May 15, 2016

Playoff Mahabharat

A deeper look at the NBA armies competing for supremacy on the basketball battlefield.

This article was first published in my column for on May 5, 2016. Click here to read the original feature.

Photo courtesy: Ekalavyas. Graphic art by Nitin Jerath

Sometime around three thousand years ago, the sage Ved Vyasa set out to right probably the longest poem ever written, an epic of mammoth proportions which eventually went out to become of the most important stories ever told: the Mahabharat. It was a tale of the Kurukshetra War between the Pandavs and the Kauravs, and of so much more. Since then, there have been numerous retellings of the story, including regional Tamil versions, an Indonesian version, a Kawi version, the memorable Amar Chitra Katha comic series, big screen adaptations like Kalyug and Rajneeti, and of course, the memorable TV series in the 80s’.

Allow me another modern take on one of India’s oldest stories, but with a slight remix. Allow to me replace the five Pandavs with five positions on the basketball court, the Kurukshetra battlefield with the hardwood court, Krishna’s sage advice with scholarly coaching from Popovich and Kerr, and Arjun’s blazing arrows with long-range three-point bombs.

Here is NBA Playoffs Mahabharat!

Vyasa may not have realized it when he wrote or narrated the Mahabharat (probably sometime around 400 BC) but in the heroic winning squad of the Pandav princes, he also created the perfect basketball starting five, adopted about 2300 years later by Dr James Naismith. Six years ago, Siddarth Sharma wrote an entertaining piece on SportsKeeda about his fantasy Mahabharat team. But here are how the five Pandavs would’ve lined up for me:

  • Yudhistir, the eldest of the brothers, was the most mature and virtuous leader, the point guard of this powerful squad. Without Yudhistir at the helm, this team could potentially have turned out to be a bunch of “me-first” gunners. Like Jason Kidd in his prime, you could’ve counted on Yudhistir to be the pass-first leader and an extension of Coach Dronacharya on the court.
  • Arjun, the most talented brother, perhaps the greatest archer of All Time, was obviously the unstoppable shooting guard on the team, capable of hitting the long threes but also talented with skill to beat his man off the dribble. He was ambidextrous too, a skill that can definitely help on the basketball court – just ask James Harden or Manu Ginobili.
  • Twins Nakul and Sahadev were the youngest brothers and known to be great swordsmen. Their ability to play their role (not everyone can demand the ball on a court, right?) made them a great small forward-power forward punch who play defence and contribute offensively when required.
  • The man in the middle, the team’s center, was obviously Bheem, the giant among the brothers, the mightiest and strongest of the brothers. From everything we know about him, it’s clear that he was the Shaq of this team: just throw the big man the ball inside and he would either slam it in or help create for his teammates. I cannot comment, however, if he would survive a Hack-A-Bheem and nail free-throws at a high-enough percentage.
  • The former teammate: Karan. Oh, you didn’t think I was going to forget my namesake, did you? Karan’s story is perhaps the most fascinating in the Mahabharat, as he was the eldest Pandav who ended up being raised by the Kauravs and ultimately, fought for them. Karan was the Pandav who got traded to a rival squad; when the two teams met in the post-season, you could be sure that the five brothers brought their A-game against this complicated rival.
If the NBA season is entire war, the playoffs become the most intense, crucial part of the battle, sort of like the basketball answer to the Kauravs’ Chakravyuh that foiled Abhimanyu. Each level of the Chakruvyuh gets more intricate, deeper, more difficult, just like each round in the NBA playoffs. Only 16 teams survived the regular season to step into the Chakravyuh.

Now, just eight remain.

Golden State Warriors: The Warriors have played all season perfected to The Art of War, winning with both dominance and virtuosity, as if Lord Krishna himself was on their chariot reciting the Bhagwad Gita en route to the 73-9 record. In the Mahabharat, Krishna urges Arjun to strike down Karan when Karan’s chariot wheel gets stuck in the mud. But for the Warriors, the opposite seems to have happened in the First Round of the playoffs: after a season of dominance, their ‘Arjun’ – Stephen Curry – hurt his ankle and his knee, and it seemed that the wheels had been removed off of their title chase. But a meek First Round opponent (Houston) and injuries elsewhere (Clippers) have kept the Warriors optimistic. For now, the likes of Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and co. are good enough to carry Golden State to the Conference Finals. But they’ll need Curry and his expert marksmanship to return if they hope to survive the Chakravyuh again and repeat as champs.

San Antonio Spurs: If the NBA has a Dronacharya, a teacher-par-excellence, it’s the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich. Drona was teacher to both Kauravs and Pandavs and a master of advanced military arts. Popovich is an ex-army guy and his coaching tree extends all over the NBA. The famous test of Dronacharya challenged young warriors to maintain focus amidst distractions. Only the best of the best pass this test, and in San Antonio, Popovich fosters only the most disciplined, focused group of players. After Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili, Pop’s new favourite pupil is Kawhi Leonard, who probably only speaks in vedic chants. This team won 67 games this season and have a defence as impenetrable as the armour that Lord Indra gave Karan. But they face a mammoth task in trying to stop the double-headed monster thundering towards them from Oklahoma City in Round 2.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Imagine if Arjun and Karan, instead of being on different sides, actually joined forces (like Shah Rukh and Salman eventually did in Karan-Arjun). Now imagine the growth of a double-headed force so strong that nobody – including Krishna or the other Pandavs/Kauravs – could contain it. Then you have the Thunder. Like the barrage of magical arrows on the battle-field from the Mahabharat TV series, the Thunder have the ability to rain offense and destroy opponents with the unstoppable skills of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. They look like a team of destiny, but alas, like Yudhistir and his love for the game of dice, they too have some weaknesses: namely, defence and crunch-time offense. The Thunder have at times looked incapable of stopping opponents, and the Durant-Westbrook duo becomes uncreative with their offensive plays in close moments in the fourth quarter. The next round will test their intellect and patience: they have enough talent to win on the battlefield, but do they have the wits to defeat the Spurs’ intellect at shatranj?

Cleveland Cavaliers: After losing in a game of dice to the Kauravs, the Pandavs are sent on exile for 13 years. During this time, they experience many adventures, learn lessons, hone their craft, become better warriors physically and mentally, and finally, return to their kingdom. Cleveland’s King – LeBron James – also left his kingdom and took his talents in exile to South Beach. With a couple other ‘brothers’ in exile in Miami, he went to four consecutive Finals, won two championships, and returned a stronger warrior mentally than ever before. A year ago, the prodigal son of Cleveland returned to the Cavaliers and was ready for the inevitable war. With no other challengers ready to match their firepower of LeBron, Irving, and Love, Cleveland is set to be the likely Kurukshetra battle-ground for the NBA Finals again. But will LeBron finally bring glory to his kingdom?

Atlanta Hawks: If the talents of all five Pandavs were equal, with no superstars (Arjun, Bheem) and no role-players (Nakul, Sahadev), they would come close to achieving the selfless equality of the Hawks. Remember, this is the team that, a year ago, found all five of their starters be named Players of the Month in the East. This year, after a slow start, the Hawks revved up their defence to elite level and rose past Boston in the First Round. Will they be able to stop LeBron’s yearly march to the NBA Finals in the East?

Portland Trail Blazers: In the Mahabharat’s Sauptik Parv (Book of the Sleeping), there is a mass slaughter of the Pandav army, most of whom are killed in their sleep. The battle comes down to just seven warriors on the Pandav side and three for the Kauravs. The Trail Blazers know a thing or two about suddenly losing all of their army; this past offseason, they lost four of their five starters to free agency or trade, leaving behind just Damian Lillard. But they didn’t stop fighting: Lillard continued to develop into stardom and CJ McCollum became the NBA’s Most Improved Player. Now in the Second Round, it will be Portland’s chance to ensure that they can fight strength in their surviving members against Golden State.

Miami Heat: Who remembers the Lakshagrah chapter in the Mahabharat? Shakuni, Duryodhan and Dusasan plotted a sneak attack on the Pandvas. They built a palace out of like lac and ghee and then arranged for the Pandavs and the Queen Mother Kunti to stay there, with the intention of setting it alight. However, the Pandavs received a forewarning from Uncle Vidur, and with a miner’s help, were able to dig a tunnel and escape to safety. The Miami Heat have been set alight multiple times the last few years, too, with the departure of LeBron James, the illness of Chris Bosh, and the effort to incorporate a new set of players for a sudden restart. But they have a wise uncle too – Pat Riley – who was able to rebuild a strong squad around his strongest Pandav, Dwyane Wade. Despite the near destructions, this team is still alive and contending in the 2016 playoffs.

Toronto Raptors: When the war is over, the Pandavs travel up north to the Himalayas, aiming to club Mount Sumeru before their descent to heaven. Out of all the teams in the NBA, it seems like the Raptors – the team up North in Canada – have taken the longest time to take their first steps to ascent towards the NBA peaks. Toronto won their first playoff series in 15 years against the Pacers in Round 1. But can DeRozan and Lowry help them ascent even higher?

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