has to be said about Reggie Evans. His defensive presence is frightening and he is one of the best screeners in the league. You do not want to battle on the boards with this guy.

Even Deron Williams has been off, averaging below 17 points per game. But if the Nets can win with guys playing like this, imagine how they’ll fair when everyone is at the top of their game.

Next up is the Philadelphia 76ers. Despite losing key players and not having the new superstar, Andrew Bynum, on the court, they’ve battled their way to a respectable 8-6 record. The main reason for this has been Jrue Holiday. He has blossomed into one of the top point guards in the NBA, averaging nearly a double-double and knocking down big shots.

As usual, the Sixers’ biggest asset has been their depth. Five players average double figures with Dorell Wright and Spencer Hawes not far off.

Philly is a traditional team that is a superstar away from being a contender. If they get Bynum healthy, that will be the final push they need.

Who can forget the Boston Celtics? The old guys of the division started off slow, but have since gotten back on the winning track. Pierce is scoring again and Kevin Garnett is, as always, the voice of the defense.

New additions like Jason Terry, Leandro Barbosa and Courtney Lee are making up for the loss of Ray Allen. The undersized combo of Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger are a force down low. And even Jeff Green is starting to slowly get back on track.

I’ve always said, as long as this team has Pierce, Garnett and head coach Doc Rivers, you can never count them out, no matter how old they are.

Speaking of Rivers, it’s important to look at the head coaches and how they’ve dealt with the talent that they’ve been given. After taking over for Mike D’Antoni, Woodson has given the Knicks an identity on defense, something they never had under his predecessor, or under Isiah Thomas for that matter. Avery Johnson has proved in Brooklyn that he can coach with the Dallas Mavericks, and he is now doing well with a roster of good players. Doug Collins has made the Sixers relevant again by developing an old school type of play. And do we even have to say anything about Rivers? He’s already won an NBA title and always gets the most out of his team. He’s arguably the best coach in the NBA today.

Finally, there are the Raptors. Yeah. They’re still pretty bad.

But forget about Toronto and you have four bonafide teams that opponents are sweating as they come up on their schedule. With the way things have been going, it wouldn’t be a shock if any of these teams wind up winning the division.

It also wouldn’t be a shock if two or three of them could win a playoff series.

Beat the Miami Heat? Yeah, that might be a bit shocking. But it’s becoming more of a possibility with every game.