The Western Conference Finals between the Nuggets and Lakers that starts tomorrow is rightly billed as an epic battle between the best offensive center in the league in Nikola Jokic and best defensive center in Anthony Davis.
However, Lakers’ head coach Frank Vogel has made comments hinting he may opt to go big and have traditional centers JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard guard Jokic rather than All-NBA first team center Anthony Davis. While we won’t know until play starts whether Vogel just wants to keep his centers engaged and bolster team chemistry or whether he really intends to revert to big lineups, playing McGee or Howard on Jokic could be a mistake.
Let’s start by looking at the stats to see how McGee, Howard, and Davis fared playing center against Nikola Jokic in the four regular season games between the two teams this season, three of which were won by the Lakers. In the 150 minutes Davis was on the floor, the Lakers outscored the Nuggets by 34 points in his 56 minutes at center, broke even in Howard’s 42 minutes at center, and were outscored by 18 points in McGee’s 52 minutes at center.
Digging deeper, the individual defensive ratings of the Lakers’ three centers against the Nuggets in those four regular season games tell the same story. Davis posted a defensive rating of 110.5, Mcgee 121.1, and Howard 126.5. The stats confirm the obvious conclusion of most NBA pundits. First team All-NBA and All-Defensive center Anthony Davis is without question the Los Angeles Lakers’ best option to defend Denver Nuggets’ center Nikola Jokic.
So what’s behind Vogel’s comments about playing McGee and Howard? Neither is a good matchup against Nikola Jokic, especially behind the 3-point line, and backup Mason Plumlee only plays 10 minutes per game. While Davis will guard Jokic most of the time, the Lakers may be going big so they can throw multiple defenders at Jokic to bully and wear him down physically since he’s already played over 500 minutes in the playoffs.
The Lakers’ formula of starting games big and finishing them small has been integral to their success and was able to hold Nikola Jokic to just 16 points per game in the four regular season games with Denver this season. The fact their only loss to the Nuggets came in the one game LeBron James didn’t play also gives them confidence they can win playing their normal rotations or go small with Anthony Davis at the five if that doesn’t work.
That they can win playing big or small has been a major source of pride for the Lakers all season long so Vogel’s not taking a huge risk by gambling they can beat the Nuggets by going big since he has small ball in his back pocket. The Lakers are so talented with two first team All-NBA superstars in LeBron James and Anthony Davis that at worst Vogel’s likely only risking losing Game 1, which they’ve already shown they’re capable of easily overcoming.
Nevertheless, there are good reasons why the Lakers’ most potent lineup both defensively and offensively is their version of small ball with AD at the five, Morris the four, LeBron the three, Green the two, and KCP the one. That lineup has defensive speed, quickness, and athleticism to double the ball and rotate to contest shots from deep and at the rim while offensively spreading the floor and unpacking the paint to unleash LeBron and AD.
The Lakers were able to roll through the first two rounds of the playoffs by doubling and shutting down Blazers’ Damian Lillard and Rockets’ James Harden, who were the primary offensive engines of their respective teams. The Lakers’ challenge playing the Nuggets is Denver has two offensive engines in Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray whose high pick-and-rolls makes it nearly impossible for teams to double Murray because of Jokic’s passing.
The Nuggets destroyed the Clippers with those pick-and-rolls with Murray getting the ball to Jokic on a short roll and Jokic using the 4 on 3 advantage to hit cutters for easy layups and dunks or shooters for wide open threes. Deciding not to double or trap Murray could be part of the reason Frank Vogel wants to go big with both Davis and McGee or Howard protecting the rim and Lakers’ defenders staying at home with Nuggets 3-point shooters.
It will be interesting to see what other adjustments coach Vogel makes to shut down Murray and Jokic and the Nuggets’ offense. While the Bucks and the Clippers have stumbled, the Lakers are peaking at just the right time. The Lakers know Denver doesn’t have anybody who’s going to be able to stop LeBron James and Anthony Davis offensively so they’re confident slowing down Murray and Jokic defensively is the smart way to win.
The Nuggets deserve credit for what’s been a sensational playoffs but the well rested Lakers are not the overachieving Thunder or the choke prone Clippers so the Cinderella story is going to end. The Lakers in five games!