The Denver Nuggets have been to the Conference Finals three times in their history. They have never made the Finals as an organization. Not great for a franchise that’s been part of the NBA since 1976. Nonetheless, they’ve had 3 chances to get to the promise land. So who’s stopped them from reaching the Finals each and every time?
The goddamn Los Angeles Lakers.
In 1985 it was Alex English losing to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and the Showtime Lakers.
In 2009 it was Kobe Bryant besting the Carmelo Anthony led Nuggets in 6 games.
And in the 2020 bubble, it was Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray getting bounced by the LeBron James and Anthony Davis led Lakers.
But this time is different.
Because for the first time in the history of this matchup, the Denver Nuggets will have the best player on the floor.
That’s right. Nikola Jokic is the best player in this series.
And to be honest with you, I don’t think it’s particularly close.
LeBron is LeBron, don’t get me wrong, but he’s not nearly what he was 3 years ago in the bubble. If the eye test isn’t enough for you, just consider the raw stats:
-In the 2020 bubble, LeBron averaged 27.6 PPG, 10.8 RPG, and 8.8 APG on 56% from the field, 37% from 3.
-In the 2023 playoffs thus far, LeBron is averaging 23.4 PPG, 10 RPG, and 5.3 APG on 49% from the field, 25.3% from 3.
The numbers don’t lie.
Additionally, the Lakers in the 2020 bubble were a +165 with LeBron on the floor. Up to this point in the 2023 playoffs, the Lakers are only a +20 with LeBron on the floor. A lot of this has to do with his drop in offensive numbers, but his defense has fallen off considerably as well.
LeBron is obviously an all time great. Second best basketball player of all time, in my humble opinion. But in his 20th season, at age 38, LeBron isn’t nearly the player he used to be.
The bigger surprise? Anthony Davis isn’t either.
Not only is AD scoring less in these playoffs (27.7 PPG in 2020 vs. 21.2 PPG in 2023), he’s simply not a threat whatsoever from the 3 point line anymore. Davis is barely taking ONE 3 point shot a game in these playoffs, and is only shooting 27.3% on those attempts. In 2020, AD was making 38.3% of his 3 point shots, taking nearly 3/game. Now his defense is as good as it’s ever been, but there’s been a clear regression from AD on the offensive side of court compared to what he was doing in the bubble.
Nikola Jokic on the other hand?
2020 playoffs: 24.4 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 5.7 APG on 51.9% from the field, 42.9% from 3. -14
2023 playoffs thus far: 30.7 PPG, 12.8 RPG, 9.7 APG on 54.9% from the field, 47.5% from 3. +91
While both postseasons are ridiculous, Jokic has gone to another level. Since the 2020 bubble, he has won 2 MVP’s and is now considered arguably the best player in the world. Simply put, in 2020 Jokic was an All-Star. In 2023, Jokic is putting up numbers suggesting he’s one of the greatest talents we’ve ever seen on an NBA court.
Jamal Murray’s numbers are eerily similar to his 2020 bubble run, despite not having as many outrageous performances. One could argue Murray is less explosive than he was in 2020. I argue that he’s a better overall basketball player than he was then.
Let me continue stating facts about this Nuggets team compared to 2020.
–Michael Porter Jr is a better overall player, defensively and offensively.
–Aaron Gordon has been an upgrade over Jerami Grant.
–KCP is either the same, or a slightly better fit than Gary Harris.
–Bruce Brown, Christian Braun, and Jeff Green are equal to, or better than, the bench combination of Monte Morris, Paul Millsap, Torrey Craig, Mason Plumlee and PJ Dozier.
Case and Point:
This Nuggets team is significantly better than the 2020 conference finals team.
What about this Lakers team? Is it better?
We’ve already established LeBron and AD are considerably worse than in 2020. So what about their role players?
2020 role players for the Lakers:
–KCP, Danny Green, Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, Markieff Morris, Dwight Howard
2023 role players for the Lakers:
-Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell, Dennis Schroder, Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt, Lonnie Walker IV
Now obviously this second iteration of role players has worked out for the 2023 version of the Lakers. Their head coach Darvin Ham specifically has done an excellent job with this group after completely reshaping the roster post-trade deadline. But can anyone really make a valid argument that they’d rather have that second list over the first? That’d be a pretty tough argument to make…
The only thing I’m scared about as a Nuggets fan? The same thing every other fanbase fears when playing the Lakers…
That damn Laker whistle.
But ya know what? The 2023 Denver Nuggets are capable of doing something no other iteration of the Nuggets was able to do: Overcome those incredibly frustrating calls that always seem to go the Lakers way.
This team is built different.
This team will exercise their demons.
This team will beat the Lakers.
Nuggs in 6.