Welcome back to 'Matchups,' a Nuggets.com series previewing the opponents the Denver Nuggets will face as defending champions.
Last week, we reviewed the Phoenix Suns' splashy offseason, who project to be one of Denver's most prominent competitors in the Western Conference. Here, we'll be looking at another contender out West, the Los Angeles Lakers, who revamped their roster across the board.
Departures: Dennis Schröder, Mo Bamba, Malik Beasley, Lonnie Walker IV, Troy Brown Jr., Wenyen Gabriel, Shaquille Harrison, Tristan Thompson, Cole Swindler, and Scotty Pippen Jr.
Re-signs: Rui Hachimura, Austin Reaves, and D'Angelo Russell
Additions: Gabe Vincent, Christian Wood, Taurean Prince, Jaxxon Hayes, Cam Reddish, Jalen Hood-Schifino, and Maxwell Lewis
It's been a busy 12 months for the Los Angeles Lakers.
One year ago, the team was headlined by a trio of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook. A shaky 25-30 start to the 2022-23 season prompted general manager Rob Pelinka to hit the retool button and send Westbrook out for D'Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Malik Beasley. That blockbuster deal helped the Lakers claw their way into the play-in tournament, secure the 7th seed, and advance all the way to the Conference Finals before losing to none other than the Denver Nuggets in a four-game sweep.
What initially appeared to be a doomed season in Los Angeles was saved by rambunctious activity at the trade deadline, and the Lakers have carried that energy over to the 2023-24 season with another busy offseason. On paper, Pelinka has improved his team across the board with a variety of high-upside signings, all while retaining the core members of Los Angeles' Conference Finals rotation.
The Lakers' free agent departures list may look lengthy, but only two players received meaningful minutes during their deep playoff run: Lonnie Walker IV and Dennis Schröder.
Schröder started in two of the four Western Conference Finals games, but there's a good case to be made that newcomer Gabe Vincent is a solid upgrade over the 29-year-old point guard. Nuggets fans should be all too familiar with Vincent, who started for the Miami HEAT all throughout the NBA Finals. Similar to Schröder, Vincent is a defensive pest; but if he can continue to shoot the three-ball as well as he did in the 2023 postseason, particularly off the catch at a blistering 44.6 percent, Los Angeles may have stumbled upon the perfect supporting cast member to enhance LeBron James' playmaking game.
Walker IV had some big moments against the Golden State Warriors in the Conference Semifinals but faltered against Denver by shooting just 37.5 percent from the field in the series. Taurean Prince is basically a one-for-one replacement in terms of three-point shooting, but he's much bigger and more consistent and has shot at least 42 percent from the corners for three consecutive seasons.
That brings us to Christian Wood, Los Angeles' biggest home run swing of the offseason.
Wood is a polished offensive player who has averaged north of 18 points per game over his last three seasons. He's the ultimate pick-and-roll big man and a true blue multi-tool threat — a high-flyer that can elevate into the skies for alley-oop dunks, but he's also more than capable of floating behind the arc after setting screens and nailing three-pointers at a 37.9 percent career rate. Per Synergy Statistics, Los Angeles utilized their roll men more than all but five NBA teams in the regular season, so Wood should have ample opportunity to do what he does best. Plus, playing alongside a ball handler as heady as James could be what helps Wood stick, now on his eighth NBA team in 8 seasons.
Jaxxon Hayes and Cam Reddish fall into the same general bucket: talented, young hoopers whose skills have yet to yield stable roles in the NBA. Playing alongside an established core should, on paper, simplify their roles and allow them to play to their skills.
As mentioned, the Lakers did an excellent job of retaining the free agents who played key roles during their thunderous run to the Western Conference Finals.
Keeping Austin Reaves at the price point of $56 million over 4 years already appears to be a steal. Reaves has had some excellent moments for Team USA in the FIBA Tournament, and he's a bona fide bucket who lives at the free-throw line. Reaves cemented himself as Los Angeles' third option in the playoffs behind James and Anthony Davis after averaging 16.9 points on 46.4 percent from the field and 44.3 percent from three in his first-ever postseason. He was remarkably consistent.
Rui Hachimura was another bright spot for the Lakers in an off-the-bench role and tallied averages of 12.8 points on 55.7 percent shooting and 48.7 percent from three in 24.3 minutes per game. That type of production from a reserve is hard to come by, and it's easy to see why Pelinka made it a priority to retain Hachimura's services on a three-year deal.
Lastly, D'Angelo Russell inked a brand new two-year contract in Lakerland. Though he struggled mightily in the Conference Finals against Denver, he's without a doubt an above-average point guard with steady playmaking chops.
Nikola Jokić → Anthony Davis
Aaron Gordon → LeBron James
Michael Porter Jr. → Rui Hachimura/Jarred Vanderbilt
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope → Austin Reaves
Jamal Murray → D'Angelo Russell
Most, if not all, of these projected defensive matchups should look identical to what we saw in last year's Conference Finals. The difference in this go-around is Los Angeles' increased optionality within its lineup amalgamations.
Head coach Darvin Ham has the choice between a more offensively-tilted starting lineup versus one that excels defensively when picking between Hachimura and Vanderbilt at the small forward position. Russell and Vincent are both starting-caliber lead guards, though it's unlikely one or the other would alter Denver's defensive alignments significantly, if at all.
Now, Los Angeles could really shake things up by starting Wood at center and trending bigger by moving Davis to power forward and James to small forward.
Denver was largely successful when keeping Nikola Jokić glued to Davis and Aaron Gordon matched up with James. Davis shot 47.3 percent when defended by Jokić in the Conference Finals, almost 5 percentage points lower than the 52 percent shooting he averaged for the full duration of the postseason. Gordon's size and strength made him as optimal of a defender as Denver has on its roster for the bulldozing James.
Starting Wood would occupy Jokić, and Gordon would be tasked with the Davis assignment. More importantly, Wood's insertion would likely mean that James is Michael Porter Jr.'s responsibility. Porter Jr. has improved considerably as a defender, but James outweighs him by more than 30 pounds. It'd be a big ask for the 25-year-old to consistently guard a player of James' stature, but 'MPJ' has shown time and time again that he doesn't shy away from a challenge.
Anthony Davis → Nikola Jokić
LeBron James → Aaron Gordon
Austin Reaves → Michael Porter Jr.
D'Angelo Russell → Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Jarred Vanderbilt → Jamal Murray
Once again, most of these matchups should harken back to May. Los Angeles entered the Western Conference Finals with the postseason's best defense, only for Denver to hang a preposterous 123.2 offensive rating on their heads in the series sweep. The Lakers had zero answers for the Nuggets' crushing offense.
Nikola Jokić averaged 12.8 points and 6.3 assists on 54.1 shooting from the field and 55.6 percent from behind the arc when guarded by Davis, a four-time All-Defensive teammer. Los Angeles threw out adjustments to thwart Jokić's production, including having Hachimura take on the assignment with Davis lurking nearby as a secondary defender. But in the long run, none of Ham's strategies made a sizable difference, and Jokić took home the Western Conference Finals MVP.
Multiple Lakers attempted to take on Jamal Murray—Vanderbilt being one of them—but it was largely to no avail. Murray averaged a ridiculous 32.5 points in the series on 52.7 percent from the field, 40.5 percent from three, and 95 percent from the free-throw line.
For as good as Los Angeles' defense was for most of the postseason, Denver disposed of it rather easily in what ended up being a very short playoff series. Really, the Lakers' best chance of competing with the Nuggets is attempting to replicate their top-notch offense, which explains the additions of Wood, Prince, and Vincent.
Regular Season Games
- October 24, 5:30 p.m. MT: Nuggets vs. Lakers; Ball Arena, Denver; TNT
- February 8, 8:00 p.m. MT: Nuggets @ Lakers; crypto.com Arena, Los Angeles; TNT
- March 2, 6:30 p.m. MT: Nuggets @ Lakers; crypto.com Arena, Los Angeles; ABC
Get your tickets for Denver's home opener against the Los Angeles Lakers on October 24 here.