Lakers-Nuggets Is A Clash Of Versatile Big Men Who Dominate In Different Ways

When the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers tip off for Tuesday night’s Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, it’ll feature the top-ranked offense and top-ranked defense of the playoffs. Unsurprisingly, each side is shepherded by the foremost offensive talent of the playoffs (although, the race between Nikola Jokic and Devin Booker for this honor is a doozy). and foremost defender of the playoffs.

Through 11 games, two-time MVP Nikola Jokic has been sensational, averaging 30.7 points (62.6 percent true shooting), 12.8 rebounds, 9.7 assists, and 1.1 steals. His foe across the aisle, Anthony Davis, has terrorized the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors with his defensive presence in the Lakers’ two series victories. Each offense will be haunted by the sight of Davis’ sprawling limbs influencing decision after decision with no obvious remedy available. He’s swatting 3.3 shots and inhaling 14.1 rebounds per game, both of which lead the playoffs. On field goals within 6 feet of the hoop, players are shooting 19.2 percent worse than their average when he’s the primary defender, per

Davis and the Lakers are the stingiest defense Denver has encountered and likely will encounter this postseason. Jokic and the Nuggets are the most prolific offense Los Angeles has encountered and likely will encounter this postseason. Framing this matchup as merely Jokic vs. Davis is disingenuous and inaccurate. NBA games are not played 1-on-1, regardless of discourse often devolving into that line of thinking, and scheming for someone as atypically brilliant as Jokic will always require a collective effort. I am nonetheless fascinated about how the two sides approach this angle of the series, both from the outset and as each game progresses.

The Lakers must first determine their opening lineup. In Game 6 on Friday, Dennis Schröder replaced Jarred Vanderbilt as the fifth starter. Los Angeles embraced more three-guard lineups over the course of that series to bolster the offense and head coach Darvin Ham fully leaned into the identity to close out the defending champs.

Starting Schröder against the Nuggets could be appealing for a few reasons. The quintet of Schröder-D’Angelo Russell-Austin Reaves-LeBron James-Davis puts Michael Porter Jr. in a very tough spot defensively. He’s Denver’s best low man to rotate on the backline, but still presents issues wiggling around screens and operating in space, even if he’s improved at the latter. That Lakers group leaves him to defend either James or a ball-handler who’s quite capable in pick-and-rolls. None of those sound like a spot Denver wants him to have to navigate.

Not only that, Schröder was excellent at chasing the Warriors’ shooters around screens and top-locking them with his speed, physicality, and flexibility. Porter is much taller than any of Golden State’s foremost snipers, but Schroder could still be a viable option. He could also wrangle with Jamal Murray, who had some issues with Landry Shamet’s pressure and physicality last round.

The potential downside is it almost assuredly means Davis is on Jokic, who could lure Davis away from the hoop in various facets and exploit Los Angeles’ lack of interior defenders beyond him. Jokic can pop on ball-screens, initiate from the elbows or dribble up the court, and drag dudes all over the floor with his off-ball movement. The Nuggets’ spacing might look pretty vast if this is the reality, particularly in contrast to the Warriors’ spacing landscape last round.

Instead, rolling with Vanderbilt may enable Davis to take Aaron Gordon and act as a roamer, while Vanderbilt tackles the Jokic assignment primarily and gets help from Davis and others. Kevin Durant consistently and aggressively helped off Gordon last round, which stalled Denver’s offense at times. Davis could employ a similar tactic and enjoy increased success because he’s a bigger, rangier, superior defender than Durant.

In general, Phoenix shrewdly played off of the Nuggets’ shakiest shooters, Gordon, Jeff Green, Christian Braun, and Bruce Brown. It didn’t always lead to preferred results since the Suns’ defensive personnel was quite limited. But I bet the Lakers’ took note of that gambit and intend to replicate it for better results, especially since Gordon, Braun, and Brown are so integral to Denver’s defensive ethos.

As Phoenix dialed up more pressure and denials of Murray last round, Jokic assumed a grander ball-handling role. Denver seamlessly let him cook the entire possession. Schroder, Reaves, and Lonnie Walker IV could do the same to Murray. Walker’s offensive contributions rightfully garnered headlines against Golden State, but his work winding around screens and denying passes defensively also popped.

This is where Los Angeles’ depth of viable two-way guards, something the Suns did not have, could prove to be a notable factor. Murray did not always endure Shamet’s feistiness well, yet Shamet seemed to wear down a bit physically by the end of the series. The Lakers can cycle through different primaries against Murray and aim to avoid that scenario.

If this manifests and Davis is guarding Jokic, I wonder about his strategy when Jokic pilots possessions. Does he sit back a bit and test Jokic as a shooter to dissuade cutting and slashing lanes? If he does, that might open up dribble handoffs for Murray, Porter, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Does he try to disrupt Jokic’s handle and make use of his mobility by playing up tightly? If he does, that might leave him susceptible to Jokic’s funky, whirling driving game that highlights the strength discrepancy between them.

From the other perspective, Davis’ blend of size, mobility, and 7’6 wingspan could counter some of Jokic’s multifaceted, unorthodox shot-making. The Serbian big man thrives manufacturing little pockets of space to score off-balance and wield his ethereal touch. Davis might be the antidote, at least to an extent. I certainly don’t expect Jokic to melt down, though. He and the Nuggets have made clear the array of avenues through which he can produce.

That array of avenues is what renders Jokic such an arduous cover for everyone. Take away the post-ups or isolations, he’ll dash into a pick-and-roll or DHO with Murray, content to roll or pop and adept at both. Sell out against the pick-and-rolls and he’ll waddle through a series of off-ball picks to gauge the opponent’s screen navigation — most bigs aren’t fluent there. Pass those exams and he’ll just morph into Denver’s 6’11 point guard. If that’s not enough, he’ll ping pong offensive rebounds into his lap for second-chance points. His malleability is absurd and on prominent display these playoffs. He has a legitimate case as the NBA’s best passer and scorer.

Then, there’s Davis, a bastion of defensive malleability. Through two rounds, he’s played deep drop, soft drop, at the level of the screen, and switched effectively, not to mention the chaos he inflicts as a low man and roamer. Every time the Warriors adjusted to try and open their offense, Los Angeles readied to tweak Davis’ deployment. His adaptability of coverage was the primary reason the reigning champs were upended, not to mention Ja Morant’s struggles inside the arc in Round 1 (42.7 percent on two-pointers).

Now, these two teams and their divergent centerpieces clash with a Finals berth hanging in the balance, just as they did three seasons ago. The deciding factor for each might be whose versatility wins out more frequently and impactfully.