15 May, 2023
The Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets will compete for a position in the NBA Finals for the second time in four years. The hottest offense of the postseason will square off against its stingiest defense in the 2023 Western Conference Finals: Denver outscored the Timberwolves and Suns by a sizzling 118.7 points per 100 possessions, while Los Angeles held the Grizzlies and the defending champion Warriors to only 106.5 points per 100 possessions.
The clubs and their philosophies haven’t altered since the Lakers overcame Denver in five games in 2020 to win their 17th NBA championship, but a lot has. (For instance, this edition wasn’t shown at Disney World in a specially designed virus-avoiding bubble.)
In the rematch, only six players who played in that series will be present. In one of the league’s most deadly two-man games, Nikola Joki and Jamal Murray continue to lead the way for the Nuggets. As a 21-year-old who head coach Michael Malone didn’t fully trust on defense against Los Angeles in 2020, Michael Porter Jr. played an average of just under 22 minutes per game. Since then, he has matured into a more dependable supercharged third option, though he still struggles to seal victories on occasion due to Malone’s lack of faith in his (admittedly improved!) defense. He doesn’t trust Bruce Brown the Swiss Army knife nearly as much.
The Lakers bring back Anthony Davis, who has been by far the most dominant defensive player in these playoffs despite the fact that his scorching jump-shooting performance from the bubble hasn’t carried over to 2023’s early rounds. In addition, they still have LeBron Raymone James, who, despite being less devastating at age 38 than he was when he defeated Denver at age 35, is still more than capable of putting an opponent to sleep. In Game 6, he defeated Golden State 30-9-9 to send Steph, Klay, Draymond, and company into a protracted offseason.
Then there is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who started at shooting guard for the Lakers in the 2020 conference finals. He averaged 30 minutes per game, shot 44% from beyond the arc, and was mostly in charge of slowing down Murray. Caldwell-Pope recently matched his career playoff high with 21 points in the Nuggets’ thrashing of Phoenix in Game 6; however, he now lines up alongside Murray in the backcourt of a Denver starting five that has blitzed opponents by 9.1 points per 100 in this postseason.
But beyond them, each shop has a slightly different appearance. While the two-time MVP Joki’s playmaking prowess still dominates Denver, the Nuggets’ defense is now more versatile and capable because to the additions of Caldwell-Pope, Brown, Aaron Gordon, and rookie Christian Braun. And while the Lakers’ general formula remains the same—just enough offense in the half-court and through opportunistic pace-pushing in transition to allow that suffocating defense to hold up—the ingredients are essentially different now, from the head coach (hello, Darvin Ham in place of Frank Vogel) to a perimeter rotation that was drastically changed in February with disastrous results.
The season series between the two teams was split 2-2. Given that all four of the regular-season games were played prior to the trade deadline, when Los Angeles reorganized its squad and began the season, it’s questionable how much insight we can draw from those contests. Russell Westbrook was the Lakers’ second-leading scorer versus Denver, and Patrick Beverley, Kendrick Nunn, and Damian Jones were the only three Lakers to play in all four contests against the Nuggets; none of those players are longer with the team.
Back in 2020, the Lakers consistently displayed strength and aggression at the point of attack, along with the overhanging threat of Davis lurking along the back line, which restricted Joki’s effectiveness — and yes, given how incredible an offensive weapon Joki is, 22-7-5 on.616 true shooting is “limited” —. However, Dwight Howard is no longer present. He’s actually not here, like.
JaVale McGee isn’t either, really. Davis and a few 6-foot-8 or 6-foot-9 men, including LeBron, Jarred Vanderbilt, Rui Hachimura, Wenyen Gabriel, and the ghost of Tristan Thompson, make up the current Lakers center rotation. Joki should be able to dominate and overpower these men. (There is also Mo Bamba, although I would be surprised to see him here considering he played only a few minutes against Memphis and received no punishment against Golden State.)
Ham might decide to switch up the matchups, putting those power forwards on Joki and slotting Davis onto Gordon to let him roam off the less-dangerous shooter, put a second big body in front of Joki’s basket, and generally try to clog the Nuggets’ fluid offense. However, the general assumption is that Davis will be tasked with slowing down the two-time MVP. He has struggled with it, just like almost every other defender, and it is: Joki has scored 51 points on 24-for-41 shooting (58.5%) with Davis as his closest defender in seven encounters over the last three regular seasons, according to matchup data from Second Spectrum.
While Davis was on the court, Memphis or Golden State only really had success scoring against the Lakers when they were able to get him out of the paint and open up a window for an under-resourced Lakers squad to assault the rim. Joki, who is shooting 19-for-40 (47.5%) from 3-point range in the playoffs, should be enough of a threat to draw him out. If the other Lakers aren’t locked into their coverages off the ball, the postseason’s top assist man could find opportunities to set up teammates by slicing into a lane that isn’t being guarded by its top shot-blocker.
Joki isn’t going to just hang out on the perimeter, either; you don’t become the league’s top low-post threat and the No. 1 paint scorer in the playoffs by drifting outside. When Joki receives the ball on the block, it will be fascinating to see how much assistance the Lakers provide. According to Second Spectrum, they double-teamed him on 11 of his 32 post-ups against them during the regular season, and the Nuggets scored 16 points on those trips (1.45 points per possession).
That continues to be Joki’s catch-22. Bring two to the ball to try to put more pressure on him, and he’ll find the open man time and time again to set up easy 3-point shots. He might put 53 on you if you keep everyone at home on the shooters and take a gamble by defending him alone. There are no simple solutions for him, but against Golden State, Davis showed everyone exactly how capable he is of passing the most difficult exams. It will be his hardest one yet to slow Joki down enough to defeat Denver four times out of seven.
To ensure fairness, it’s important to point out that Davis has fought fire with fire in the big-man contest: Second Spectrum reports that in those seven regular-season encounters since the bubble, he has scored 61 points on 29-for-49 shooting (59.2%) with Joki as his closest defender, giving just as good as he’s gotten the majority of the time.
Theoretically, Malone could decide to continue using the cross-matches that Denver has occasionally used to good effect in previous rounds, choosing to put the quicker and more athletic Gordon on Davis. Gordon is coming off two rounds of outstanding defensive play against Karl-Anthony Towns and Kevin Durant, as well as spot duty against just about every other dangerous offensive player on the Wolves and Suns. Joki would be kept out of pick-and-roll situations and closer to the paint, where he is so important as a magnet-handed defensive rebounder reducing second-chance possibilities for the opponent, if Denver were to station Joki on a non-shooter (looking at you, Vando).
Apart from the likelihood that the Lakers would never let Joki off the hook that easily, I’m guessing that playing Vanderbilt would force Ham to rely more heavily on Hachimura or even go smaller and give Round 2 folk hero Lonnie Walker IV more playing time. However, AG-on-AD poses an even greater issue. Who is guarding this person if Gordon is watching over AD and Joki is watching over whichever Laker Malone believes to be the least dangerous?
Despite their competitive natures, KCP and Murray have no chance of successfully squaring off against LeBron and preventing him from achieving his goals. I’m not sure Malone wants to put that on Porter’s shoulders, even with LeBron lugging around 20 NBA seasons and more than 65,000 regular- and postseason minutes on a set of wheels that also includes a ruptured tendon in his right foot. In the postseason, Gordon has essentially replaced AD as the Nuggets’ backup center, making him Denver’s best chance to guard Davis and compete against LeBron, especially when the Lakers go small with the James/Hachimura frontcourt. (Jeff Green, a former teammate of James’, will also play in that matchup in this series; I’m not sure how eager Malone is to bring back players like Vlatko Cancar and Zeke Nnaji, but if he’s looking for some size to spend some time on LeBron, they might be worth a look.)
James presents a different, more physical challenge defensively than either KAT or KD did, averaging 27 points and nine assists on 53.6% shooting during the Lakers’ victory in the 2020 series. The ability of KCP, Murray, Brown, and Braun to contain Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell, and Dennis Schröder in the pick-and-roll should be a really interesting battleground. If Gordon can limit him, and if the rest of the Nuggets’ perimeter corps can prevent L.A.’s supporting cast from going off, then Denver might be able to tighten up enough to live with whatever damage Davis does to Joki. However, the Lakers’ chances of pulling off the by-seed-line-if-nothing-else upset significantly increase if Gordon doesn’t have a strong defensive series.
When playing a team that finished seventh in the NBA in half-court offensive efficiency during the regular season and has been even better so far in the playoffs, L.A. cannot simply expect to match its opponent bucket for bucket. In order to counterattack Denver, the Lakers must look for opportunities to get out on the fast break and score easy baskets against a fumbling defense.
According to Cleaning the Glass, only six teams played in transition more often than the Lakers did during the regular season. In the postseason, they’ve turned that up even more, running more frequently than anyone save the Kings and Nets.
Against a Nuggets team that finished just outside the top 10 in offensive rebound rate during the regular season, recovered close to 28% of its missed shots against Minnesota and more than 30% against Phoenix, and has been one of the best teams in the league at getting back to thwart transition opportunities all season long, it’s not always simple to convert defense into offense. However, a few extra quick-score possessions can significantly alter the outcome. In Game 3’s rout, the Lakers had more than 22% of their possessions come in transition, and in the decisive Game 6 victory, they scored more than 1.7 points per play while on the break.
In this series, the Lakers will have some room for error if they can keep Joki, Gordon, and company off the offensive glass enough to clear the rebound and tip the possession game in their favor once or twice. This will relieve some of the pressure on their half-court offense and a defense that should have its hands full. But if they can’t find a way to make some simple ones, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to stave off one of the league’s most effective offenses possession after possession.