LOS ANGELES — To win a championship in the N.B.A., a team almost always needs at least one transcendent player.
But the championship journey will also depend on how well a team’s role players do their jobs.
The Lakers, with 17 titles, know this 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 found itself on the unpleasant side of the calculus this year. In the Western Conference finals against Denver, Los Angeles has the weaker supporting cast. The Nuggets, who lead the best-of-seven series, 3-0, are not just beating the Lakers with the talents of Nikola Jokic, a two-time N.B.A. most valuable player, or Jamal Murray, their dynamic guard. Aaron Gordon’s toughness, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s poise, Bruce Brown’s versatility and Michael Porter Jr.’s persistence are helping them get it done.
On Monday, the Nuggets will try to complete a sweep of the Lakers to go to the franchise’s first N.B.A. finals. There have certainly been moments when Jokic and Murray have carried Denver, but a critical part of the Nuggets’ success is that they haven’t always had to do that. When Murray and Jokic ebb, the team’s role-players flow, and together they beat back any tide the Lakers have sent at them.
“There’s a lot of guys that can go get it,” Gordon said. “So we just go with the hot guy.”
Jokic is the engine that powers the Nuggets, but Gordon also called him “one of the most unselfish basketball players.” Jokic is averaging a triple-double in the playoffs, with 29.9 points, 13.2 rebounds and 10.1 assists per game. But even when he isn’t at his best, his mere presence changes the game. That happened on Saturday, in the Nuggets’ 119-108 win in Game 3 with the Lakers. Jokic had just 5 points and 2 rebounds at halftime, then got into foul trouble by committing his fourth less than halfway through the third quarter.
“There wasn’t a panic,” Nuggets Coach Michael Malone said. “It was: ‘OK, he’s out. That means somebody else has to step up.’ I think that’s something our team has done time and time again.”
The Nuggets’ players have not just accepted roles that require them to defer to others, but embraced them in service of winning 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 someone who made those teams while playing with him.
On Saturday, Caldwell-Pope scored 12 points in a critical third quarter when Jokic was in foul 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, it was 2020 and he was a Laker tasked with defending Murray. The Lakers beat Denver to win the West, then bested Miami to win the title. Caldwell-Pope knows what it will take for Denver to win this year.
“We’re No. 1 in the West for a reason,” Caldwell-Pope said. “I believed it from the jump that we could win a championship. That was everybody’s mind-set. We knew how we could jell together and play together.”
Denver’s Jeff Green, who played 23 minutes on Saturday, has been on nine teams in the past eight seasons. Porter, whom 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.
Gordon, drafted fourth overall by Orlando in 2014, was once best known for his impressive showing in the league’s dunk contests. His stats on Saturday didn’t look all that impressive — 7 points, 3 rebounds and 4 assists — but his defensive contributions were key. He blocked a shot late in the third quarter that helped the Nuggets maintain the lead.
“He has checked his ego at the door,” Malone said. “He knew coming into this year with Jamal and Michael back that his role would be different, and he never fought that.”
That isn’t always the case on ambitious teams, and this N.B.A. season provided examples of the friction that can emerge. Golden State’s younger players, for example, 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.
“Everybody realizes when we need something, we need a spark,” Murray said. “Could be Joker, could be me, could be Bruce, Jeff off the bench — whether it’s a chase-down block or a charge or something. Everybody has something they can come in and impact the game with.”
The Lakers were another example of a team that struggled to satisfy everyone in their roles this season. In February, they traded away Russell Westbrook, who had been unhappy in a bench role. 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. Moving on from Westbrook was part of a larger effort to add several new role players, who have had many electrifying games. But against the Nuggets their shortcomings have been clear.
The starkest example was D’Angelo Russell, who scored just 3 points on 1-of-8 shooting in Game 3 and committed three turnovers.
Lakers Coach Darvin Ham could offer only this about the performances of the Lakers’ role players: “I thought they did the best they could, all of them.”
But sometimes it takes more, like what Sandiford-Artest gave the Lakers in the 2010 N.B.A. finals against Boston.
In Game 7, Bryant, the team’s leading scorer during the regular season and the playoffs, made only 6 of 24 shots. The Lakers had mostly relied on Sandiford-Artest for his defense as a past defensive player of the year, but in that game he scored 20 points and hit a crucial 3-pointer with less than a minute left.
On Saturday, Sandiford-Artest sat across from the Lakers’ bench, a powerful reminder of how important role players can be to win a championship.