Coming off their first title in franchise history, the Denver Nuggets are back to ring in another season of NBA basketball. As they go to lift their championship banner tonight, LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers will be standing across from them, chomping at the bit to begin their push for another title.
I’ll break down why I’m expecting the Nuggets to come out and put any notions of a championship hangover to rest.
For the most part, the same team that guided Denver to a ring will be the same team taking the floor tonight. Anchored by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, the Nuggets have the two main pieces that led them to a 116.8 offensive rating last season. Behind the two all-stars that averaged 24.5 and 20 PPG last season, respectively, will be a nice mix of role players, including Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
The one name noticeably missing from that list that was an integral part of their title run is Bruce Brown. During the 2022-23 postseason, Brown became a nightly conversation on how valuable he was to the team, but since the Nuggets have drafted and developed well, they have players ready to take over Brown’s role. One of those players is the second-year small forward Christian Braun. Of all the players on the team to average at least 15 minutes per game last season, Braun had the second-best defensive rating at (111.3).
Aside from Braun, the other young players expected to play a more prominent role are Peyton Watson and the freshly extended Zeke Nnaji. As they try to carve out a role for themselves for this year’s team, these young Nuggets' first test will be a Lakers team looking to improve on their 113.9 offensive rating, which ranked 19th in the league last season.
Los Angeles will be without Jarred Vanderbilt tonight due to an injury, but for the most part, the team will be paced by LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Austin Reaves. In his second stint with the Lakers, D’Angelo Russell will act as the point guard for the time being. During their postseason run last year, Russell struggled against the Nuggets, averaging just 6.3 points and 3.5 assists while the Lakers got swept.
The reigning NBA champs are currently listed as (-5.5) point favorites tonight, but for my play, I’ll be taking their first-half spread of (-2.5)(-115). Denver had the 5th best first-half NET rating last season, while the Lakers had the 16th. Getting off to a hot start was a common occurrence for the Nuggets last season, and with essentially the same team taking the court tonight, I don’t see that changing.
Denver’s effective field goal percentage of 58.3% and true shooting percentage of 61% in the first half led the league in 2022-23. Meanwhile, the Lakers' 1H effective field goal percentage had them ranked 21st, so unless Anthony Davis comes out and torches the nets from all over the floor, I don’t know if they can keep pace with Denver.
Jamal Murray averaged 32.5 points per game on the Lakers during the Western Conference Finals, and LA is still in a position where they don’t have a good matchup for him defensively. The Lakers might be motivated to spoil the party tonight for Denver, but with a few new faces on the team, I think they might still be testing rotations, while the Nuggets shouldn’t skip a beat from last year.
Denver Nuggets (-2.5)(-115)