For NBC Sports Bet The Edge, four analysts from the NBC Sports family came together to break down the Western Conference Finals matchup between LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers against Nikola Jokić and the Denver Nuggets. The analysts were divided, this is no easy series to decide.
The four are Kurt Helin, lead NBA writer for NBC Sports; Jay Croucher, the lead betting analyst for NBC Sports; Vaughn Dalzell a sports betting analyst for NBC Sports; and Drew Dinsick an NFL, NBA, Tennis Handicapper with NBC Sports.
Let’s jump into the discussion.
Jay Croucher: We thought the pandemic was over but it is not, we are back in the bubble with rematches of the 2020 Conference Finals.
Let’s get straight into the Western Conference Finals, Lakers at Nuggets. Kurt, we’ll start with you. This market is trending towards Denver, they are -160 favorites to win the series series now, 5.5 point favorites in Game 1. Do you think they’re a pretty solid favorite, is their status warranted?
Kurt Helin: Yeah. Except this is one of those situations where on paper, in a bubble, when I’m just looking at it, I’m like, ‘Denver should win this.’ They’ve been playing better defense than during the season, and the way their offense is constructed will give the Lakers’ defense real problems. The Lakers don’t have… well, nobody has a good answer for Jokic, but his passing to cutters and having actual having shooters everywhere — unlike the Warriors — causes problems.
My concern is simply this: The Lakers and LeBron James are an organization and a player used to the stage, used to rising to the occasion on the stage, used to finding a well and reserve of strong play — and he did it last series. He had a brilliant Game 6 because they knew they couldn’t go up there for Game 7, and so he’s got 30 points and on ridiculous, what was it, a 10-of-13 shooting or whatever it was [Note: It was 10-of-14]. He’s going to be good. Is Denver? I’ll ask you guys, is Denver ready for this moment?
Vaughn Dalzell: In the two years since the bubble, what have we seen to make us think that they are ready to take that step forward? I mean, Drew, have you seen anything because I don’t think so. Lakers at +130 LeBron, 10-1 in conference finals.
Drew Dinsick: I mean, my grades — other than for Jokic — my grades on the players on the Nuggets are all a little bit lower than what the guys that were in the bubble. So it’s tough to say. My grade on Jokic is quite a lot higher than he was even a couple years ago. He continues improving his game in ways that I think are difficult to quantify.
The thing that has set the Lakers apart in this particular playoff run: Anthony Davis‘ defensive impact, but just the Lakers team defense overall being really well organized, just not making many mistakes. And that’s going to be put to the test because so far what we’ve seen this season, and really the last couple of seasons, but particularly, in 2023, Jokic is now an offensive player that defies any matchup. There’s almost nothing you can do you have to pick your poison. And, you know, it’s gonna be fascinating to see what the Lakers have in response to that because if their defensive effort is the same level we saw against the Warriors, the same level we saw against the Grizzlies, and they can steal one of these two in Denver to start off the series that will be huge. The role players are playing so well at home, and LeBron and A.D. pretty clearly are a dynamic duo that together is better than Jokić plus the next-best player for the Nuggets so it’s kind of it’s it’s gonna be an interesting matchup.
Jay Croucher: Yeah, I love the Nuggets. To me, the biggest development of the first two rounds of the playoffs in terms of championship equity is the level that the Nuggets’ defense has been playing at. I think we knew that they have the highest floor of any team on offense on a given possession because you just give the ball to Jokic. And then, like, you’re just guaranteed to get something relatively good out of that possession when you do that.
But the question was always defense and the fact that they’ve been able to operate at a 110 defensive rating the first two rounds, which is basically the best defense in the league during the regular season, obviously scoring goes down a bit in the playoffs, but I think the level that Gordon the KCP that MPJ even other they’re playing at defensively. Bruce Brown, I think when you add that to the level that Jokic is playing out on offense, which is about as high as a level as you can get to in the NBA, I think that Denver is the best team in the West.
I think that the Lakers, I think we’re going to look back on them as a team that, obviously they played really well, they’re exceeding expectations, but I think they’re also a product of how limited and underwhelming these Grizzlies and Warriors teams were. In particular the Warriors. They just didn’t have it this season, for whatever reason. Poole just going down the drain really impacted that team negatively. I think that the the Nuggets the way they handled the Wolves and the Suns, defensively in particular, gives me a fair bit of confidence that they’re going to handle the Lakers as well.
Vaughn, you disagree with that?
Vaughn Dalzell: I do disagree. I think Kevin Durant and Devin Booker would disagree with Aaron Gordon‘s defense, too, for the most part in that series, because from Game 3 on those two are incredible. I don’t know who really guards LeBron. Aaron Gordon looked good at some points, but the indication is that he’s going to have a lot of all-around performances. You mentioned KCP, he’s really that role player, can he step up for the Nuggets? He was with the Lakers previously and he’s done pretty well too. Another real player that no one’s mentioned is D'Angelo Russell. He’s made a big difference for the Lakers this season and in the postseason when he scores 15 or more points, they’re 7-1 compared to 1-3 when he does not.
The Lakers have started out good and in both series, they won both road Game 1s against Memphis and Golden State, like you mentioned. Denver and L.A. are both the only teams left in the playoffs that are undefeated at home. But I think you’re looking at a team that’s been here before, like Kurt said. And LeBron James, he’s been here so often.
The Nuggets, to me, those role players y’all mentioned, they’ve been good but they haven’t had a moment where they’ve gone up against the caliber of players in this round. I’m taking the team with more veteran leadership and arguably the best player of all time.
Drew Dinsick: Jay’s points were fair, but I gotta tell you Jay, I don’t know that I’m buying the Nuggets defense having taken a step forward, up against the Timberwolves and the Suns. And you know, both those squads there were pretty flawed.
Kurt Helin: Honestly, both teams played teams where you can hide guys that don’t exist this anymore, right? Denver’s got shooters everywhere. Like Jay said there’s no Jordan Poole there’s no Klay Thompson, who was awful the last three games of that series. Go ahead and leave KCP and Bruce Brown and see what happens.
The other thing that I think Denver’s offense can really click on is, remember when they started Gary Payton in Game 4 and Davis is now on Draymond Green and he’s got to come out to the level of the ball the pick and roll, and the Warriors back cut them to death for the first half. Until they switched Davis onto Wiggins. You’re not gonna be able to do that against the Nuggets. They love those cuts to the rim with Jokic passing and guys moving. I think their offense is going to click
I think the other thing I’m really curious about is both teams are going to have to find a way to stop dribble penetration. The Lakers really haven’t been great at it all season, even after the All-Star break. They can’t let this be a Jamal Murray series.
Jay Croucher: I think there’s a couple other things, too. One, the Lakers, they’re just forced to play a range of fairly limited players either on offense or defense. Guys like Rui [Hachimura], like [Jared] Vanderbilt, like D’Angelo Russell, he’s gonna have to be on the floor and they’re gonna have to deal with his defensive shortcomings. They don’t really have a backup center at all. I think that’s going to be an issue and it’ll be exploited by Denver.
This Lakers team was cobbled together in February, effectively. and I think that may rear its head against a Denver team that is playing with more continuity than anyone. And they just have so much connectivity on offense, and that spread to defense now as well.
The last thing is the Lakers completely no showed games two and five in both series and then also really struggled in games four of both series and I’m just worried that LeBron and A.D., with what they’ve dealt with health wise, I think that fatigue is going to be more of an element for them. There are no extended breaks in the conference finals, there is a game every other day. I think that favors Denver as well.
I think Anthony Davis is gonna have to be the best player in this series for the Lakers to win and I’m going to ride with Nikola Jokic.
Drew Dinsick: But I mean, depending on which games you’ve watched these playoffs, Anthony Davis has been the best player in the playoffs so far.
But you know, I think all the points we’re kind of making here make me re-look at this 222 total for Game 1 as potentially too low. Yes, the Lakers don’t necessarily want to wind up in a track meet but we’ve seen them come out now two series in a row and just really put on the afterburners, kick up the pace, play into pace in Game 1 against both the Grizzlies and the Warriors, so I could definitely see this series starting out as a little bit of a track meet.
Kurt Helin: Do the Lakers have to steal one of the first two?
Drew Dinsick: I think absolutely.
Vaughn Dalzell: Yes. I think they steal Game 1. I think I think Jeff Green doesn’t play enough defense in the post for the Nuggets and the Lakers score a ton, because that’s the backup center now, Jeff Green.
Jay Croucher: So let’s close out quickly with just some quick predictions. I’m gonna go Nuggets in five.
Vaughn Dalzell: I’m going Lakers in six.
Drew Dinsick: Man, Nuggets in seven.
Kurt Helin: I’ve got the Nuggets in seven.