West take notice: Lakers top unbeaten Nuggets

NBA.com Global on Oct 26, 2018 04:29 PM
West take notice: Lakers top unbeaten Nuggets
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James congratulates a pass by guard Lance Stephenson for a James' dunk during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets in Los Angeles, Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018. Lakers won 121-114. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

By Shaun Powell, NBA.com

LOS ANGELES -- There are foreign roads to navigate, traffic to curse and weather to bless. Change can be a mixed bag, even for LeBron James, and we haven’t yet mentioned his other new and complex surroundings, meaning, teammates to break in.

There’s also a third layer to this unfamiliar skin, and this could be the most uncomfortable of them all. Yes, if LeBron and the Lakers are to deliver more than just must-see TV for insomniacs around most of the country, they must find a way to flex muscle in the Western Conference. As LeBron has already discovered, he ain’t in Kansas anymore. Actually, make that Orlando, Charlotte, Brooklyn, etc., etc., etc.

For a superstar who doesn’t take nights off, well, he can’t afford to do so anyway in the West, where there’s seemingly another potential 50-game winner staring from the other bench.

That’s what Thursday (Friday, PHL time) was all about, planting concern into the heads of the elite teams of the West and making them notice what’s taking place in Los Angeles. The Nuggets came into Staples Center undefeated and left with some clues about what LeBron and the Lakers can be in the near future, after they deal with the early bonding process.

“Growth that’s continuing to happen,” is how Lakers coach Luke Walton described it.

LeBron had his first triple-double as a Laker and given the circumstances -- no Rajon Rondo or Brandon Ingram, both suspended, for a second straight game -- they delivered their most impressive 48 minutes of the season with a 121-114 win.

“The first couple of games when we fell behind, we stayed behind,” said LeBron, noting how the Lakers seized control from the Nuggets for good late. “The best teacher in life is experience.”

These are the type of games he will see more frequently than he did with the Cavaliers and Heat. For someone who spent his entire career in the East, the upgrade in competition will force LeBron and the Lakers to sharpen their learning curve. Already the West shows few signs of fall-off from a year ago when 10 teams finished with winning records; because only the top eight make the playoffs, the remaining two had to go home, wishing they were in the East.

It’s a small sample size so far, yet once again, it’s business as usual in the better conference:

The Warriors remain the class of the conference and league, with all the usual suspects that delivered three championships in four years accounted for. OK, sure, Klay Thompson might need to dispatch his trusty dog Rocco to search for his missing jumper. But: Did you see Steph Curry drop 51 on the Wizards the other night? Well, then.

What’s interesting and most frightening about the Warriors is how they’re still a few months from suiting up DeMarcus Cousins, who has advanced to light work and dropping sweat in non-contact drills.

Last season’s West runner-ups, the Rockets, are obviously missing the perimeter defense and shooting of Trevor Ariza, who signed with the lowly Suns (purely a money-grab for him). Meanwhile, Carmelo Anthony is shooting 26 percent from deep and straining while trying to keep this from becoming an extension from his Oklahoma City stop. Also: James Harden is dealing with a tweaky hamstring and Chris Paul, fresh from wiping Rajon Rondo’s DNA off his face, his serving out a suspension.

Yet this will not last long; already, Rockets GM Daryl Morey is up to his tricks, scheming to trade a plate of Texas brisket to the Timberwolves for Jimmy Butler. If Morey pulls that off, the Rockets will have three All-Stars in their starting five, second only to the Warriors.

LeBron must beware of Rondo’s old team, which is playing like it isn’t missing Rondo as much as some folks were led to believe. The New Orleans Pelicans is flourishing with a breezy style that’s a carryover from their surprising second-round run in last spring’s playoffs, with Niko Mirotic putting up more points than Anthony Davis and ex-Laker Julius Randle fitting right in next to AD.

Speaking of the unexpected, the Spurs with DeMar DeRozan off to a good start could make it 22 straight playoff appearances after all the changeover and injuries. And Pat Beverly said the Clippers are the best team in LA; take that for what it’s worth, but it shows you that nobody is rolling out the red carpet for the Lakers just because they added LeBron.

The Nuggets missed the playoffs on the final regular season day last season and they’re perhaps wiser for it. Nikola Jokic is making his top-three center case and Denver’s defense is rating No. 1 in efficiency.

What they saw Thursday (Friday, PHL time) was a controlled and efficient game from LeBron (28 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists); Lonzo Ball strip Jamal Murray in the open floor for one of his five steals; former Warriors role player JaVale McGee actually getting 16 shots and doing something with it with 21 points; and highly entertaining energy from Lance Stephenson off the bench.

Nuggets coach Mike Malone was an assistant from 2005-10 in Cleveland and therefore saw the LeBron Effect first-hand in those formative years.

“Sure, the West is tougher,” Malone said, “but also this is his first time playing with all those guys. As he said, this will take time. It doesn’t happen overnight, just as it didn’t last year in Oklahoma City when they brought in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony and everybody thought they were going to be great right away. Playing with LeBron isn’t easy. It easy, but it isn’t easy. When we traded for guys like Wally Szczerbiak, he comes in and says `I’ve never been this open in my life.’ He had a hard to making shots because he was so open.

“LeBron is bringing all those guys confidence up. Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma, they’ll be better off for it. He’s a great player and slowly the team will round into form. My definition of greatness is, what can you do for everyone around you? Can you take them to new heights? And he has done that repeatedly throughout his career. He’s doing the same thing now in LA.”

A week into the season tells us this about the Lakers: They’ve played four of their five games against playoff teams, winning only one but taking the other three well into the fourth quarter. They’re two missed LeBron free throws from a winning record. LeBron is MVP-like and sturdy as ever, and the other pieces are slowly dropping into place.

Whether it’ll be good enough to make traction in a tough conference will take months to sort out. Yes, the West is better. But that’s also because the Lakers fueled by LeBron, no longer the post-Kobe pushovers, are better as well.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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