The Los Angeles Lakers tip their first round playoff series off tonight against the Denver Nuggets, and this series is one of the marquee matchups of the first round. With the Lakers' stature, their playoff series are almost always marquee matchups, but this series has quite a few interesting themes to it: The most traditional team in the playoffs against the most unorthodox. The most top heavy team in the league against the most balanced. The fastest team in the league vs. one of the slowest. I could go on and on, but the bottom line is this: You will not see a matchup between two teams more different than the Lakers and Nuggets in these playoffs.
The Lakers are the prototypical model of basketball. That's not to say they are the best team in the league, but every single Lakers starter performs the exact role you'd think of as "normal" for his position. Ramon Sessions is a pass first point guard that makes his hay with the pick and roll, with tons of speed and good court vision, but not a lot of scoring on his own. Kobe Bryant is a shooting guard in every aspect of the title. Metta World Peace (and Matt Barnes) are your normal defensive stoppers who contribute to, but don't shape, the offense. Andrew Bynum is an old-school back-to-the-basket, you can't stop my hook shots, center. Pau Gasol at the power forward can do his business in the post, but with some added mid range game. It's ridiculous how traditional the Lakers have become once the point guard position was filled with an actual point guard.
The Nuggets? They crazy, yo. The best center on their roster doesn't start. They have two point guards who often see the court at the same time. Their bench routinely out-performs their starting lineup, as it did in the last contest against the Lakers. The entire lineup is made up either of energy guys or quirky players like Miller. Their backup small forward looks like an alien duck (sorry, just couldn't resist). They completely defy the normal conventions of basketball.
Any time you have two teams with such divergent styles, entertainment is usually the winner. Every game will be a war of strategy to see which team can dictate not just who wins, but how the game is played. Let's take a look at the positional breakdowns after the jump.
Point Guard: Ramon Sessions vs. Ty Lawson
Ty Lawson is fast. Stupidly, blindingly fast. His job, on offense, is to push the pace as fast as it can go, and pretty much any preview of a Lakers-Nuggets matchup since his arrival has warned you about how Lawson is going to be a thorn in the Lakers side because they've got nobody with the speed to keep up. Not any more. Ramon Sessions can keep up. Lawson is faster than Ramon, but gone are the days where we must simply assume the Lakers will be killed by other teams and their fast point guards. The Lakers still can get killed by the point guard position, because Sessions' defensive instincts are not the best, but a lack of speed is no longer the issue.
Lawson is a very good player. Along with his speed, he's a decent shooter, hitting 37% of his threes. He averages about 7 assists per game, and he is the engine that drives the Nuggets to their break-neck pace. Sessions is a very similar player to Lawson, just slightly less good at everything. He can't shoot quite as well, can't finish at the rim quite as well, and isn't quite as fast. Sessions can't compete in a head to head matchup, especially not the way he's played the past few weeks, but the Lakers don't need him to. They simply need a guy who can stay in front of Lawson and not force the entire team's defensive game plan to revolve around preventing the quick little guy from eating them alive. Sessions should be able to manage.
Edge: Denver Nuggets
Shooting Guard: Kobe Bryant vs. Aron Afflalo
Kobe will have his hands full going up against one of the guys in the league that gives him the most trouble. Afflalo has always had a knack for making Kobe play below the standard he's set for himself, and he (Afflalo) has enough outside game to punish the Lakers if Kobe decides to ignore certain defensive duties that Kobe has been willing to ignore at points throughout the season. Still, let's not get too crazy here. This matchup is a huge edge to the Lakers. Kobe remains one of the premier players in the league. Afflalo's a good player, an excellent defender, but he can't handle the Mamba by himself. But, as previously mentioned, Aron is hitting roughly 40% of his threes on the season, so Kobe has to remain engaged defensively. After a season of watching Kobe take breaks on that side of the court more often than not, we were just recently reminded that he's still got plenty of defensive game (his D against Russell Westbrook a week ago was of the Doberman variety) when he wants to, and the arrival of the playoffs should very much make him want to play more D.
Edge: Los Angeles Lakers
Small Forward: Matt Barnes vs. Danilo Galinari
The Rooster (Galinari) is one of the really interesting players on the Denver Nuggets, a guy who has a bunch of different tools, but hasn't made the most of all of them at the same time. He shoots a ton of three pointers (5 per contest) and came into the league known as a shooter, but he's connecting on just 33% this season. He also has very strong ball handling skills for a guy his size, and routinely attacks the basket with a surprising level of aggression as well (the only guy who gets to the free throw line more often than Galinari is, ironically, the guy who backs him up, Al Harrington.) Still, for all his skill, he's not a guy the Lakers will need to focus on defensively, unless he turns around his outside shooting in a big way.
For the Lakers, normally we'd be looking at Metta World Peace in this spot, but MWP's vicious elbow on James Harden makes it unlikely he'll even see time in this series at all. He would only be available for a prospective game seven. That means Matt Barnes gets the nod as starter, and the Lakers could do far worse at the position than him. His energy will be a true asset against the helter-skelter pace the Nuggets will attempt to play at, and if Barnes keeps stroking the three like he has the past few weeks and keeps cutting and moving on offense like he has his entire career, he'll give the Lakers everything they could want out of the position. In fact, there's an outside chance that more of Matt Barnes in replacing MWP will be a net positive against the quick Nuggets team.
Edge: Denver Nuggets
Power Forward: Pau Gasol vs. Kenneth Faried
This is an interesting one. I'm not going to lie to you, I know very little about Kenneth Faried. I know he has crazy hair. I know he plays with a manic and relentless energy level that may very well be unmatched league wide. I know he's a tremendous athlete. Put it all together, and I still have no idea how he leads the Denver Nuggets roster in PER. In the very little I've seen from him, I've been a little unimpressed (not because he's been unimpressive, but because the hype, and the numbers, seem to communicate a far better player than what I saw.) Looking at his hoopdata stats, it does not seem like he has an offensive game besides dunks to speak of. Is he a threat with his back to the basket? Can you give him the ball and ask him to create a shot? Can he shoot from mid-range? With what little evidence I have, it seems to me like the answer to all these questions is no.
But he will be a nightmare for Pau Gasol, because his type (over-athletic, over-energetic, hustling every second) is exactly the type of player who seems to give Pau Gasol fits. The Lakers will need the Spaniard to be at his most focused, and not prone to the types of slow responding mistakes that often see Gasol get beaten to rebounds and loose balls. Gasol is a fantastic player, and amazingly skilled, but he's on the low end athletically, so going up against a guy so far on the opposite end of the spectrum is his greatest challenge. But, again, let's not get too crazy. Gasol is multi-time All Star and All-NBA player, and is definitely the better of the two. The Lakers will need him to take advantage of Faried on the offensive end, and he should be up to the challenge.
Edge: Los Angeles Lakers
Center: Andrew Bynum vs. ???
Edge: Los Angeles Lakers
I thought I'd get that out of the way right off the bat. The Lakers have the best center in this matchup, and it's not even close. It's so not even close that I'm not even sure who I should be previewing in this space dedicated to the starting center for Denver. Apparently Kosta Koufos has been the guy getting the nod at tip off of late, but he's, well, pretty terrible. They also have Timofey Mozgov on the roster, but he's not any good either. The only decent center who dresses for Denver is Javale Mcgee. He might be the stupidest player in the league, but he's long and can jump out of the building, and the last time he played against the Lakers, he showed a decent ability to score with his back to the basket. He will get the majority of the minutes for the Nuggets in this series, and I have no idea why those minutes don't include the first ones of the game.
It doesn't matter. Andrew Bynum should have his way with whoever Denver throws out there, because he's far better than anybody on Denver's roster. He's bigger, stronger, longer, and more skilled than anybody Denver has to throw at him. He will need to expect robust double teaming, because that should be the only chance Denver has at preventing him from scoring whenever he damn well pleases. This is the Lakers biggest advantage at any spot on the floor in this series, and Bynum will need to make sure Denver is punished (either via his constant scoring against single team coverage, or in the wide open shots created from doubling him). It is the easiest path to victory.
This is where Denver destroys the Lakers. The Nuggets bench is fantastic. Personally, I think you could make a significant case that their bench is better than their starting five. Andre Miller is the cagiest veteran in the league. Hell, he might be the reason why the phrase "cagey veteran" even exists, and he always seems to destroy the Lakers whenever the Nuggets are in town. Al Harrington, as silly as he looks, has the kind of unorthodox game and size that makes him a matchup nightmare. He's just hurt enough to be questionable for game one, but odds are he'll be out there. They have Corey Brewer coming off the bench at the wing, and he's as good defensively as he is terrible offensively. Him and Afflalo is a mean one-two punch of perimeter defense that Kobe will have to deal with in waves. We've already discussed Javale Mcgee and his crazy, talented, stupidity.
On the Lakers side of things, we're not even sure who will make up the bench. Steve Blake will be there, in all of his glorious suckiness. He's been abused by Miller whenever the two teams have faced off, and is likely going to be again unless the Lakers put a shooting guard on Miller defensively. Blake just isn't strong enough to deal with Andre. At the small forward spot, Devin Ebanks could play some important minutes, but we have no idea what he will provide. He's seemed up to the task in recent weeks when called upon, but he's a kid who couldn't find playing time all season long, so it seems strange to think he'll be game now. And who will play backup big man? Your guess is as good as mine. Jordan Hill was excellent in exactly one game this season. Was that enough to solidify a place in the playoff rotation? Who the hell knows.
Bottom line, this is where Denver will make their hay. If the Nuggets have a chance in hell of winning this series, it will be because this bench unit destroys the Lakers reserves in every imaginable way.
Edge: Denver Nuggets
Coaching: Mike Brown vs. George Karl
We've often been unimpressed with the coaching stylings of one Mike Brown this season. His team's offense and defense have taken turns looking sub-par, his team's stars have not been toeing the company line in a way that denotes respect for the coach, and his rotations are enough to drive you bat-shit crazy. And we're just now getting to the time of year that has traditionally hurt his reputation. Meanwhile, George Karl has become the lovable crazy uncle of head coaches. He knows what he's doing, and he's done tremendous work molding this oddball roster into a formidable team since Carmelo Anthony left town. But he also has a knack for shooting himself in the foot when it comes to playing the Lakers. I think back to the 2009 Western Conference Finals, where Karl handled Kobe with single coverage for the first two games and lived to tell about it, taking a 1-1 series back to Denver, only to double Kobe 100% of the time in game three and watch his team get torn to shreds by the playmaking Mamba. He seems to do that at least once per playoff series. It's not that doubling Kobe is a bad idea, far from it. It's that if you attack Kobe with any one defensive strategy for an entire contest, he will likely fall into a pattern of making you pay.
Still, with all the negative words that have been penned regarding Mike Brown's short tenure as Lakers coach, I'd still rather have Karl patrolling the sidelines.
Edge: Denver Nuggets