LOS ANGELES — To win a championship in the NBA, a team almost always needs at least one transcendent player.
But the road to the championship will also depend on how well the role players of a team do their job.
The 17-title Lakers know that all too well. Would they have won in 2010 without Metta Sandiford-Artest, or in 2002 without Robert Horry? Shaquille O’Neal, who won three championships for the Lakers with Kobe Bryant, often talks about the importance of the “others”—the players who aren’t stars.
The Lakers franchise has been on the unpleasant side of the calculus this year. In the Western Conference Finals against Denver, Los Angeles has the weaker supporting cast. Leading the best-of-seven series 3-0, the Nuggets not only beat the Lakers with the talents of Nikola Jokic, a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, or Jamal Murray, their dynamic guard. The toughness of Aaron Gordon, the poise of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the versatility of Bruce Brown and the tenacity of Michael Porter Jr. help them get it done.
On Monday, the Nuggets will attempt to complete a sweep of the Lakers to advance to the franchise’s first NBA Finals. There have certainly been times when Jokic and Murray have carried Denver, but a critical part of the Nuggets’ success is that they haven’t always had to. When Murray and Jokic ebb, the team’s role players pour in, and together they beat back the tidal wave the Lakers sent at them.
“There are a lot of guys who can go make it,” Gordon said. “So we’ll just go with the hot guy.”
Jokic is the engine that powers the Nuggets, but Gordon also called him “one of the most selfless basketball players.” Jokic averages a triple-double in the playoffs, with 29.9 points, 13.2 rebounds and 10.1 assists per game. But even when he’s not at his best, his mere presence changes the game. That happened on Saturday, in the Nuggets’ 119-108 victory in Game 3 against the Lakers. Jokic only had 5 points and 2 rebounds at halftime, but then ran into trouble by committing his fourth short of the midway point of the third quarter.
“There was no panic,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “It was, ‘Okay, he’s out. That means someone else has to leave.’ I think that’s something our team has done time and time again.”
The Nuggets’ players have not only accepted roles that required them to surrender to others, but embraced them to win a championship. Jokic was the team’s only All-Star this year, and no Nugget made an All-Defensive team; Jokic has never played with anyone who made those teams while playing with him.
On Saturday, Caldwell-Pope scored 12 points in a critical third quarter as Jokic was in deep trouble and Murray had cooled off after scoring 30 points in the first half.
The last time Caldwell-Pope played in the Western Conference Finals was in 2020 and he was a Laker charged with defending Murray. The Lakers defeated Denver to win the West, then defeated Miami to win the title. Caldwell-Pope knows what it takes for Denver to win this year.
“We’re number 1 in the West for a reason,” said Caldwell-Pope. “I believed from the jump that we could win a championship. That was everyone’s mindset. We knew how to jam together and play together.”
Denver’s Jeff Green, who played 23 minutes on Saturday, has been on nine teams over the past eight seasons. Porter, who the Nuggets drafted in the first round in 2018, missed most of last season with a back injury. He scored 14 points and led the Nuggets with 10 rebounds on Saturday. Brown, who had 15 points off the bench, signed with Denver last summer.
Drafted fourth by Orlando in 2014, Gordon was once best known for his impressive performances in the league’s dunk competitions. His stats on Saturday didn’t look that impressive – 7 points, 3 rebounds and 4 assists – but his defensive contributions were crucial. He blocked a shot late in the third quarter that helped the Nuggets keep the lead.
“He checked his ego at the door,” Malone said. “He knew back this year with Jamal and Michael that his role was going to be different, and he never fought that.”
That’s not always the case with ambitious teams, and this NBA season provided examples of the friction that can arise. For example, Golden State’s younger players clamored for more playing time. But Denver, which led the West for much of the season, is an example of how good it can be when the system works.
“Everyone realizes that when we need something, we need a spark,” said Murray. “Could be Joker, could be me, could be Bruce, Jeff off the couch — whether it’s a chase or an attack or something. Everyone has something they can use to influence the game.”
The Lakers were another example of a team that struggled to please everyone in their roles this season. In February, they traded in Russell Westbrook, who had been unlucky in a bank roll. He had joined the team less than two years ago in a multi-team deal that also sent Caldwell-Pope to the Washington Wizards from Los Angeles. Leaving Westbrook was part of a larger effort to add several new role players, which have had many exciting games. But against the Nuggets, their shortcomings were obvious.
The clearest example was D’Angelo Russell, who only scored 3 points on 1-of-8 shooting in Game 3 and committed three turnovers.
Lakers coach Darvin Ham could only say this about the performance of the Lakers’ role players: “I thought they all gave their best.”
But sometimes it takes more, like what Sandiford-Artest gave the Lakers in the 2010 NBA Finals against Boston.
In Game 7, Bryant, the team’s leading scorer during the regular season and playoffs, only made 6 of 24 shots. The Lakers largely relied on Sandiford-Artest for his defense as defensive player of the year in the past, but in that game he scored 20 points and hit a crucial three-pointer with less than a minute left.
On Saturday, Sandiford-Artest sat across from the Lakers’ bench, a powerful reminder of how important players can be to winning a championship.