LeBron James and his Miami Heat teammates open the NBA playoffs this weekend. (Mike Ehrmann/GETTY IMAGES)

The NBA playoffs remain Sports Nation’s hidden treasure: Good rivalries, wonderful athletes, compelling games, intriguing story lines and Charles Barkley talking about something he actually knows about. Unlike March Madness, there is no backroom selection committee, and all the players get paid in plain view of the public.

Here’s all you need to know about this season’s playoffs, beginning Saturday:

Rule No. 1 of the NBA postseason: No team with Vince Carter or Gilbert Arenas can win it all. Generally, knuckleheads — with the notable exceptions of Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest — will keep you from the promised land. The Suns are not playoff-bound, so Carter already is a non-factor, but the Magic will feel the wrath of Arenas in the next 24 seconds or so.

The Magic has declared this its “Fear The Beard” playoff run. In an act of team solidarity, Magic players will not shave until its postseason is over. The crew of Sir Francis Drake’s voyage through the Strait of Magellan tried this in 1578 and, well, their faces got very itchy. And — need I remind readers with short-term memory loss — Gilbert Arenas could look like Rip Van Winkle and he’s still not winning any titles.

Biggest coaching upgrade this year: The Bulls going from Vinny Del Negro to Tom Thibodeau. That’s like going from paper plates to Wedgwood china.

The Spurs and the Lakers are the oldest teams in the NBA. In fact, the Spurs — average age of their starting lineup: deceased — have requested earlier start times for the playoff games so Tim Duncan can be in bed by 9:45 p.m.

Nobody ever roots against the Spurs. Gregg Popovich is a classy coach and the team wins without fanfare. But San Antonio could’ve gone 82-0 in the regular season and still not be favored to win the NBA title.

Here’s one of the weirdest stats ever, courtesy of the Mavericks’ Brian Cardinal: 39 of his 40 baskets this season are three-pointers. In an odd coincidence, 13 of Cardinal’s 14 speeding tickets since 2005 have come while driving in the HOV lane.

On a recent appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” Mavericks owner Mark Cuban proclaimed, “When I die, I want to come back as me.” Hmm. When I die, I want to come back when “Jimmy Kimmel Live” is off the air and Mark Cuban is working the deep fryer at Burger King.

In his first year, Doug Collins has turned around the 76ers, from 27-55 to 41-39. In an unusual coaching twist, during timeouts Collins does not address the team directly; rather, he plays audiotapes of his sharpest commentary from his TNT days.

Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said last month, “If we stay healthy, we have an awfully good chance of winning at least four championships.” I love watching these Derrick Rose-led Bulls, but just to win one they likely will have to get past the Celtics, and it’s just not difficult to beat the Celtics, it’s also difficult to stay healthy beating the Celtics.

Credit the Celtics for this — Doc Rivers always gets them to play very, very hard. To beat Boston, it’s as if you have to walk barefoot across a bed of nails and broken glass for two-plus hours and then you still have to make your free throws.

But Kevin Garnett is a punk, plain and simple. This is inarguable, indisputable and incontrovertible.

In the area of celebrity fans, Jack Nicholson gets the easy nod over Spike Lee. Jack is cool, Spike is hot. Jack looks casual, Spike looks contrived. And Jack, unlike Spike, doesn’t go on the road, show up at every arena in the front row and act like a Rottweiler on speed.

These are the teams that could win the NBA title: Bulls, Celtics, Lakers, Mavericks, Spurs and Thunder. Yes, I left out the Heat. The Three Tenors — LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the other guy — score almost all the team’s points these days, and you can’t win playing three-on-five, unless you’re Kim, Khloe and Kourtney.

In the final analysis, you’ve got to like Ron Artest’s Lakers. Sure, Artest still runs like there are rocks in his shoes and he’s taken to kissing his biceps after making a big play. But the goofball has become oddly engaging and, in terms of NBA titles, he’s still got a teammate named Kobe.

Ask The Slouch

Special LeBron James Playoff Edition

Q. What would be the overall effect on the U.S. sports economy if Brett Favre, LeBron James and Tiger Woods all retired in the same year? (David Lee; Indianapolis)

A. That’s tough to calculate, but I’m certain ESPN would have to shutter one of its family of networks.

Q. If LeBron James were involved in a single-car accident, would Dick Bavetta whistle the tree for a blocking foul? (Scott D. Shuster; Watertown, Mass.)

A. Pay the man, Shirley.

Q. After alleged battery of a Miami Beach valet, will Gloria James and ESPN host a special on which hotel she is switching to? (Bruce Devney; Strongsville, Ohio)

A. Pay the man, Shirley.

Q. Does LeBron James get a tattoo for each season he goes without winning a title? (Tim Reinhart; Stevens Point, Wis.)

A. Pay the man, Shirley.

You, too, can enter the $1.25 Ask The Slouch Cash Giveaway. Just e-mail asktheslouch@aol.com and, if your question is used, you win $1.25 in cash!