You hear it on debate shows, podcasts, and everywhere in the mainstream media if you’re paying attention. It’s the one constant in every discussion surrounding the Denver Nuggets and their title contention hopes:
How do they stop LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard?
It’s really the same discussion as that of any other team, and yet the Golden State Warriors went to five straight NBA Finals. They couldn’t stop LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard at any point, and yet they defeated both players and their respective teams several times. All it took for James or Leonard to beat the Warriors was a historic comeback by LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers in 2015-16 and injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson for Kawhi’s Toronto Raptors to win in 2018-19. Every other time, the Warriors beat those teams because their superstars couldn’t be contained.
The Nuggets are in a similar situation. They have no hope to stop LeBron or Kawhi. Those guys are too fast, too strong, too skilled, too good. Nobody in the NBA can stop them. There is no such thing as a LeBron or Kawhi stopper, only those foolish enough to think they’ve pushed down those superstars for a game before those guys eventually figure it out.
Now that LeBron and Kawhi have taken refuge in Los Angeles to play fo the Lakers and Clippers respectively, insulated by their fellow All-NBA teammates in Anthony Davis and Paul George, the entire narrative surrounds the city of angels. It’s a fact of life that Nuggets fans have learned to cope with but has yet to become any less annoying. Despite the Nuggets having been highly competitive with both teams in several games, they will never garner any level of respect. If the Nuggets match up with the Lakers or Clippers, 95% of predictions (or more) will be that the team from LA, the team with the superstar forward, will advance.
It doesn’t matter that the Nuggets have a superstar of their own in Nikola Jokic, capable of carrying his team on his back at any moment of time. Since December 4th, the day after Jokic decide it was “go time” on the 2019-20 season, the Serbian center has averaged 23.2 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game while shooting 54.6% from the field and 38.2% from three-point range. That’s a 37 game sample size fraught with difficult opponents, situations, and circumstances. Jokic has made several game winning shots, created points via assists to his teammates in big moments, and taken the superstar leap many hoped he would take. He has been in playoff mode since that point, and it has been a joy to watch him navigate the path of an NBA superstar.
Then there’s Jamal Murray, dancing on the borderline of NBA stardom from his performance in the 2019 playoffs to his most recent five-game stretch. The Nuggets know they need Murray to take the next step to become the team they think they can be, and the latest results have been encouraging. In his last five games, Murray is averaging 29.0 points, 6.2 assists, and 3.6 made three-pointers per game while shooting 57.1% from the field and 46.2% from three-point range. Those numbers are Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, and Damian Lillard-esque, the three superstar point guards Murray is compared to most frequently. It’s hard for a point guard to do everything themselves, and fortunately Murray doesn’t have to carry that burden, but over the last several games, Murray has looked like a player capable of carrying the team for stretches, and that will be pertinent going forward.
But for many NBA analysts, it’s not enough for those two to look like legitimate stars to give credence to a possible upset of LeBron and the Lakers or Kawhi and the Clippers. It doesn’t matter that Jokic and Murray are surrounded by role players capable of altering playoff games and even an entire series based on their contributions. Will Barton is back to being his normal, versatile self. Paul Millsap’s veteran impact and Jerami Grant’s dynamic athleticism help insulate the two stars. Gary Harris, despite struggling offensively, remains a terror for opposing guards to deal with, as does All-Hustle captain Torrey Craig. I haven’t even mentioned Michael Porter Jr. yet, the dynamic superstar talent capable of changing a series if he starts feeling himself.
And yet, the national analysis remains shambolic at best.
This is the last mountain for the Denver Nuggets to climb. How do they go from elite to championship caliber? There’s no question anymore that the Nuggets are elite, one of the top 5 or 6 teams in the NBA. It was fair to question Denver last season when Jokic and Murray were first finding their sea legs in the playoffs, when seven of Denver’s nine rotation players had not played legitimate minutes in a playoff environment. Denver nearly proved the doubters correct by losing to the San Antonio Spurs in the first round. Some still feel justified in their Denver doubts because they lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in seven games soon after. You know, those Blazers with Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and several other playoff veterans that needed an out-of-body experience from Rodney Hood to defeat several playoff children.
Now, there are no excuses and no reasons to question their talent level. The Nuggets are clearly a better team than last season, on pace for roughly 57 wins, three more that they had in a weaker Western Conference last year. The team has added Grant and Porter, two athletic and dynamic forwards they didn’t have the previous year, to help combat the Rodney Hoods of the world. Every contributor is one year older, one year wiser, and for the majority of the roster, that will greatly benefit their playoff mentality. The Nuggets have proven themselves against other top teams and have a better record than almost all of them. It’s fair to question those who don’t even put them in the conversation.
But that’s where the conversation gets difficult. There’s still the problem of stopping the superstars in LA, even though we just discussed that there are no LeBron and Kawhi stoppers. The only hope of containing LeBron or Kawhi is to throw the kitchen sink their way, and unlike other Western Conference playoff contenders, the Nuggets have several athletic wings/forwards they can throw at elite teams. As was mentioned before, the Nuggets will have Gary Harris, Will Barton, Torrey Craig, Michael Porter Jr., Jerami Grant, and Paul Millsap in their regular rotation. The Houston Rockets? They have James Harden, Austin Rivers, Eric Gordon, Robert Covington, and Danuel House. PJ Tucker will be stuck defending centers. The Utah Jazz? They have Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale, Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Georges Niang. The Dallas Mavericks? They have Luka Doncic, Dorian Finney-Smith, Delon Wright, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
In terms of volume, the Nuggets have the most capable wing and forward defenders among their rotation members. This doesn’t include Jordan McRae, Keita Bates-Diop, and Noah Vonleh, all of whom wouldn’t look foolish defensively when on the floor. They may not have one guy who can go out there and physically match up with LeBron or Kawhi for all 48 minutes of a game, but they can split that assignment up for 48 minutes without any issue. If LeBron or Kawhi play 40 minutes, the Nuggets can comfortably use Craig for 20 minutes, Grant for 15, and Millsap for 5 and feel about as good about those 1-on-1 matchups as any other team in the NBA.
The real kicker is the other end. Do the Nuggets have the horses offensively to match the superstar output a team like the Lakers or Clippers will get from their stars? If the last few games are of any significance, then the answer is “quite possibly.” Jokic and Murray and have combined to average 53.6 points per game in their last five contests together. On the season, that mark would rank higher than any dynamic duo outside of Harden and Westbrook of the Rockets as well as Mitchell and Bogdanovic of the Jazz.
Denver’s dynamic duo has proven just as unstoppable lately as almost any pairing, and the best part is that they work together to score their points. While LeBron and Davis run pick and roll occasionally, they are one of the few star duos that can score while lifting up the other at the same time. Kawhi and PG run isolations and off-ball actions separately, Harden and Westbrook play “you turn my turn” with Rockets possessions, and both Mitchell and Bogdanovic take turns running pick and roll with Rudy Gobert most of the time. Because of Denver’s unique setup, they become singularly difficult to stop. Denver can run the same action for several different outcomes, all while surrounding their point guard and center will athletic, versatile defenders and shooters.
While the Nuggets are asking “how can we match up with the Lakers and Clippers?” Those teams are beginning to ask themselves the same thing about Denver. Neither team could stop Denver from generating good offense late in games when Murray and Jokic come together, and there are very few teams with the personnel to stop Jokic in the post. The Lakers may be one of them with Davis and Dwight Howard, but Jokic usually figures teams out eventually. Ask Rudy Gobert and Jazz fans. The Clippers will have an impossibly difficult time to stop Jokic once he gets going. Their wing defenders become much less useful when the Nuggets consistently use a guard and a center to generate offense. It becomes that much more complicated when Jokic and Murray switch standard rolls, and Murray becomes the screener for Jokic in pick and roll. How are the Lakers and Clippers to handle that in a playoff series?
The difference may end up being the third, fourth, and fifth options for both teams, and the Nuggets are stacked with capable options there. Barton can run sets as a pseudo point guard. Millsap and Grant are each shooting a high clip from three-point range and can space the floor. Harris will be a key factor. If he’s shooting the lights out in a playoff series, it becomes that much more difficult to stop Denver’s starting group. If he’s not shooting well, the Nuggets can substitute defense or offense on the wing, either inserting bulldog Torrey Craig to muck things up or Michael Porter Jr. to take advantage of a mismatch he may have.
I firmly believe the Nuggets have enough options in a playoff rotation to push the Lakers and Clippers to the absolute brink. Denver may not win the series, but at full strength, they have parts of their game plan that should worry even the best teams this year. At full strength, they have what it takes to win. Beyond all that, they have Jokic, a Euro big looking for his Dirk Nowitzki moment. This Nuggets roster is more talented than those Dallas Mavericks rosters, and they have scoring at every position, defense at most of them, and a wildcard in Porter few teams can game plan for.
Only time will tell if the Nuggets get their shot at taking down the teams from the city of angels. Denver won’t be the favorite. They will get zero credit for anything they have done up until that point. Winning more than 55 games or dominating a first round series won’t change their perception around the NBA and in the media landscape. They are ants in a land of giant super teams and superstars.
Just don’t tell the Nuggets that while they’re giving the Lakers and Clippers all they can handle in May.