Opinion: Nuggets need to improve if they want to compete with Lakers, Clippers in Western Conference

LOS ANGELES – The Denver Nuggets ended last season convinced they could become one of the NBA’s powerhouses. However, teams in Los Angeles made countermoves to alter the narrative.

In June, the Lakers traded for Anthony Davis to team up with LeBron James.fIn July, the Clippers signed free agent Kawhi Leonard and acquired Paul George in a trade.

“I was out mountain biking and having a good time with my family,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. “I wasn’t really worried about that.”

Late Friday evening, Malone had a mood swing. He went from signaling indifference about the L.A. superteams toward expressing his frustration over the Nuggets’ 132-103 loss to the Clippers on Friday at Staples Center.

“We were soft tonight from beginning to end,” Malone said. “We didn’t compete on either end. They could get whatever they wanted. We couldn’t run our offense because they took us out of our stuff. They’re a good team. But I’m very disappointed in our competitive spirit.”

The Nuggets (40-19) had insisted beforehand that competitive spirit might help them threaten the Lakers and the Clippers. Denver is the only NBA team to increase its win total in each of the last four seasons. Because of their limited spending power in a smaller market, the Nuggets have remained focused more on player development than free-agency signings.

Nuggets center Nikola Jokic looks to shoot against the Clippers. (Photo: Gary A. Vasquez, USA TODAY Sports)

But the Clippers demonstrated the same thing the Lakers showed in two regular-season wins over Denver thus far. Collective health and star power wins games. 

While the Clippers (40-19) imposed their will with stars in George (22 points) and Leonard (19), they also leaned on the NBA’s best bench in Montrezl Harrell (18) and Lou Williams (17). The Nuggets countered with Nikola Jokic (21 points, 11 rebounds), but the Clippers answered back with superior 3-point shooting (18-of-39). After averaging 17 turnovers in the past three games after the All-Star break, the Nuggets then committed 15 against the Clippers.

“He’s the head coach. So of course he knows how we look in the good games,” Jokic said of Malone’s criticism. “I think we were fighting. I thought they were a little better.”

Jokic’s teammates disagreed. Nuggets reserve Monte Morris revealed that Will Barton spoke to the team for five minutes “about how teams think we’re soft and they think they can get into us.

“We got to beat these teams to be elite,” Morris said. “If we’re talking about championship, we can throw it out the window if we’re not going to show up.”

The Lakers (45-12) have avoided having that mindset and have maintained a six-game lead for the Western Conference’s best record.

The Clippers have not been as consistent. They have missed a combined 98 games due to various injuries, while fielding 29 different starting lineups. On Friday, though, the Clippers showed the best version of themselves. 

“They sent a message. They came out and hit us in the mouth. We never responded,” Malone said of the Clippers. “That’s the most disappointing thing. We came into this game thinking this would be a standard NBA game. They approached this game like something was on the line.”

The Nuggets believe they will rectify this loss, perhaps as early as Sunday’s game against the Toronto Raptors. But it seems puzzling Denver would ever play like this. Their identity had usually centered on three areas.

They have leaned on Jokic’s post presence, passing and basketball IQ that Malone likened to James and Chris Paul because of all three players’ ability to anticipate plays ahead of time. They have depended on Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, whose 11 points on 5-of-12 shooting and two assists represented a rare departure from the 25.1 points and 6.1 assists he averaged in January.

After finishing 20-21 in road games last season, the Nuggets have a 17-11 road record and are 12-6 against Western Conference teams. As for this season, Malone insisted that “we’re not being satisfied with getting back to the second round."

“We don’t want the lights or the fame. We don’t need people to talk about us,” Jokic said. “We just want to be there and surprise everybody.”

Instead of surprising everybody with an upset against the Clippers, the Nuggets instead showed signs they are not equipped to compete with the NBA’s best.

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. 

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