The Los Angeles Lakers came into Denver and defeated a Nuggets team giving maximum effort. After watching them last night, are they title favorites?
Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan): The Lakers or the Nuggets? I don’t think either are title favorites. I think the Bucks are better than either of the teams that played in Denver last night, and I think the Clippers are better than the Bucks. The league is going to have to show that they can beat Kawhi Leonard in a seven game series before I pick another team to win the title. The Nuggets aren’t Western Conference Finals contenders until they show that they can compete with the best, and they cannot do that at this point.
Gage Bridgford (@GbridgfordNFL): I think the Milwaukee Bucks are the title favorites right now. The Lakers bench over-performed last night, and I think a slog through the Western Conference Finals could leave the LA Clippers feeling drained by the time they get to the Finals. The Nuggets showed that they need to do better on the offensive end of the floor to beat the best team, and I have them somewhere in the 5-8 range in terms of power rankings. These are both good teams, but neither of them are my title favorites as things stand.
Zach Mikash (@ZachMikash): I would say yes. I see the argument for the Bucks but I have a hard time seeing them win a seven game series against the Lakers. The Clippers are of course also a popular pick, but I think you give the benefit of the doubt to a Lakers team that is ahead in the standings. At this moment, yes, the Lakers should be considered the favorites. Certainly doesn’t mean they are a lock to win it or even get to the finals though
Jena Garcia (@vidavivadiva): After watching the Lakers dominate the Nuggets in almost every way, I would have to say that it is clear the Nuggets are still missing a piece to their championship puzzle. The Lakers almost had double the rebounds on both offensive and defensive boards. I am not sure anything screams, “missing piece” louder than that statistic. Yes, the Nuggets weren’t hitting shots. Yes, their offense hasn’t been clicking. And yes, Nikola Jokic doesn't look like himself. While the Nuggets gave the hustle needed they were clearly undersized. If they genuinely want to be in the championship conversations they need to get a bigger sized third guard who cleans up the glass and can play defense.
Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn): I haven’t seen the Clippers yet in person, and they would really pique my interest in a potential championship discussion, but as of now, I’d give it to the Lakers. The combination of LeBron James and Anthony Davis was very hard to handle, while the shooting guards around LeBron were pesky and shot well enough throughout, and the centers next to Davis added additional length. Andre Iguodala is still in play for some teams, but right now, I give the edge to the Lakers. They were impressive.
Nikola Jokic is going through one of the most frustrating times of his career. What can the Nuggets do to help Jokic regain his confidence?
Lewis: Why does it have to be the Nuggets that fix Jokic? He’s his own person, and the only person responsible for his actions is himself. He’s not playing to the best of his ability, he pouts, he loafs around, and he’s not playing well. That’s not on Malone, that’s on Jokic. He can and should be playing better. If he’s not able to do his best, he needs to find that motivation on his own. That’s part of being an adult, let alone the player the franchise is built around. Jokic needs to fix himself.
Bridgford: Jokic is working to get himself right, but he’s also playing in a completely different role than the one we’ve seen from him for the past few years. He’s been the hub that the offense revolved around, and, despite his high usage rate, he’s being far more deferential on offense. He’s allowing the offense to run through others, and he really needs to assert himself on offense more on that end if he wants to get back into his confident playing style. In terms of how the coaching staff can help him, they need to make a concerted effort to get him early touches. When double teams come, players have to hit the open shots that they get.
Mikash: It’s really hard to answer this question because we don’t know what’s going on with Jokic and whether its just a fleeting thing (he typically starts the season slow) or something more. Without knowing that it’s impossible to say what the Nuggets can do to help. What we can be sure of though is none of us here have the answer and likely neither do the Nuggets. Heck, maybe Jokic himself doesn’t have the answer, but one way or the other the only one who can make him right is him.
Garcia: After last night’s loss, Jokic openly admitted to struggling for the first time since I've covered the team. He is a guy whose touch is so good that he has never felt like he has struggled before. One thing that is well known about Jokic is that basketball is simply his job. It is not his hobby or his most enjoyed past time. He has other things he enjoys doing much more than playing basketball. Basketball is work. I think most of us can agree if we had to work all year with nothing more than a couple weeks of vacation time here and there, anyone would become tired. In the Joker’s case he needs a break. He needs to feel like the team doesn't NEED him. Over the last couple years the team has needed Nikola every single game. Can they win without him? Enough for him to rest and recover?
Blackburn: This is going to be the ultimate factor in Denver’s and Jokic’s season. I wrote and spoke extensively about how November has been a really tough month for Jokic. He has always recovered in December and going forward throughout his career. The first game of this December doesn’t have to be the first moment he starts playing well, but at some point, the switch needs to flip. I think the Nuggets have to make a pointed effort to get him the ball on the block the next several games and in the pick and roll so he can utilize his floater. There will be opportunities against teams with a defensively weak starting center in Boston vs Daniel Theis and New York vs Julius Randle or Taj Gibson. As Denver goes through their center to score more frequently, he will eventually respond in kind.
When will the Nuggets next play with joy again?
Lewis: They’ll start playing with joy once all the rotation players commit to the system that Malone is trying to run. I’m sure I’m not the only person that’s been part of a group project where one of the group members can’t be counted on, and even when they do contribute, the work sucks. It’s totally disheartening to see someone fail to live up to their end of the bargain. The team is healthy, it’s early in the season, they’ve played the fewest games of any team in the league, so there aren’t any excuses for being tired two weeks before Christmas. It comes down to Jokic’s inability to execute like he is capable of and how much of an impact his poor attitude has on the rest of the team. Once he starts carrying his prodigious weight around in games, the team will start to improve.
Bridgford: The Nuggets will be playing with joy again when they figure out how to hit open shots. This team has missed so many wide open shots it can be maddening to watch, and I know that it has to be even worse from the inside. They’re playing suffocating defense, and that can bring you joy depending on your personality, but this is a team of young guys that have lived on the running teams out of the gym by putting up 130 points a night. That’s not how Malone wants to run this team, so they need to figure out how to hit the shots they do get then suffocate teams on the other end of the floor. The joy will come, and it’s just going to take the team regressing to the mean in terms of shooting.
Mikash: I don’t think it’s appropriate to infer that they haven’t been playing with “joy.” It feels more like projection and the real question is “when will the Nuggets fans feel joy again when they are watching the Nuggets?” That answer is more simple and it comes down to when the offense is a fee flowing, high scoring machine again. Nuggets fans are trained to love offense, they are conditioned by decades of fast paced 130 points a night teams. This team isn’t doing that. Here’s the rub though, they are still winning without doing that and there’s a good argument to be made that they shouldn’t be going away from what has worked so far this season. There is going to have to be some middle ground here. Nuggets fans might just have to accept that this is not as fun of a team to watch as in previous years and that can be ok.
Garcia: I believe the Nuggets play with joy every night. This team is full of guys who love the game of basketball. Guys like: Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Jamal Murray love the game of basketball. Even when they don’t have to be in the gym they are putting up shots because they truly love the game of basketball. Of course they don’t love losing because they are competitive but they play with joy every night. A better question would be, when will Micheal Malone enjoy a game of basketball again? That might never happen for him. Malone seems to be to have lost his “joy” this season and that can be felt by the team. Even in some of the Nuggets most complete wins, Malone has found something for the team to work on. While that is his job and is constructive to the development of the team, I do think this league has become more accepting of load management and scheduled losses. Coach Malone is still the type of coach that wants maximum effort 100% of the time. His team and his Serbian superstar, is starting to push back against that notion.
Blackburn: Denver’s most passionate moments this season have come when the ball is going through the net consistently in combination with the intense defense they have learned to play. It’s rare to put both together, and when the Nuggets eventually hit that level of basketball nirvana, it’s pure bliss to watch and I’m sure a very pleasant experience for the players. Only thrice have the Nuggets been above average in both offense and defense in the same game: Miami, Memphis, and Houston. In Miami, Jokic was the only one who couldn’t get it going. In Memphis, Jamal Murray got it going and the offense hummed, but Jokic didn’t. Against Houston, Jokic got it going, the Nuggets limited the James Harden offense, and it was undoubtedly their best win of the season. Denver recreating those blowouts would help everyone involved, especially Jokic if he feels like his scoring helped contribute to that game positively. I’m interested to see when that happens. The Nuggets are playing the Knicks tomorrow. Maybe that could help.