The 2023 Western Conference finals may be a Lakers-Nuggets rematch from the 2020 Orlando bubble, but outside of the principal figures, these teams have very little in common with their younger selves. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the only remaining Lakers, and that includes an entirely new coaching staff aside from Phil Handy. Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are the only remaining Nuggets aside from reserve Vlatko Cancar.
There are quite a few peripheral figures from the 2020 matchup... but they're on the opposite side. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope defected from Los Angeles to Denver. DeAndre Jordan and Thomas Bryant did as well, though neither were on the 2020 championship team. Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley and Davon Reed are all former Nuggets.
That makes this series somewhat unique among rematches. It's a funhouse mirror version of the 2020 series. The broad outlines of their last matchup exists, but the further we dig into the details, the more distinct this one starts to look. So let's dive into the 2023 Western Conference Finals with the four questions that will define the series.
1. Who do the Lakers start?
Don't worry, we'll get to the main attraction shortly. For now, we need to figure out who will actually be on the floor alongside the superstars. There's no question about it on the Denver side. The Nuggets have started Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon and Nikola Jokic whenever that quintet has been healthy, and thus far this postseason, it has outscored opponents by 38 points in 202 minutes. The Lakers, on the other hand, have a much more interesting dilemma at hand.
LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Austin Reaves are locks to start. D'Angelo Russell almost certainly will, though his playing time as a game progresses tends to depend on his performance on that given night. Jarred Vanderbilt occupied the fifth starting spot for most of the end of the regular season and the bulk of the postseason. It remains the most-used lineup of the postseason for the Lakers—151 minutes, in which it has outscored opponents by 20 points—but it saw a steep decline throughout the Golden State series. By Game 6, Dennis Schroder had replaced Vanderbilt in the starting five. The Schroder version of the starting five is plus-15 in 55 postseason minutes.
The move against Golden State represented a desperate bid for offense. The Vanderbilt unit simply couldn't score, posting a pathetic 103.6 points per 100 possessions against the Warriors. Golden State outright refused to guard Vanderbilt, and the Lakers weren't benefitting from his presence on the offensive glass because bringing him near the basket would have compromised the spacing Davis needed to score inside. Save a few nice passes, Vanderbilt spent the bulk of his offensive possessions against the Warriors parked in the corner. Schroder is an active participant in the offense, and a pest defensively. He proved capable of running Curry's marathon around screens. Denver presents a different set of challenges.
Jamal Murray doesn't move as much horizontally as Curry does. He plays downhill and he's far more comfortable resorting to bully-ball against mismatches. He backed down Landry Shamet every opportunity he got in the Phoenix series, frequently abusing Phoenix's smallest guard for clean, turnaround jumpers.
He'd surely try the same tactic against Schroder. Vanderbilt takes those shots off the table, but he provides another critical defensive tool that Schroder doesn't: switchability. By starting Vanderbilt on Murray, the Lakers at least have the option to switch the Murray-Jokic pick-and-roll with a defender that has a prayer of holding up against Jokic for brief stretches. It's not a matchup the Lakers will relish—Jokic has destroyed Vanderbilt one-on-one in the past—but Vanderbilt at least has the size and foot speed to bother Jokic long enough for the Lakers to send help and play the rotation game if they want to.
Is that defensive versatility worth the offensive sacrifices that come with Vanderbilt? Maybe. Expect Darvin Ham to feel this matchup out as the series progresses. He'll want to experiment with switching in Game 1, but by the time this series reaches its final tactical stage, the Lakers will likely have realized that the costs outweigh the benefits and reverted to Schroder as their fifth starter.
2. How much Jokic vs. Davis do we really see?
The selling point of this series is the matchup between the NBA's best offensive player and its best defensive player. Jokic, by and large, has won that matchup. It frankly hasn't even been close. Since Davis joined the Lakers in 2019, Jokic has shot 23-of-39 from the floor against Davis in the regular season, according to NBA.com matchup data. When they met in the 2020 Western Conference Finals, Davis spent the bulk of his time "guarding" Paul Millsap so he could function as a helper. When Davis did draw the Jokic matchup, the future MVP shot 9-of-16 against him.
For all of his defensive gifts, Davis has always been better in space than he has been against brute strength. Opponents scored one point per post-up against Davis this season, making him only slighter better than the average post-defender league-wide. That is roughly where he has ranked for most of his career. Dwight Howard was Jokic's primary defender in 2020. Dwight Howard is currently playing in Taiwan.
There's no safety net this time. Howard and JaVale McGee are gone. The Lakers don't even use a backup center, and they barely even have one on the roster (is Mo Bamba healthy enough to play? That's unclear). Davis is going to be the primary defender on Jokic for the bulk of this series. The only question now is if "the bulk" means 70% of the time or 100% of the time.
We've covered the possibility of the Lakers switching the Jokic-Murray pick-and-roll. Don't be surprised to see the Lakers at least try other alignments meant to at least give Davis a breather and free him up to wreak havoc as a help-defender. Vanderbilt will spend a few possessions here and there on Jokic. While the Lakers will try to avoid the "double and rotate" strategy that has doomed so many lesser defenses against the greatest passing big man of all time, they'll inevitably get forced into disadvantageous switches every now and then. On high-leverage possessions, you might even see LeBron James take a crack at a the two-time MVP. The Lakers won an early season game against Denver largely thanks to his ball-denial.
This was maybe LeBron's best defensive possession of the season.— Sam Quinn (@SamQuinnCBS) October 31, 2022
He call's for the switch on Jokic and proceeds to deny the two-time MVP the ball for the entire possession. Just textbook post fronting, and it completely destroys the possession for the Nuggets. pic.twitter.com/GmIRH7P4ed
But these are wrinkles. Most of the time, Davis is going to be solely responsible for slowing down Jokic. Fortunately for the Lakers, that at least allows them to revert to more traditional defensive tactics. The Warriors dragged Davis away from the rim by forcing him to pick up Stephen Curry off screens. Murray isn't quite so terrifying a pull-up shooter (though he's no slouch either), and while Jokic is shooting 47.5% from 3-point range in the playoffs, his regular-season numbers are far more manageable. The Lakers will probably start the series with Davis playing modest drop-coverage on the Murray-Jokic pick-and-roll, and if Jokic beats them from deep? They'll adjust from there.
If nothing else, Jokic jumpers are unlikely to get Davis into foul trouble. That is a death sentence in this matchup. Wenyen Gabriel has no chance against Jokic whatsoever. Neither do any small-ball lineups. The Lakers are going to gear their defense toward keeping Jokic away from the paint. He can beat them from anywhere, but those are the shots they can live with.
3. Do the Lakers go back to their bread and butter?
The Lakers largely ignored the best play in their playbook for the first two rounds. With James compromised by a foot injury, he's struggled to beat most big men off the dribble. That limited the utility of the lethal James-Davis pick-and-roll. Memphis could just switch it, with Jaren Jackson Jr., Xavier Tillman and Dillon Brooks all capable of comfortably defending either for short bursts. The Warriors presented the same problems, as Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green could switch that action relatively easily, and even if Wiggins needed help with Davis, the Lakers usually had a non-shooter around whose man could provide that help.
The Lakers built their first-round offense around D'Angelo Russell's pick-and-roll game. The second round largely devolved into mismatch hunting. The Lakers have scored just 70 points out of James pick-and-rolls in 12 playoff games this season, according to Synergy Sports. That's less than they scored in five games against Denver in the 2020 postseason. The Nuggets aren't particularly well-equipped to handle the James-Davis two-man game. Gordon can certainly defend James and might even be able to hold his own against Davis, but he has no viable switch partners. While James largely used Howard and McGee as his rollers in 2020, he had little trouble attacking Jokic. Whenever Jokic tried to defend him at the level of the screen, James just raced past him.
Drop-coverage theoretically makes more sense for Jokic in this matchup as James isn't an elite pull-up mid-range shooter, but James just hasn't had much trouble finishing over him at the rim anyway.
That makes using drop consistently a dangerous proposition. Even if James isn't consistently scoring against it, giving him that much room to survey the court makes him an even more dangerous passer. He barely needs any room at all to slip a pocket pass to Davis.
Whenever the Nuggets overcommitted to James in the 2020 postseason, he just kicked the ball out to whichever shooter Denver left open.
This was a favored method of attack for the Lakers, especially through double pick-and-rolls that forced Denver to think through switches on the fly. More often than not, doing so created a clean 3-pointer.
The Nuggets are better defensively than they were three years ago, and they're more creative as well. Denver frequently planted Jokic on poor shooters like Josh Okogie in the Phoenix series to force the Suns away from DeAndre Ayton, their preferred screener. Vanderbilt offers a similar hiding spot. But James isn't picky when he hunts mismatches. He's going to want to find Jokic wherever he is, not only to get a favorable matchup for himself, but to tire Jokic out on defense so he's less dangerous on offense. He used this strategy to perfection in the second round.
An early alternative Denver will surely consider is just ducking under all screens set for James. LeBron is shooting 4-of-25 on pull-up 3's this postseason. Why surrender favorable switches before he proves he can make his open 3's?
There's also the matter of volume to consider. James wasn't rationing his energy in 2020 like he has to now. It's exceedingly rare to ever see injured 38-year-olds even play in the postseason. James is the offensive centerpiece for the Lakers. We know he can go at Jokic when it counts. Can he do it for 48 minutes? He didn't against Golden State and Memphis. Maybe that changes with the finish line in sight.
4. Do both sides stick with small benches?
Denver's bench lineups were a disaster all season. They've managed to outscore their opponents by 10 points in the 118 minutes Jokic has sat in the playoffs. They've done so with two changes. First, they've trimmed all of the fat out of their rotation. They essentially use only three reserves: Bruce Brown, Jeff Green and Christian Braun. Second, and perhaps more importantly, they've turned to Aaron Gordon as their center. Gordon is a serviceable enough rim-protector against bench lineups, and he offers significantly more space and versatility than a typical backup center.
The Lakers have gone small off the bench as well, with James or Rui Hachimura functioning as their backup center most of the time. The transition hasn't been quite as successful. They've been outscored by 28 points in the 138 minutes Davis has rested this postseason. However, they haven't run into another small-ball bench yet. The theory of going small for the Lakers revolves around a thriving offense. James is going to have a much easier time scoring with four shooters around him driving at Gordon instead of Jackson or Kevon Looney.
Denver could counter this with one of their former Lakers. Jordan and Bryant won't do much to deter to James, but they'd make such a difference as rebounders that their presence might be worthwhile in the aggregate. Bryant has struggled since arriving in Denver because he hasn't had James or Russell Westbrook creating shots for him. Denver could rectify this by pairing Bryant with Murray in bench lineups. Bryant only played around 33% of his regular-season minutes in Denver alongside Murray, and obviously none next to Jokic. Perhaps a true shot-creator could get him going a bit and punish the Lakers for their smaller lineups. Nobody will make a change until the other side forces their hand.
That's going to be one of the more interesting subplots to track in this series. If one side starts dominating the "star big men on the bench" minutes, the other might just counter by trying to get their star back on the floor quicker. Jokic and Davis will probably start this series at around 38-40 minutes apiece. They'll scale up as it progresses. Expect Davis to do so first. Ham used him for nearly 44 minutes in Game 1 of the Warriors series—including the entire second half—when he saw an opportunity to steal Game 1 on the road. If one of these coaches senses a similar chance to swing a game with a few bench minutes, they'll take it.