What a time to be a Denver sports fan, huh? The Avalanche won the Stanley Cup last year, now the Nuggets will probably be big favorites to win the franchise’s first NBA Championship this year.
Of course, their likely opponent in the Finals, the Miami Heat, are not going to be an easy task (plus, South Florida’s NHL team, the Florida Panthers, are up 3-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals, so Miami could potentially be about to experience an NBA and NHL Championship within the span of a week or so next month). But I don’t want to get ahead of myself with Miami here.
After Game 1 of the Lakers-Nuggets series, I thought the Nuggets won because the Lakers, for some reason, went with a three guard small-ball lineup against one of the tallest teams in the league. It worked against Golden State, but… Denver is not Golden State. Apparently nobody told Darvin Ham the Lakers were facing a different opponent in that game and that they’d already eliminated Golden State.
So Denver’s shortest player in their starting lineup, the 6’4″ Jamal Murray, was still taller than 2 of Golden State’s 5 starters. And Denver had three players taller than the tallest Warriors starter.
I figured the Lakers would learn from that mistake and stop going small, make the adjustment and get right back in the series. They largely did, but it didn’t matter because there was another reason the Nuggets won this series: their insane shot-making.
In Game 1, they were shooting like the Harlem Globetrotters. I thought it was unsustainable.
Turns out, it wasn’t. The Lakers just didn’t have the perimeter size to contest the Nuggets’ shooters.
They were making everything all series long. I haven’t seen shot-making that good since, I don’t know… the 2017 Warriors? The 2014 Spurs? It was insane.
Denver as a team in those four games had an effective field goal percentage of 57.5%. The Lakers weren’t too bad themselves at 53.1%, but 57.5% eFG is just ridiculous.
For reference, the 2017 Warriors in the Finals against the Cavaliers had a team eFG of 55.3%.
(The best shooting performance from a team that I can remember was the 2014 Spurs in the Finals against the Heat, and the Spurs as a team were 60.4% eFG in 5 games).
I also think the Lakers simply ran out of gas in this series, too.
They’ve been playing must-win basketball games since the All Star break in February because they started the season 2-10. Eventually that just catches up with you, doesn’t it? They were 27-32 going into All Star weekend–they had to play almost perfect basketball for the past 3 months while other teams, like the Nuggets, were coasting into the playoffs with their playoff seeding already secured. Nikola Jokic sat for 5 of the Nuggets’ final 7 games of the regular season.
The evidence for this is in how poorly the Lakers played, consistently, in the second half of these games against Denver (other than in Game 1 when they had maximum rest).
These are the numbers for the full series: the Lakers’ best quarters were 2 and 3, and they averaged 58.8 points in the first half vs. 53.3 in the second.
Denver’s best quarters were 1 and 3 and they averaged 59 points in the first half and 59.3 points in the second half:
But if we take out Game 1, which skews the numbers, we can see just how dramatically the Lakers fell off in the second half of Games 2, 3 and 4:
So in the final 3 games of the series, the Lakers averaged 60.3 points in the first half, but just 47 points in the second half.
Denver, on the other hand, averaged 54.7 in the first half and 59.0 in the second half.
In the deciding Game 4, the Lakers scored 73 points in the first half, but just 38 in the second. Think about that for a second. In the first half, they were on a 146 point pace, but in the second, they were on a 76 point pace.
Denver shot 48% from the floor in the second halves of Games 2-4, the Lakers shot 41.7%.
That’s the series, right there. Denver significantly outplayed the Lakers in the second half of Games 2-4. The only game the Lakers played better than Denver in the second half was Game 1 when the Lakers were coming off of three days rest.
Once the series got underway and the games were played every other day, the Lakers were completely gassed in the second half.
Denver outscored the Lakers 177-141 in the second halves of Games 2-4.
The Lakers outscored Denver 181-164 in the first half of those games, but were outscored by an average of 12 points in the second half.
I’m sure people are going to want to assume the worst and say LeChoke Choked as he always does or whatever bullshit narrative people believe, but there is no doubt in my mind that fatigue and dead legs played a massive role in how this series played out.
Credit to Denver, their shot-making was off the charts, but I just don’t see how you can dismiss the idea that the Lakers were extremely fatigued in the second halves of these games–especially when the one outlier, Game 1, was the one game where they had 3 days of rest going into it. It just lines up too perfectly to not be true.
The Lakers also didn’t great performances out of some key players. D’Angelo Russell, first and foremost, was horrifically bad in the series. He averaged 6.3 points per game on 32.3% field goal shooting. He was 13.3% from three in the series (2/15). And that doesn’t even cover the half of it: he was so bad on both ends of the floor that he was unplayable by Game 3. Dennis Schroder replaced him in the starting lineup in Game 4. He was hunted constantly on defense, not big enough to really guard anybody other than Jamal Murray, but not nearly athletic enough to keep up with Murray.
D’Lo had an offensive rating of just 82, abysmal. His defensive rating was 126, which comes to an overall net rating for the series of -44 points per 100 possessions.
The Lakers were 44 points worse than the Nuggets for every 100 possessions when D’Lo was on the floor. That is the definition of unplayable.
LeBron, AD and Austin Reaves were the only Lakers to have positive net ratings in the series.
And AD, who was great in Game 1 going for 40 points on 14/23 shooting, didn’t contribute much offensively over the last three games of the series. In Game 2, he was 4/15 from the floor for 18 points. In Game 3, he was 11/18 for 28 points which is pretty good. But then, in the deciding Game 4, he was 6/15 for 21 points–not the efficiency you want out of your superstar big. 21/48 from the floor in the final 3 games of the series is just not going to get it done.
I thought AD was going to dominate the series from the inside. He did hold Jokic to below what he averaged against Phoenix, but then again it’s hard to play much worse defense on Jokic than Phoenix did. I guess kudos to AD for not letting Joker go for 53?
AD should have been getting anything he wanted on the inside as Denver doesn’t have much rim protection, but instead he really wasn’t a huge factor offensively in this series. I do think fatigue had a lot to do with it, because he was sensational in Game 1 and then petered out in the last 3 games.
Will LeBron retire? He seemed to hint that he was at least considering it after the game.
I don’t buy into it at all. I think LeBron intends to play his last game with Bronny on his team, and the last time he checks out of an NBA game, he’ll embrace his son and it’ll be an all-time legendary moment.
And he’s going to have the full season farewell tour as well. Don’t get it twisted. He wants that, I’m sure.
I just think he was either speaking in the moment about how tough a series it was against Denver, and how he was basically the only one (other than Reaves) getting it done in Game 4. Maybe he felt, in that moment, like “Man, that wasn’t fun.”
I also think it was possibly a leverage play by him. We know he’s cunning, calculating and never does or says anything without gaming the chess moves out. There’s a good chance he was sending a message to the front office: “We are not good enough. We need to get better in the offseason or else I’m not sure I can do this anymore.”
But I don’t think there’s any more than like a 5% chance he retires. Not when he’s playing as well as he is. He had 40 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists in that Game 4 on 68% true shooting. There aren’t many players in the history of the league that have ever had a game like that, and he did it in year 20 at the age of 38 on one foot. The dude is unlike anything we’ve ever seen–still.
I don’t think he’ll call it quits with so much clearly left in the tank.
Now I want to touch on the Denver Nuggets, because I think they could be on the verge of something truly special here.
Denver might be the next NBA dynasty. I really think that. And not only that, they could be ushering in the next major basketball revolution–the return of the Big Man, with a modern twist on it.
I feel like the Nuggets right now are similar to the Warriors in 2015.
Nikola Jokic is 28, Jamal Murray is 26, Michael Porter is 24 turning 25 at the end of June.
In 2015, when Golden State won their first title, Steph was 27, Klay and Draymond were both 25.
Why shouldn’t we expect Denver to go on a similar type of run? It’s not as if the front office will allow any of their main three guys to walk.
They have Jokic signed through 2028, Porter signed through 2027, and Gordon and Porter are both signed for two more seasons after this one. Gordon has a player option for 2026, Murray is an unrestricted free agent after 2025. But if they’re winning and all getting along, I don’t see why they wouldn’t give him a max extension well before that, locking him up basically until he’s well into his 30s.
If Denver is already this good now, why can’t they go on a run of dominance for the next 3-5 years?
Seriously, what is stopping that from happening?
They dismantled Phoenix, they swept LeBron and AD, Golden State is fading and wasn’t even good enough to beat the Lakers. Neither was Memphis?
Is there any doubt at this point that the Nuggets are the best team in the Western Conference?
There’s nobody else in the West that is on their level right now.
Obviously in the NBA things can change in an instant. After the 2016 Finals, I thought there was a good chance the Cavs could repeat and probably even three-peat. Then, just a few weeks later, KD joined the Warriors and the whole league was ruined.
So you never know. For all we know, the Lakers could trade for Damian Lillard, or Kyrie. The Warriors could get Giannis. Or Phoenix could pull off a blockbuster deal.
When one team gets really good and looks unstoppable, and it feels like they’re going to win Championships for years to come, typically the rest of the league responds by forming a new superteam to usurp the new dynasty in the making. LeBron, Wade and Bosh teamed up in Miami in response to the Boston Celtics superteam. The Warriors recruited AD to get the upper hand on LeBron. It’s just how the league works. Teams don’t just stand by anymore and let somebody else run roughshod.
But I’m looking around the league right now and I’m not sure there’s anybody out there that can mess with these Nuggets. The Bucks look old and washed, they need to rebuild around Giannis. Philly is done for, that group is never sniffing a Championship. And Boston, who just a year ago looked like they’d be running the Eastern Conference, looks broken and dysfunctional and primed for a crack-up.
Obviously Miami is other team still remaining out there, and will give Denver quite a tough series in the Finals. Do not underestimate Miami. They have the best coach in the league, one of the all-time great playoff performers in the history of the league in Jimmy Butler (and I am not just saying that–he really is). Miami has a way of turning every game they play into a knock-down, drag-out slog; a rock fight, as they say. They muck it up with their zone defense, keep the game close, then bury you in crunch time in the 4th quarter. They’re a gritty, hard-nosed, nasty bunch who aren’t afraid of anyone. I am done doubting the Miami Heat–they absolutely have a chance to win the Championship. Boston was -600 to beat Miami in this series and now Miami is about to sweep them.
However, I just think the Nuggets are so good that even Miami will not be able to solve them. Denver is way better than Boston, and the Knicks, and the Bucks, even.
And then, looking ahead, I don’t know if anybody else out there is messing with the Nuggets. I really don’t. Jokic is undoubtedly now the best player in the NBA, Jamal Murray is like Jimmy Butler–an all-time playoff riser. He averaged 32-6-5 on 65% true shooting against the Lakers. Somehow, this fuckin’ guy hasn’t made an All Star team once in his career!
I think Denver is the best team in the league for the foreseeable future.
Sure, they could absolutely lose to Miami. I am not going to pick that to happen, I would say I’m like 60/40 in favor of Denver winning.
But if they beat Miami, as they will be favored to do, there is not a whole lot stopping them from becoming the next great NBA dynasty. Obviously there’s injuries, and those are unpredictable. Murray has been hurt quite a bit, Porter has a well-documented injury history. Injuries could complicate things, however you could say that about anybody.
If Denver lives up to the potential they are now showing, then we have to start asking questions about whether Jokic and Murray are the best inside-outside duo since Shaq and Kobe in the early 2000s.
I’m getting ahead of myself here, I know. They haven’t even won a single Championship yet, while Shaq and Kobe three-peated.
But if the Nuggets reel off multiple Championships in the next few years, how can we not say that they are the modern version of Shaq and Kobe?
We are on the verge of seeing the first Big Man-led Championship since…. when? The Spurs in 2007 with Tim Duncan?
Obviously there have been a lot of big men that played key roles on Championship teams since then–KG in 2008, Pau Gasol in 2009 and 2010, Duncan again in 2014, AD in 2020. But you can’t say Giannis is a traditional big man, he plays more like a wing than a center.
For basically 15 years, the consensus has been that it’s a wing-driven league now–your best player needs to be either a 2-guard or a small forward (or Steph Curry as a combo-guard) in order to win a Championship. Big men, who dominated the league from its inception in 1947 to well into the 2000s, fell out of favor in a major way. The Jordan-Pippen Bulls of the 1990s showed that you could win with wings as your best players–you didn’t need Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem or Hakeem or Shaq or Duncan to be the best team in the league.
Jokic is on the verge of upending all of that and proving that a big man can lead a team to a Championship–it just has to be a certain type of big man: a passing big man with off-the-charts skill, shooting, cleverness and touch.
Jokic is not like Shaq–a pure force of nature that just steamrolls everyone in his path. He’s a point-center; a big man who can play-make at an all-time elite level, while also being able to score at an insanely efficient clip at basically all three levels.
When have we seen a big man who was arguably the best passer in the league while being a three-level scorer while also being an elite rebounder?
Nikola Jokic is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Now, nobody can deny it.
I think for a while, most people knew that he was not only really but a special talent, but they still didn’t take him seriously because he didn’t have the playoff success to really validate his play style. It was like, “Yeah, he’s doing some incredible stuff, but you can’t win a Championship like that.”
Well, now what?
He’s got his team in the Finals. They just steamed through the Western Conference, and there was nothing lucky, fluky or unsustainable about it. They were clearly the best team in the West–all throughout the regular season and all throughout the playoffs.
Jokic led them there. He didn’t do it alone; Murray was sensational, along with just about every other player on that roster.
But nobody does it alone. That’s not any reason to be skeptical of Jokic as the best in the world.
Here’s another reason why people are skeptical of him: because he doesn’t fit our idea of what the best player in the world looks like. He doesn’t fit our archetype.
And that’s because we’ve been used to the “Best Player in the World” being a wing, a non-big man.
So it’s hard for us to wrap our minds around the fact that the best player in the world doesn’t necessarily have to fit into the mold that we’re used to.
It’s why so many people have a hard time accepting that LeBron is the GOAT: because they have not only been brainwashed for years into thinking that Michael Jordan is the permanent GOAT, but that if anyone were to surpass Jordan, he would have to basically be a carbon copy of Jordan. This is why so many people ridiculously have Kobe as their GOAT–because Kobe was basically a copy of Jordan.
They are in the mindset of “Well Jordan did this, can LeBron do this?” They think the GOAT looks like a guy who basically plays the game the exact way Michael Jordan did. The idea that you can have a different game and be equally great or even superior never crosses their minds. LeBron doesn’t shoot enough fadeaways and doesn’t have the finesse Jordan had, so Jordan is better! They never ask themselves whether Jordan can do the things LeBron excels at–it’s always the other way around.
And it’s the same type of situation with Jokic: he doesn’t fit our prototype of what the best player in the world looks like, so of course he can’t be the best player in the world.
This is why people ridiculously cling to this idea of Kevin Durant as the best player in the world even though he’s never once been the best player in the world; and today, he may very well not even be a top-10 player in the league; and he’s not even the best player on his own team. But he looks like what we envision in our minds as “The Best Player in the World!” He makes a lot of pull-up jump shots, he shoots a lot of fadeaways–he’s like a taller Kobe, or a taller MJ! He’s gotta be the best, then, right?!
The whole premise is wrong.
Jokic is the best player in the world because he’s the best basketball player in the world, not because he closely resembles some other player who was once considered the best player in the world.
People have a hard time embracing change. They think that if the New Thing is not exactly the same as the Old Thing, then the New Thing sucks and the Old Thing was better! This is mainly because people crave familiarity, which makes them comfortable, while unfamiliarity makes them uncomfortable.
But soon enough, after people get used to Jokic being the best player in the world, another great player will come along and we will be skeptical of him because he’s not Exactly Like Jokic Was.
Denver still has to beat Miami. It won’t be easy, it’s not guaranteed. But they can do it.
And if they do it, I think it really changes a lot about what we believe it takes to win a Championship in the modern NBA.
I think Big Men might be back. Everyone is going to want to find the next Jokic. Big men will all now be required to practice their passing skills–and their three-level scoring.
Teams are going to be looking for either the next Jokic, or a big man who can stop Jokic.
The Nuggets winning the Championship this year could be a watershed moment for the league. We could be looking at the next great dynasty, as well as a Big Man revolution that completely changes the fundamental way coaches and scouts at all levels teach and recruit the game of basketball.