It’s not an entirely fair point.
They are, after all, the Lakers.
The Lakers are the franchise that decides if and when it would like to win a championship, and then it goes out and buys one. It’s the destination that’s atop the list for every 20-something star in the NBA. It’s a jersey that every NBA star wouldn’t mind wearing. The Lakers are to the NBA what the Yankees are to MLB, what the Cowboys are to the NFL.
They’re the Lakers.
And we’re the Nuggets.
In a greater sense, the difference between the Lakers and the Nuggets is history, tradition and expectation. Last year in the bubble, during the Western Conference Finals, the difference was four games to one. And last night in Los Angeles, the difference was 21 points. If you want to get even more specific, the difference was a 15-0 Lakers run in the third quarter.
Want to know the similarities?
The Lakers have an MVP candidate in LeBron James. The Nuggets have an MVP candidate in Nikola Jokic. Earlier in the week, the Joker joked about James when asked how they compared: “The speed is there. We are the same athletically. … I don’t know. Can he jump as high as me?” Joker said of the King, jokingly of course.
But the fact that Jokic has begun the season with 21 double-doubles in 21 games is no laughing matter. He’s not just a fun name to toss into the MVP conversation to keep things interesting; he could very well be the MVP, something the Denver Nuggets have never had. On paper, Jokic is arguably having a better season than James. But inside Staples Center, when it’s winning time, King James showed why he’s a four-time league MVP (Which is a joke, to think that there have been 14 seasons of James’ 18 -year career, that someone has been “better.” Please.) and four-time NBA Finals MVP. No matter who won or lost, there were two NBA MVP candidates on full display last night.
Another similarity: The Lakers have two megastars and the Nuggets do, too. James and Anthony Davis. Jokic and Jamal Murray. Yes, the Lakers version of Batman and Robin has more experience and more notoriety. But ultimately, both teams are built around a pair of stars. Jokic and Murray are up-and-coming; James and Davis have been there, done that.
But here’s where the similarities end and the discussion begins.
After winning it all (again) last season, the Lakers got better.
The Nuggets, who made a major splash last summer by reaching the Western Conference Finals before the Lakers put an end to the fun , got worse.
If everything we know of the Lakers and Nuggets – all of the aforementioned side-by-side comparisons – is true, then how in the world can the team that’s already better get better, and the team that’s historically and currently inferior get worse? And expect to compete for the Western Conference title?
Over the offseason, the defending champion Lakers added: Montrezl Harrell, Marc Gasol and Dennis Schroder (and only their only “notable” losses were an aging Rajon Rondo and goon Dwight Howard). They also resigned Davis, who could have taken his title and ran.
Conversely, the Nuggets most-notably lost Jerami Grant and Torey Craig (their best defensive players) and added Facundo Campazzo and JaMychal Green; last night they combined for 14 points and eight rebounds – all of which belonged to Green, who couldn’t start for the Clippers last season (a team the Nuggets beat in round two of bubble ball).
Back to that concession: They are the Lakers. So keeping and adding players to a championship roster is easier. Nobody’s going to argue that.
But it’s not as if the Lakers win a title every single year. Some years they don’t. And if the Nuggets are truly that close, it’s conceivable that with just a little help, they might be able to surpass the Lakers even if it’s just for a year or two.
But they have to get better. Not worse.
When the deck is already stacked against Denver – historically, financially, geographically – improvement is the only way to stay in the same conversation as the Lakers. Never – ever – can the Nuggets take an offseason off.
Following the game, Hall of Famer turned TNT broadcaster Shaquille O’Neal said the Nuggets lost because of a “concentration lapse.”
That was true last night, but worse yet, it was true during the offseason. With just one offseason off, the Nuggets run the risk of taking themselves out of the conversation come May. The Nuggets are good – very good – but not good enough to do that.
Not if the Lakers are still the Lakers.