The NBA playoffs are still quite a bit of time away and everyone has the NBA Finals already figured out. Despite the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, and Philadelphia 76ers all owning better records in their respective divisions, fans are ready to see a championship series feature the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers after their moves in correspondence to the buyout market.
With deals to former All-Stars Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge by the Nets, the franchise has one of the most star-laden starting lineups the Eastern Conference has ever seen. After the Lakers' move to acquire Andre Drummond, their starting frontcourt could be one of the most talented we have seen since Tim Duncan and David Robinson. If the NBA Finals were to start today, who would be the winner?
The Battle Between Legacies
In Year 18 and at 36 years old, LeBron James was looking like the front runner to win the MVP. In reality, we only have a few more prime seasons of LeBron and the Lakers are believers that the team can win a championship this season and next. If LeBron was able to three-peat, he would be able to tie Michael Jordan's six championship rings and potentially put himself above the greatest of all time.
That was why the Lakers acquired Anthony Davis last season and that is why the team sought out to acquire Drummond, who was averaging 17.5 points and 13.5 rebounds per game before he was benched by the Cavaliers. Every move is to win now for the Lakers because LeBron is not getting any younger. For Davis, he has a chance to join the ranks of some of the greatest forwards to ever win multiple championships. His individual stats were built in New Orleans, but his rings will come from L.A.
As for the Nets, look at all the players trying to rewrite their own story. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are both trying to prove they can win a championship ring on their own. While some may counter that the moves create a superteam, we should take into consideration that these may be star players but Griffin is 32 years old, while Aldridge is 35. This is a little bit different than Irving paired with a 30-year old LeBron and Durant joining a team that won 73 games its previous season.
Griffin, Aldridge, and James Harden have been close to making a run towards the NBA Finals but all three have never played. Aldridge and Harden have made it as far as the Conference Finals, while Griffin has only made the second round of the playoffs. The star power that the Nets possess has a depth feel of the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, who had the likes of Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd, and Jason Terry as supporting cast members. These supporting role players could be enough to finally capture that first championship ring.
The Lakers continue to have a strong starting lineup as we enter the month of April. Dennis Schroder, averaging 15.4 points and 4.9 assists, continues to have a strong season in his first season, while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is shooting a career-high from three-point range. Before injuring his ankle, LeBron was averaging 25.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 7.9 assists, while Davis was averaging 22.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. As far as Drummond, we know that he is one of the most dominating rebounders in the league, while will help free up LeBron in transition.
What glues the Lakers together is how they play defense. Even without LeBron and Davis, the Lakers remain the second-best team in defensive efficiency. The Lakers allow 106.0 points per game, only second to the New York Knicks. The team also holds opponents to the fourth-worst three-point field goal percentage in the league, which would be huge given the Nets liking to shoot from outside. Drummond's ability as a rim protector and rebounder makes the Lakers better, who was already ranked in the top-10 in rebounds per game as a team.
The Nets starting lineup features some of the best stats around. Irving is averaging 28.1 points and 5.1 assists per game. Before straining his hamstring, Durant was averaging 29.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 5.3 assists. Joe Harris is shooting 48.7% from the three-point range, which is third to only Joe Ingles and Tony Snell; however, Harris is averaging nearly three more attempts than Ingles and nearly eight more attempts than Snell, so we can say that he is the league's best shooter. The starting center spot will likely go to Jordan since he has played with this unit from the start of the year.
What separates the Nets starting lineup from the Lakers is that James Harden is on track to win the MVP. Since coming to Brooklyn, Harden is averaging 26.0 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 11.4 assists per game. His assists numbers are leading the league. Harden has carried the Nets to wins without Irving and Durant in games. The Nets are tied with the Milwaukee Bucks for scoring the most points in the league (119.3) despite countless injuries to the rotation and that has a lot to do with Harden.
Lakers Bench: Alex Caruso, Wes Matthews, Talen Horton-Tucker, Markieff Morris, Kyle Kuzma, Alfonso McKinnie, Kostas Antetokounmpo, Jared Dudley, Montrezl Harrell, Marc Gasol, Damian Jones, Devontae Cacok
Nets Bench: Bruce Brown, Chris Chiozza, Landry Shamet, Tyler Johnson, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Blake Griffin, Reggie Perry, Jeff Green, Nicolas Claxton, LaMarcus Aldridge
Gasol and Harrell have struggled to fill the void of Davis since his injury. Moving the two to bench roles could really help them individually and the Lakers as a whole. Harrell came to the Lakers as the reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year but has had his role changed throughout the seasons. His numbers are not as eye-popping compared to last season but he is a player we should keep an eye on as the Lakers integrate Drummond into the starting lineup.
Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma remain strong role players leading the second unit, while Matthews will help with some outside shooting when he returns from injury. The player to really watch is Talen Horton-Tucker, averaging 8.0 points, 2,7 rebounds, and 2.3 assists. The Lakers were reportedly very close to acquiring Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry but did not want to part with Horton-Tucker for Lowry, who is in the final year of his contract. Clearly, the Lakers believe that he is going to help the Lakers down the stretch.
For the Nets, the team depleted their bench when they shipped Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen in exchange for Harden. Bruce Brown has played exceptionally well, especially since he has had to start a very amount of games this season. Brown is averaging a respectable 8.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. Another surprise has been center Nicolas Claxton, who has backed up Jordan. The 21-year old out of the University of Georgia has averaged 8.9 points and 4.4 rebounds in 19.2 minutes per game.
Assuming Griffin comes off the bench, that gives the Nets a player who has averaged 21.2 points and 8.7 rebounds in his career. Right next to him is Aldridge, who has averaged 19.4 points and 8.3 rebounds in his career. Even with numbers near the lowest of their career this season, experience is key and both are aware of their new roles. Given that the Lakers bench features only one player with an All-Star appearance (Gasol), the nod has to go to the Nets.
Coach: Frank Vogel vs. Steve Nash
We should give Vogel a lot of respect for keeping the Lakers crisp defensively even without LeBron or Davis in the lineup. The Lakers remain near the top in points allowed, three-point field-goal percentage, and are near the top in rebounds per game. Vogel took a Lakers team that was near the bottom in defense in 2019 to the top in 2020, which is why the team won an NBA championship. There is a lot of respect had for Coach Vogel.
However, look at the job Steve Nash is doing in Year 1. A lot of credit goes to his assistant coaches too. For starters, Jacque Vaughn stayed with the Nets and he didn’t have to stay. Vaughn took over as the interim coach after the team fired Kenny Atkinson midway through the season. Vaughn helped lead a team that had no Irving or Durant down the stretch and qualified for the playoffs. Former Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni joined the staff and is one of the best coaches in the league in implementing an offense and is likely a reason why Harden is playing at an MVP-level, just like his days when he won with the Rockets. There’s also Ime Udoka, the former 76ers assistant coach, who received multiple interviews for head coaching positions, and is regarded as a top assistant in the league.
Remember earlier in the season when Irving nearly walked away from the game of basketball? What about the near two months of Durant missing games, yet the Nets remain one of the top seeds in the East? How about riding the ship when Irving and Harden switched positions? We call all of this adversity "drama" if the team is losing. Instead, Nash has helped silence these storylines because the Nets are winning. If Nash doesn't win NBA Coach of the Year, it would be a surprise at this point.
Lakers Advantages vs. Nets Advantages
The biggest advantage for the Lakers is LeBron James, who can adjust his game against any team in the league. He can play all five positions, and he will probably use mismatch against Kyrie Irving at the point guard position. If the Lakers choose to shift him to the post, he can go on the post against Irving, Harris, or Harden. Pretty much, LeBron is the biggest advantage for the Lakers.
Anthony Davis is potentially the best big man in the NBA. He can score in the post, defend every position, and has improved his three-point shooting, which stretches out the floor. He can play defense against every player on the Nets roster. In reality, only Durant has the best chance to stop him due to his long wingspan and experience guarding similar players in the past. What helps Davis is what Drummond brings to the table with his intensity in the paint. Davis will no longer have to guard the center position, which means Drummond can go toe-to-toe with Jordan. That is about as equal as it gets.
Kuzma and Harrell can bring energy from the bench. Both will need to step up. Caruso and Gasol have the chance to close out games with their defensive intensity. At least one of these players has to help against the Nets Superteam. It's important because outside of LeBron and Davis, the Lakers don't have an advantage in the game but one should never underestimate LeBron, even at the age of 36 years old.
For the Nets, the team has three of the best one-on-one players in the league. Irving, Harden, and Durant can isolate and score on anybody in this league. Irving and Harden are also two of the best facilitators in the league too, which greatly helps players like Griffin and Aldridge, who feed off players setting them up. When looking at the Lakers starting unit, neither Schroder nor Caldwell-Pope stops any of the Nets' backcourt. Can LeBron stop Durant, who has beaten him twice in the NBA Finals? The numbers say otherwise.
Griffin and Aldridge are going to be huge problems for the Lakers coming off the bench. The two former All-Stars can take on any bench player in the league one-on-one in the post, which is why players like Gasol and Harrell will be important for the Lakers' second unit.
Let's be realistic, Nets are a big favorite right now. They have three superstars, depth, Steve Nash as a coach, and they have two former All-Stars coming off the bench. They have solid role players in DeAndre Jordan and Harris. They have everything to win the championship.
The Lakers need an A+++ game from every other player not named LeBron James and Anthony Davis. LeBron will likely have to adjust back and forth through the game, which he has done but that might not even be enough. Davis will have to play the best series of his career. We will likely not get to see a true matchup between healthy rosters unless the two teams meet in the NBA Finals. A lot of this is going to depend on when the dynamic duo from L.A. is healthy. Either way, if they were to return for the Finals, the Nets have more talent, depth, and would win a seven-game series against the Lakers.