Talent Not Intangibles Will Lead the Nuggets to Western Conference Crown

Rick BrunettiContributor IMay 19, 2009

Coming into the Western Conference Championship which starts this evening (Tip time 9:00 p.m. EST on ESPN), all the pundits that are predicting the Nuggets will win are doing so based on intangibles rather then on a position-by-position breakdown.  They believe the Nuggets hustle, the intimidation factor, and the fact that the Lakers have been taking games off will lift the Nuggets past the 65 win Lakers team.

However, if you look at it position-by-position, the Nuggets are a lot closer to the Lakers talent than many are giving them credit for.

Center: Andrew Bynum vs. Nene

At first glance, the size difference here leans towards the Lakers with Bynum coming in at 7’1" 280 pounds, and Nene being only 6’11" and 260 pounds.  However, size isn’t all that matters when it comes to a strong inside game. 

Nene use his superior quickness and foot speed to offset larger centers making physical tools a virtual wash in this matchup. Statistically, this isn’t even close; Nene is outscoring and outrebounding Bynum by over a 2-to-1 ratio.  I think the Lakers second round matchup was much tougher than the Nuggets, though, so these stats are a bit deceiving. 

With that being said, Nene is playing by far the best basketball of his career and Bynum has struggled against sub-par inside players and still doesn’t look to be 100 percent healthy. 

2009 Playoffs Statistics Points Per Game—Rebounds Per Game—Blocks Per Game

Nene                          12.5                              7.3                      .8

Bynum                         5.6                               3.8                      .8

Advantage: Nuggets

Power Forward: Gasol vs. Martin

Again, the Lakers have a size advantage with this matchup with Gasol coming in at 7’0" 250 pounds and Martin at 6’9" 240 pounds. This is a battle of two totally different power forwards, though. 

Gasol has a finesse European style of play to go up against Martin's smack-you-in-the-mouth-and-step-on-your-throat style.  The Nuggets prefer to play man-to-man with very little double teaming to try and minimize second chance rebounds and open shooters. 

It will be interesting to see how Martin will play against the much larger Gasol.  Statistically, Gasol has a huge advantage in both points and rebounds almost reversing the center's role, as Gasol is outperforming Martin at a 2-to-1 clip.

Martin is not on the floor for offense, though. He is one of two Nuggets starters who have a job almost strictly due to his defensive prowess.  However, if the Nuggets don’t help Martin, Gasol should have a huge series against the Nuggets.

2009 Playoffs Statistics Points Per GameRebounds Per GameBlocks Per Game

Martin                          9.9                                5.1                    .6

Gasol                          18.5                               10.8                  1.8

Advantage: Lakers

Small Forward: Anthony vs. Ariza

There are two matchups that don’t really require a lot of explanations as to why the pendulum swings in one way. This one obviously leans towards the Nuggets. Melo is playing by far the best basketball of his career right now.  He is actually focusing on defense, has extended his shooting range, and unlike previous years, he is embracing his teammates.

He has always been a willing passer, but this year (especially late in the season) he actually became an eager passer. His maturity both on and off the court is the main reason the Nuggets are in this position.

Ariza is a nice compliment to the Lakers starting lineup, as he is the only one of the five that is on the floor to be a defensive stopper. However, Melo’s new found three-point ability makes him virtually defenseless.

2009 Playoffs Statistics Points Per Game—Rebounds Per GameAssists Per Game

Anthony                       27.0                              6.3                     4.3

Ariza                            10.9                              3.8                     2.9

Advantage: Nuggets

Shooting Guard: Jones vs. Bryant

Just like the small forward matchup, the advantage here is obviously Kobe’s. Kobe is a great scorer, great defender, and a great leader (holy crap he talks a lot, though [see Doin' Work by Spike Lee]).

Kobe is still the best player in the NBA and at any time has the ability to drop 60.  Three titles could easily be five right now, and if he and Shaq hadn’t split up two years early, it could be seven.  In other words, Kobe could—and in many ways should—have more championships than some gentleman named Jordan…Enough said. 

Jones is an average shooter at best, but has an endless motor and loves to play defense. It will be his job to man up Kobe and use up his fouls wisely.

2009 Playoffs Statistics Points Per GameRebounds Per Game—Assists Per Game

Jones                           7.6                             2.4                       .4

Bryant                         27.4                             5.0                     4.5

Advantage: Lakers

Point Guard: Billups vs. Fisher

I mentioned before how Melo’s improvements are why the Nuggets are in their current situation. The main reason Melo improved is because of the addition of Billups.

Billups provides leadership on and off the court and sets a great example of how to be an NBA player for both Melo and J.R Smith. On the court he just seems to know what his team needs. If they need him to be a scorer, he scores; if they need him to be a distributor, he distributes. 

Billups isn’t outstanding at any one particular aspect to basketball, but he is great at pretty much everything.  Fisher has really struggled through most of the postseason. He is shooting only 19 percent from the three point this postseason, while Billups has converted on 54 percent of his. 

Bottom line, if the Lakers are going to beat the Nuggets, Fisher needs to be better.

2009 Playoffs Statistics Points Per Game—Rebounds Per Game—Assists Per Game

Billups                          22.1                                3.8                   7.3

Fisher                           7.2                                1.7                    2.0

Advantage: Nuggets

Bench: Andersen, Carter, Smith, and Kleiza vs. Brown, Farmar, Walton, and Vujacic

The Lakers have a solid bench, which includes players with an interesting skill set.  Walton is a fantastic passer, Farmar is very quick, and Vujacic has the ability to knock down the long ball. Unfortunately for them, they are running into quite possibly the best bench in the NBA. Andersen led the league this season in blocks per minute and instantly brings up the energy when he comes onto the floor, especially while playing at home. 

J.R Smith has all the talent in the world and could one day be in the All-Star game. If he plays smart defense and doesn’t shoot too many half court jump shots, he will play a big role in this series. 

Statistically speaking, the Nuggets win in every major category: scoring, rebounding, assists, and blocked shots. Many times when they enter the game, they increase the point differential. There are not a lot of benches in the NBA who can make that claim.

2009 Playoffs Statistics Points Per Game—Rebounds Per Game—Assists Per Game

Nuggets Bench              33.1                               11.4                  6.8

Lakers Bench                 20.6                                6.4                  6.5

Advantage: Nuggets






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The Nuggets have won 16 home games in a row and last lost a home game on March 9. The high altitude and ruckus fans have combined to make this a huge home court advantage. I do not see the Nuggets losing a home game in this series, while I see them splitting the first two games of the series in LA.

Thus, I foresee the Nuggets wrapping up the series in Game Six in Denver with a 4-2 series.


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