Thursday, May 30, 2024
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The Lakers ran back a roster the Nuggets swept and somehow expected a different result a year later

Los Angeles Lakers fans spent the summer of 2023 calling the Western Conference Finals “the closest sweep in NBA history.” Well, that isn’t quite true. Losing four straight games by only 24 combined points is pretty rare, but it wasn’t even the closest sweep of this decade. The 2022 Brooklyn Nets lost in four to the Boston Celtics by just 18 points. Within a year, those Nets had blown up.

The Lakers? Not so much. They largely ran back last season’s roster, swapping out Dennis Schroder for Gabe Vincent and cycling through a few new minimum-salary free agents, but otherwise retaining the bulk of the team that Denver had just swept. Rui Hachimura, Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell and Jarred Vanderbilt all got expensive multi-year deals. 

No future draft picks were traded for immediate help. The theory seemed to be that internal development could flip the not-quite-closest sweep in NBA history into a win. Here’s a not-quite-a-secret flaw to that theory, though: there’s no such thing as a close sweep.

The moments when these teams have been closest to their true selves have invariably favored Denver. They played 11 clutch minutes against one another and the Nuggets won those minutes by 15 points. Sure you could fake a close score against Denver by beating them in the early going and winning the non-Jokic minutes, but when Denver starts to take things seriously? Game over. 

The Lakers have experienced that phenomenon firsthand this season. They played seven more clutch minutes against Denver in the regular season and lost them by 17 points. They’re not even getting to clutch minutes this time around because Denver is turning it on earlier. The Nuggets have outscored the Lakers by 29 in three third quarters so far in this year’s series. Not-so-surprisingly, the Lakers are on their way towards another not-as-close sweep.

Most of the “why’s” that applied to last year’s matchup still apply to this one. Russell scored 25 points in last year’s series. He’s shooting 14-of-43 from the field in this year’s rematch and just went scoreless in Game 3. The Lakers fielded trade offers for him at the deadline but elected not to move him. 

Additionally, they have no reliable point-of-attack defense that doesn’t compromise their offense. The supposed answer to that problem was Vincent, who himself lost a gentleman’s sweep to Denver a year ago in the NBA Finals as a member of the Miami Heat. He technically “held” Jamal Murray to 21.4 points on 45-39-93 shooting, but remember, Murray also averaged 10 assists in that series. Murray more than did his part against the Heat last year. Even after a slow start, he’s held up his end of the bargain against the Lakers this time around.

And then there’s the Nikola Jokic problem. That isn’t exclusive to the Lakers. It’s just more of an issue for them when one of the prerequisites to contending for them is elite center defense. That’s part of the reason why they pay Anthony Davis max money. Unfortunately, Jokic eats him alive one-on-one whenever they match up. Nobody is suggesting the Lakers bench or trade Davis, but remember, they did defeat Jokic in a playoff series in 2020. They did so with Dwight Howard as a key Jokic defender. Yet, the only other big men the Lakers rostered this season were Jaxson Hayes and Christian Wood, both minimum-salary signings. They gave themselves no alternatives.

How fixable was all of this? That’s hard to say. The Lakers sniffed around Russell replacements, though it’s unclear how close they ever came to trading for someone like Dejounte Murray. There were paths to starrier additions like Kyrie Irving or Fred VanVleet during the offseason. An addition like that would have meant sacrificing all of the depth they’ve accumulated to clear out cap space. Whether or not that was worthwhile is debatable. More so, Howard-level post-defenders don’t grow on trees. The Lakers got lucky that a future Hall of Famer happened to be out of vogue when they signed him in 2019.

Perimeter defense is a more fixable problem. It just isn’t a trait the current Lakers seem to value all that much. Notice how they’re so frequently linked to big stars like Trae Young and Donovan Mitchell rather than lower-maintenance 3-and-D wings. The Lakers planted that flag when they effectively swapped out Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (now killing them in Denver!), Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso to get Russell Westbrook in 2021.

That’s the original sin here. Not necessarily the Westbrook trade itself, but the philosophy that went into it. It’s easy to forget this now, but the Lakers actually did have a team that beat Denver in the playoffs. The 2020 Lakers beat every team they played. They did it by surrounding James and Davis with the sort of two-way role players that help make Denver so dangerous. In Caldwell-Pope’s case, that is literal. Caruso has become the consensus best guard defender in the NBA. Kuzma has a $100 million deal in Washington. Howard, JaVale McGee, Danny Green and Avery Bradley were essentials to that roster that were never replaced. The Lakers wanted a top-heavy, offense-first roster and they got one.

There’s a cruel irony to this. The Lakers tore down the team that actually beat the Nuggets and won a championship… but refused to do the same to the team that the Nuggets crushed. They set themselves up for this embarrassment last summer. They doubled down on it at the trade deadline. The Lakers saw their team get swept by Denver a year ago, refused to change it, and now, well, they’re sleeping in the bed that they made. You can’t do the same thing over and over again and expect different results.

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