Basketball is back. What do we have on the docket for opening night? Nuggets vs. Lakers.
For starters, nothing was going to stop Nikola Jokic’s run to the title. Sure, he was equipped with the best starting five of his career so far now that everyone was healthy again. But he just charged through the West like the Rhino from Spider-Man. Absolutely nothing could impede these guys and every team around the league is now searching for a way to create their own Jamal Murray/Nikola Jokic pick-and-roll offense. For some NBA media critics, it was also insane that Jokic didn’t also three-peat his way to another regular season MVP award.
And yet! Many still doubt if they can run it back. On one level, I understand the hesitancy. It’s not easy to win back-to-back championships. The league adapts, rosters change, and it’s tough to keep everyone healthy for two years in a row. Changes to the salary cap made signing free agents more difficult, and Denver will have to rely on even more young talent than they already did with rookie Christian Braun last year. The Nuggets also lost Jeff Green and Bruce Brown to free agency, who were both integral energy boosters and contributors off the bench. Nuggets fans, who supported Brown, should be happy to see that he got paid double his expected contract worth—even in Denver couldn’t compete financially to have him stay.
But enough about what the Nuggets lost. Let’s talk about what they still have. All five starts that won the championship will return, including the All-Star hunting Jamal Murray and maybe the signage of last year in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. New rookie Julian Strawther, the No. 29 pick out of Gonzaga, has also been racking up buckets in preseason games. He scored 20 points, including four three-pointers, against the Suns in a preseason game earlier this month. Then, just five days later, 23 points and another four three-pointers against the Bulls. “I’m just trying to keep him thinking and let him play free,” Murray told DNVR about Strawther, revealing that he’s taken the rookie under his wing. “I just love his aggressive mindset. Miss, make, turnover, whatever it is. He’s staying constantly aggressive and looking for his shot and playing at his own pace.“
Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth is also really excited about Peyton Watson, a versatile shooter who is reportedly putting in a lot of work ahead of his second year in the NBA. “Some of these teams were trying to get Bruce [Brown], trying to make it worth it; it’s like, just be careful what you wish for,” Booth told The Ringer‘s Kevin O’Connell. “Peyton’s bigger. He’s longer. He’s more athletic. He guards better. He passes better. He doesn’t have the experience, and he’s not as good offensively yet, but we need defense more than we need offense on our team.” I could have dealt without the shade to Brown, but it’s nice that Booth is hopeful for the former first-round pick. With a little luck, we’ll see him and the rest of the Denver squad back in the finals.
Meanwhile, LeBron James is entering his 21st season in the NBA at age 38. 38! Hell, he’ll turn 39 years old on December 30, 2023, and LeBron will be 40 years old if he plays again next year when his son joins the league. And still! Still, he averaged 28.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 6.8 assists, a 50% field-goal percentage, and 35.5 minutes per game last season. That is insane. Unprecedented and unbelievable.
Even after coming back from an injury last season, James helped the Lakers go from one of the worst teams in the West to one of the only teams to give the Nuggets trouble on their run to the title. As CBS Sports wrote, the Lakers were “the first team in 18 years to start a season 2-10 and still finish above .500 for the season, and they are just the second team in NBA history to reach the conference finals after starting 2-10, following the 1977-78 Seattle Supersonics.” The sports outlet called it, “the greatest in-season turnaround in NBA history.”
It’s easy to see why. At the trade deadline, the Lakers sent Russell Westbrook away and got back D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, and Jarred Vanderbilt. They also picked up Rui Hachimura from the Wizards, who was key to their defensive plan against Nikola Jokic in the Western Conference Finals. Sure, they were swept in close games, but If anything these games showed that Hachimura and Vanderbilt were talented and underused players on their old teams. Maybe LeBron just does that to a guy, but still.
Either way, general manager Rob Pelinka was the clear winner of the trade deadline among NBA media critics. A couple months later, and their offseason may have been even more productive. They resigned Russell, Vanderbilt, Hachimura, Anthony Davis, and Austin Reaves—the breakout star of the playoffs and probably the second-best offensive playmaker on the Lakers besides LeBron. They also established greater bench depth by picking up point guard Gabe Vincent from the NBA Finals Miami Heat, 7’0” center Jaxson Hayes from the Pelicans, and new starting forward Taurean Prince from the Timberwolves. Being a franchise with cash to spend must feel great.
Like any team, injury is always a risk. James only played 50-ish games last season and Anthony Davis’ time away during the regular season likely cost him true conversation for MVP. But if healthy, they’re one of the only teams I can see that is attempting to build an anti-Jokic defense with an army of centers and jacked power forwards. Others, like Boston and Phoenix, are clearly just hoping to out-offense Denver should they meet in the playoffs. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Lakers run it back to the Conference Finals either.
“We could be a really, really good team,” James told reporters ahead of the Lakers matchup with the Nuggets. “I don’t even look to June. It’s too precious—the game is too precious—and I don’t play with the basketball gods like that. I don’t take it for granted.”