Lakers vs Nuggets Playoff Series Preview: Why There’s Value on a Lakers Upset

Lakers vs Nuggets Playoff Series Preview: Why There’s Value on a Lakers Upset article feature image
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Getty Images. Pictured: LeBron James drives against the Denver Nuggets as we break down our Lakers vs Nuggets playoff series preview for the 2024 first round and why there is value on the Lakers to pull off the upset.

With the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets facing off again in the first round of the playoffs, let's break down the series all eyes will be on in my Lakers vs Nuggets playoff series preview.

We'll start with the bets I've already made, as I bet Lakers +330 to win the series right out of the gate. This was a number play and not an analysis one. I don't dispute that the Nuggets should be favored, and I don't dispute that they should be somewhere north of 60% to win the series. But it was too much for me when the opening lines had the Lakers at 24% implied.

I also bet Lakers +1.5 on the series wins spread at +136 on FanDuel. There's a good chance they extend the series to at least six allowing a hedge opportunity if it feels things are going sideways.

So, why did I make those bets? Let's get to the analysis.

Lakers vs Nuggets Playoff Series Preview, Analysis

When the discussion in last year's Western Conference finals was about how close each game was as Denver swept the Lakers, it came across as a classic media refusal to accept that the Lakers might not be the most important team in the universe. From the "Rui Adjustment" to the unsustainability of what Jamal Murray did (33-6-5 on 53-45-91 splits; read that line again), there was a refusal to accept Denver might just be better. They were.

They're better this year, too. But how much better is a real question.

The overall numbers suggest that, yes, Denver is even better than they were last year. Their offense is better, and their defense is much better (ranked ninth, schedule-adjusted). Denver's starters had a +13.1 net rating last year; they have a +13.6 net rating this year, slightly better. They've been better without Nikola Jokic, losing the minutes without him by about two points fewer than last year. (They still get rocked with a -8.6 without Joker.)

Murray has had two spectacular playoff runs back-to-back three years apart, in 2020 and 2023. He's fully capable of having another massive series; he shines when the lights are the brightest, a true 16-game player.

But the level difficulty to sustain that kind of production is still sharp. What if Murray is good, not great, let alone mediocre?

Everything dropped in that series for Jokic, even shots like this:

Again, Joker can make those shots. That's not luck. But all of them fell.

A crux of this matchup is going to be whether the things that went Denver's way last year go Denver's way again. Bruce Brown was a huge positive in this matchup last spring, racing down the floor for transition buckets to keep the bench up. Those minutes now go to Reggie Jackson, who is a worse defender with more shiftiness but less straight-line ability.

Christian Braun struggles in this matchup; the physicality makes it difficult for the Nuggets to find a spot for him. Maybe that changes with different bench rotations for the Lakers with Gabe Vincent and Taurean Prince, but my baseline is that is not Braun's series.

If Jackson struggles and can't be given minutes, and Braun's in a bad matchup, the Nuggets are down to Peyton Watson and Justin Holiday before they start dipping into the deep, deep emergency bench minutes.

The Lakers had an 11-point lead in Game 2 and a 15-point lead in Game 4, eventually losing both. Teams with a double-digit lead at any point of a game in the conference finals are 61-26 (71%) since 2003. The Lakers weren't blown out in those games, or in the four losses this season. They just couldn't close.

Speaking of closing time, the Nuggets have the third-best clutch-time offense and second-best clutch-time defense this season. And yet the Lakers have a better clutch-time win percentage at 24-9. So the Lakers have been a better win-loss clutch-time team, but are also 0-2 versus Denver.

In the WCF last year, Denver shot 58% compared to a location-expected figure of 53%. Much of that is Joker and Murray's tough-shot making, which, again, is why they are who they are. But that's a big gap, especially compared to the Lakers, who shot about a percent worse than expected.

It's not that the Nuggets shouldn't outshoot the Lakers over the course of seven games, but that they shouldn't outshoot them by as much as they did last year.

LeBron was coming off a foot injury last season. Darvin Ham attempted to play two guards and Austin Reaves together, which meant that Reaves was guarding Michael Porter Jr., who had five inches of height on him. Their preferred lineup this season of D'Angelo Russell, Reaves, Hachimura, LeBron and Davis only played six minutes in that series. This season, that lineup is +4.5 in net rating in the one game it played against Denver. The Nuggets will figure counters to it, but there are issues with that lineup.

Much of this may come down to D'Angelo Russell. The Nuggets effectively played Russell off the floor last season. Can they do that again? Will Russell hit shots?

Three-point shooting variance is going to be a huge X-factor here. The Nuggets were the No.1 eFG% team last season; they're eight this season. They were fourth in 3-point percentage; this season, they're 10th.

If the Lakers can shoot enough from the perimeter (which is a challenge), they can win the math game and trade 3s for Denver's high efficiency 2s. (Included in that is the fact that Jokic has been slightly worse this season from inside the paint.)

The Nuggets are better. They should win. But the margin is closer than the games have shown and that puts value on the Lakers.

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Doug Ziefel
May 22, 2024 UTC