Commentary

Nuggets vs. Lakers: Who's better now?

The Lakers are the best team in the West, but Denver is the hottest. Who will win?

Originally Published: May 18, 2009
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Andrew Bynum and NeneAP Photo/Mark J. TerrillIn a series loaded with star power in the backcourt, a trip to the Finals may be decided in the paint.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets tip off the Western Conference finals Tuesday night (9 ET, ESPN). Leading up to that, I've been asked to answer a seemingly simple question:

Who's better?

At first glance, the answer may seem obvious. The Lakers won 65 games during the regular season, the Nuggets only 54, and L.A.'s average scoring margin (plus-7.7) was more than double Denver's (plus-3.4). L.A. won three of four regular-season meetings between the two teams, and a year ago the Lakers swept the Nuggets in four games in the first round. None of those games was particularly close.

But here's the thing about the playoffs: It doesn't matter how well you played in November or December. All that matters is how well you play for seven games in late May.

And by that standard, this is a far trickier equation. L.A. accumulated much of its 11-game advantage over the Nuggets early in the season, in games that were played half a year ago. L.A. was six games up on the Nuggets by the end of December and 10 up by Feb. 23.

Since then, the Lakers' record is 27-11 while the Nuggets' is 25-9. Dead even, in other words, in nearly a half season's worth of games. The later you go, the more things tilt Denver's way. Use March 10 as the cutoff, for instance, and the Nuggets are 22-5 against L.A.'s 23-8. And in the playoffs, the Nuggets have lost only twice while the Lakers have been beaten four times.

Of course, longtime readers of my work will note that I'm a bigger proponent of scoring margin than win-loss record. So let's go back to something I introduced a week ago -- my playoff rating for each remaining team. The rating looks at each team's success since the All-Star break and adjusts for opponent strength and home-court advantage in the postseason.

The last time I did this exercise, the Nuggets slightly outgraded the Lakers, at plus-7.50 to plus-7.17. Now, thanks mostly to a 40-point win over Houston in Game 5 of the conference semifinals, the Lakers have the upper hand, at plus-7.97 to Denver's plus-7.61.

Of course, each team can make a compelling case for why it should rate higher than it did in that formulation. For instance, I used the All-Star break as my cutoff point; had I used mid-March instead, the Nuggets' rating would be a ridiculous plus-12.44.

Yes, they've been that good during the past two months. As I pointed out in this article, Denver closed at 14-2 in its last 16 meaningful regular-season games, then went 8-2 in the first two rounds of the playoffs. That's a 24-4 record since March 11; even if you want to include the meaningless season-ending rout against Portland, it's 24-5.

Of course, L.A. has a big item pointing in its direction, too, a 7-foot, 275-pound item named Andrew Bynum. The Lakers' win-loss record with and without him is about the same, but that's misleading, so look at the scoring margin instead. Through the end of January, the Lakers won by an average of 8.6 points per game; from that point 'til the end of the regular season, the margin was just 6.8.

In the playoffs, L.A. hasn't looked as sharp, either, but when the Lakers have been at their best, Bynum has produced. The big man had a pair of 14-point games in the Lakers' wins in Games 5 and 7 of the Houston series, and he needed just 13 shots to produce 28 points. On the other hand, he was scoreless in the Lakers' humbling defeats in Games 4 and 6, needing a mere 31 minutes to accumulate six fouls.

L.A. won't have the size advantage over Denver that it had during the final four games against the Rockets, of course, but in a conference finals loaded with wild cards, Bynum still shapes up as the biggest. When he was a game-changing force during the first half of the season, L.A. was every bit as good as Cleveland and the then-torrid Celtics. When he went out, the Lakers remained good enough to rack up a bunch of victories but not on the same level.

Against a streaking Denver team, the Lakers need that early-season Bynum every night. He can take advantage of Denver's lack of muscle up front and draw fouls to expose the Nuggets' thin frontcourt rotation. He can form an imposing back line of the defense and thwart the likes of Carmelo Anthony and Nene at the rim. But to do that, he has to be the active Bynum from Games 5 and 7, not the unproductive foul magnet he's been in the other 10 playoff games.

In the final analysis, Bynum is the only way the Lakers are better than the Nuggets right now, and those two words are what matters. Put each of these teams through another 82-game season, and I have little doubt that L.A. would win more contests. The Lakers are deeper, and their players have superior long-term track records.

But this thing isn't a best-of-82, it's a best-of-seven. And coming into these seven games, the Nuggets are at their absolute peak: Everybody is healthy, Anthony is playing the best basketball of his career and the players are well rested from successive five-game series in the first two rounds.

The Nuggets have been so good, in fact, that they've won 18 of their past 27 games by double figures. Even if they had spotted their opponents 9.5 points per game, they nearly would have matched L.A.'s record during that span (20-7).

I am picking Denver to win in six games, but it's a prediction I make without great confidence. The Bynum factor, when coupled with Denver's vulnerability to any injury that may crop up, makes the Nuggets a precarious choice even with their late-season flourish.

But when I look in the mirror and ask, "Who's better, right now, on May 18?" the answer comes back "Denver."

I think.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.