The NBA season opens Christmas Day, and every sports writer worth his tinseled tropes has made a reference to basketball fans being able to unwrap a slate of games under the tree.
But did you know that Dec. 25 isn't just Christmas? Did you know that to the Nakh people of the Northern Caucuses it is, or rather was, the date of the Malkh festival? Of course you didn't. As of this writing the Malkh festival had only one "like" on Facebook, and I was the liker. So in deference to these ancient forbearers of the modern-day inhabitants of Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia-Alania, Ingushetia, Chechnya and the Republic of Dagestan, I present my Vainakh mythology-themed NBA preview.
This division, named for the supreme being of Vainakh mythos, includes the very short list of NBA contenders. The Heat are Las Vegas' favorite to win the title, and the favorite of everyone who ever rooted for Mr. Potter in It's A Wonderful Life. But you know what? That's not fair, the Heat, specifically LeBron James, make for easy villains, but they really are a collection of three talented players, who chose to be authors of their own fate, take less salary than they may have commanded on the open market and try desperately to win a championship for their teammate Mario Chalmers. Last year the Heat were 10-8 through November. Well guess what? This year the NBA jettisoned November! Smooth sailing for this particular Carnival cruise.
Oklahoma City Thunder -- No one talked about the Thunder during the offseason, so I won't, either, except to say they're ready to represent the West in the finals.
Chicago Bulls — The only team in the East beside the Heat who can make a plausible case for being the No. 1 seed. Their off-season acquisition of Rip Hamilton will take some of the offensive pressure off Derrick Rose.
Los Angeles Lakers — The current Lakers are deficient, but I've got to think that they'll add a piece during the season. If that piece is Dwight Howard, it will mean the Lakers are the team to beat; if it's Juwan Howard, it won't.
Sela, who lives on the top of Mount Kazbek, is the keeper of flame. So it's logical to name the defending champions Dallas Mavericks to this division. The Mavs' acquisition of Lamar Odom doesn't make up for the loss of Tyson Chandler as a shot-blocking presence, but Odom is a more versatile player than Chandler. Also, a veteran team like the Mavs should not be as hurt by the truncated preseason and shortened season as a team of players just flung together for the first time. And then there's Dirk Nowitzki.
The Boston Celtics -- NBA finalists in 2009, the Celtics are also keepers of the flame, but more to the point, they're keepers of essentially the same roster. They lost Glen "Big Baby" Davis via trade, and lost another big man, Jeff Green, for the year to a heart ailment. It's hard to see if the "big three" and Rajon Rondo can manage to play deep into June. (By the way, calling Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett the "big three" and leaving out Rondo is like calling Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards "The Rolling Stones" and leaving out Mick Jagger. But that's more an analogy suited toward Khagya-Yerdi, the Vainakh god of rock.)
San Antonio Spurs — We forget that after the Bulls, the Spurs had the best record in the NBA last year. But they are five years removed from their last championship. You might see Coach Greg Popovich give aging stars like Tim Duncan an overstuffed chair and a glass of HEB Mootopia during some of the back-to-back-to-back games on the shortened schedule.
Unu, the goddess of contagious diseases, seems to have found purchase in Portland Blazer center Greg Oden, who may never be really healthy, and Brandon Roy, who is collecting a pension at 27 because of chronic knee ailments.
New York Knicks -- Each of the team's big stars has a flaw, and it's usually medical in nature. Carmelo Anthony, who is unselective in his shots, also grapples with a balky knee and a squawky elbow. Sixty-six games is still too long a season for Amare Stoudemire's knees and back. Tyson Chandler is limited offensively. Baron Davis is susceptible to injury, apathy and an inflated sense of ability.
I'm going to go ahead and call in the definitive text on Vainakh myths: Warzameg, son of Meghazash, won the damsel Psatina as retold in John Colarusso's Nart Sagas From the Caucasus. In our analogy, Psatina is not a damsel but the public's fascination. No team holds this more than the LA Clippers. Once a team as ignored as Ishtar: The Movie and seen by players as the abode of Ishtar-Deela, ruler of the underworld, the current Clippers are the flavor of the month. Chris Paul really is amazing, as is Blake Griffith.
Memphis Grizzlies — The delightful surprise of last year's playoffs, can the Grizzles do it again? Does Mozh spend her time trying to eat the Sun and Moon? Am I right people?
Bolam-Deela, according to the entry in Wikipedia, is "Another entity. Not much is known about him/her." The Atlanta Hawks certainly fall in this group. They have talented players like Josh Smith and Joe Johnson, but those guys are named Josh Smith and Joe Johnson. They seem like a perennial 4/5 seed that bows out in the first round, letting talented Al Horford down again.
Denver Nuggets -- Not much is known about the Nuggets, either. Of the four players obligated to play out their contracts with the Chinese Basketball Association, three — Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith and Wilson Chandler — are Nuggets. The Nugs also acquired Rudy Fernandez and Corey Brewer from the Mavericks. Two rookies add, shall we say, fresh ingredients for Coach George Karl to cook with.
Philadelphia 76ers — The 76ers are the least popular pro team in their crazy sports town. Evan Turner gives them hope, so long as Andre Iguodala doesn't shoot them out of too many games. No truth to the rumor that they'll line up in the Wide Nine on defense. (Sports dork joke!)
Indianapolis Pacers — Here, anonymity (or Bolam-Deela-ness) is a positive. The Pacers could be the surprise team in the East this year, even stealing a first-round series. The addition of David West seems perfect for this team of useful parts looking to coalesce into a whole.
Pkhagalberi Tribe Division
Named for the race of dwarves, this division includes the Orlando Magic, which has height now, but may not when Dwight Howard gets his wish and makes like the Statue of Liberty to the David Copperfield that is the Magic fan base and management.
Houston Rockets — The Rockets were decimated by the retirement of center Yao Ming. Actually, decimated means "to reduce by a 10th" and the Rockets have been cut down more than that. The just-signed Samuel Dalembert, a 26-minute-a-game player, is not enough to make up for the loss of Yao's height. Though undersized, the Rockets tend to overachieve thanks to excellent coaching and management, but aren't serious contenders.
Meler Yerdi Division
Meler Yerdi is the god of plants and cereal beverages. Teams in this division will be eaten up by the competition this year.
New Jersey Nets -- Kris Humphries polls as the least popular player in the NBA for, among other things, telling his former wife Kim Kardashian that she is unintelligent, untalented and not small of posterior. When Charles Barkley says stuff like that we love him. It's all in the timing.
Milwaukee Bucks — They shoot worse than Elta, god of the hunt and animals — when he's aiming out of his bad eye! Is this thing on? Oh. It's a large handled Varzap? Never mind.
Golden State Warriors — First-year Coach Mark Jackson was done no favors by a preseason that's shorter than an unexcited Taamash, lord of fate, who is usually tiny in size and only becomes gigantic when angered.
Then you have Cleveland, Charlotte, Phoenix, Sacramento, Utah, Washington, New Orleans, Toronto, Detroit and Minnesota. The teams all would be Narts, the race of heroic Giants who battled the Chintas, lost and didn't even have extra salary cap room to show for it.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
The NBA returns tomorrow with five games on Christmas Day to start their lockout-shortened season. And since players and owners agreed to a new labor contract a month ago, it's been a free agency free-for-all.
NPR's Mike Pesca has been following where everyone landed, and he's here with us now. Mike, welcome.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hi. Some haven't landed. They're still trapped in China, but that's another story.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RAZ: Let's start. And, Mike, I don't think this has never been said before this year in the history of NBA previews. But let's start with the Los Angeles Clippers.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RAZ: This is, historically, one of the worst franchises in professional basketball. They landed, quite possibly, the best available player this year in trade, but it was a circus getting him there.
PESCA: Yeah. Chris Paul is truly a great player. And a lot of times in the NBA there's a lot of hype over this or that superstar. But the hype is deserved when it comes to Chris Paul. And the Lakers almost had him. The situation was Paul plays for the Hornets and the New Orleans Hornets have no owner. They're sort of owned by the league.
And when the Hornets had that original deal with the Lakers, the commissioner of the NBA, David Stern, stepped in and said this deal will not go forward. There was a ton of fallout from that deal. One of the Lakers' players, Lamar Odom, who was involved in the deal, his feelings were so hurt.
RAZ: I bet.
PESCA: Then he was eventually traded. The Rockets, who are a third team in the deal, just are going nowhere now because of it. But the Clippers did wind up eventually, landing Paul. And this makes for the most fascinating tandem in the NBA because Blake Griffin, power forward...
RAZ: Blake Griffin was the Rookie of the Year last year. I mean, he's a great player.
PESCA: Yeah. Griffin is going to be on the receiving end of so many Chris Paul passes that Blake Griffin himself has dubbed the team Lob City and Lob City t-shirts have emerged in the L.A. area.
RAZ: Let me ask you about the storyline in the city of Los Angeles because of course the Lakers, the greatest team of all time...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RAZ: ...they are showing some signs of wear and tear. Kobe Bryant is nursing a bad wrist. There's no way that there's going to be a changing-of-the-guard in Los Angeles this season, will there?
PESCA: Well, you still have to look at who the Lakers have on their roster. And it includes Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant. Now, Gasol was really bad in the playoffs last year and that's why the Lakers were swept by the Oklahoma City Thunder. And for the first time in a long time, we do go into the season with the Lakers being something other than a favorite to win the West. And if I did have to pick a favorite, I would pick the aforementioned Oklahoma City Thunder.
RAZ: Mike, nobody saw the Dallas Mavericks as a championship contender last year at the beginning of the season. Of course, they won it all. Is there a team like that this year, sort of surprise team that isn't getting a whole lot of attention?
PESCA: You know, I don't know about the championship contender caliber. But if you want to talk about a team who could go deep in the playoffs - and maybe this would parallel the run of the Memphis Grizzlies last year - I kind of like the Indiana Pacers. They're an anonymous team from an anonymous state and they added an anonymous player David West, and he's just anonymously very, very good.
Tyler Hansbrough, the great college player from North Carolina. He's going to be coming on strong. And they also have a lot of players who don't, as they say, show up in the stats sheet but they're either a defensive specialist or a three-point specialist. So they have a lot of interesting ingredients. So, why not root for the Pacers rather than all these crazy superstar teams that we've been hearing about all off-season.
RAZ: How about sending those anonymous letters from those anonymous folks in Indiana, Mike, when we get - after this conversation. That's NPR's Mike Pesca talking about the NBA season. Mike, thanks so much.
PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.