Lakers Look to Match 2016 Win Total Against Depleted Nuggets

 
By: Austin Isaacsohn

 

While the Lakers have lost three straight, and are readying to face a Denver Nuggets team that beat them down just two weeks ago on the Staples Center floor, Los Angeles will not have to face two of Denver’s best players Tuesday night. Both Emmanuel Mudiay and Nikola Jokic will miss the contest, and with both out, Denver loses 43 points, 17 rebounds and 7 assists from their last game against the Lakers. Other Nuggets will need to step up, but Denver — who is averaging over 110 points per game, third best in the league — is still likely to score well against the Lakers, as most teams do. Los Angeles can pull out a win if they can capitalize on the aspects that Denver will be sorely missing — rebounding and playmaking.

The Nuggets are one of the league’s very best rebounding teams. Their offensive rebounding percentage of 28.4 is second highest in the entire NBA, and their 78.8 defensive rebounding percentage is good for third. These beefy numbers are mainly a result of their three big men — Kenneth Faried, Nikola Jokic, and Jusuf Nurkic — all being beasts on the glass. All three grab upward of 18% of all available rebounds when they’re on the court. However, the Nuggets will be missing Jokic, and will need to rely more on Faried and Nurkic to that end. This should give the Lakers an advantage, as Julius Randle (if he plays), Tarik Black, Thomas Robinson, and whichever huge European center they throw out there should be able to at least hold their ground on the boards against those two — which eats away at what is perhaps Denver’s biggest strength.

 

No Mudiay, No Problem

 

Emmanuel Mudiay will also miss this game, which isn’t quite as good for the Lakers as it may seem. Jameer Nelson will likely replace him in the starting lineup, and the advantages Nelson brings in the style of play in which Denver excels should more than make up for whatever the Nuggets lose with Mudiay off the court — at least offensively.

While it seems Mudiay is the Nuggets’ best backcourt passer, Nelson has the considerably higher assist rate, sitting at 26.1% to Mudiay’s 21.1%. Jameer records an impressive 2.5 assists for every turnover, while Emmanuel only 1.6. Nelson averages 1.3 more assists than Mudiay per 36 minutes, his 107 offensive rating is miles better than Mudiay’s 96, and the difference in the three-point shot should not be ignored.

Nelson opens up a bunch of opportunities for himself and others at the perimeter with basic split-cuts:

Why it Worked: A high-post entry pass to Jokic pulls the center far away from the basket, and the denial of Nelson’s off-ball down screen by Gary Harris not only pulls his iced man into the paint, but also Nelson’s — for the aforementioned defensive big is up at the free throw line, and the rim must be protected at all costs. The  double creates space that Nelson expounds on by reversing behind Jokic for an open look.

Check out another:

Why it Worked: Another high-post entry to Jokic does the same thing as before, but this time Nelson’s defender must be either anticipating a slip-screen or a screen denial, because he takes a jump back before Jokic even makes his handoff. The defender then can’t recover all the way to Nelson because of the now-rolling Jokic, and Nelson has turned yet another three-man game into a three-point possession.

How to Adjust: Switiching screens out at the three-point line would help cut down on all this space, especially without Jokic on the floor to eat up immediate mismatches. It would also alleviate a lot of Denver’s opportunities that come as a result of such hard closeouts. The Lakers can’t get switch-happy, though, because those slip-screens will become even more dangerous.

The Nuggets have seven guys on roster who shoot over 37% from deep, and Mudiay ain’t one of them. With both he and Jokic out, expect Denver to play even faster than its usual speedy pace, which is already 6th in the league. The Nuggets will need to be jacking it up and hitting from deep if they want to contend with the Lakers, and their best shooter, Will Barton, is more than capable of keeping them in it.

 

Transition Killer

 

The last time these two teams met, Barton torched the Lakers in transition, hitting every single one of his five three-pointers less than 10 seconds into the shot clock. This is just one of them:

Why it Worked: In the confusion of a transition push, neither Randle nor Mozgov decides to pick up Faried, who realizes that space and screens Nick Young, who’s already downcourt of him and must therefore go under. That second was all Barton needed.

How to Adjust: More communication on defense would solve a lot of the Lakers issues, but in this case the Nugget’s quick push made it that much more difficult. Even an early zone would be better than this — you just gotta have a guy up there, ready to navigate impromptu, early-shot-clock screen-rolls. It was a strategy Denver used brilliantly against LA in their first meeting, and will be something they need to rely on almost completely in their next.

 

Notes: Denver is one of only five teams in the entire league to have six or more players currently averaging over ten points per game. Now, this is of course impressive, and at first glance seems hugely advantageous, but the numbers behind such evenly distributed scoring paint a bit of a different picture. Of those six aforementioned teams (DEN, DET, MIA, DAL, and LAC), only one has a winning record, and the total win-loss column for all sits at a collective 104-127 — registering a winning percentage that would translate to a team winning fewer than 37 games per season.

The very best teams in the league, Golden State and Cleveland, have only seven such players between them — and Draymond Green barely makes the cut, averaging 10.7 points a night. Now, correlation obviously does not imply causation, but there’s obviously something to be said for a team that understands who its star players are, and prioritizes getting them the ball. The Lakers have five players who score over 10 points per game, and it won’t be long before Brandon Ingram starts sniffing around that range as well. So, like the Nuggets, the Lakers seem to still be searching for that star to be born. Or, perhaps, drafted.