An epic (and mythic) 2011 NBA preview

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Tyson Chandler dunks against Chris Bosh in Game Six of the NBA finals on June 12. The late-start 2011 NBA season begins Sunday.

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. The theme for this year's season preview? The mythology of the Vainakh peoples of the North Caucasus. Seriously.

Did you know that to the Nakh people of the Northern Caucuses December 25th 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.

Deela Division

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 Division

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 Division

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.

Warzameg Division

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 Division

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.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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