LOS ANGELES — As the Denver Nuggets are set to face off with the Los Angeles Lakers to tip off the 2023-24 NBA season, this matchup features a new rivalry with tensions rising ahead of their rematch from last season’s Western Conference Finals. Seeing that the animosity between the two teams carried over to the offseason, it’s safe to say there has been no love lost between them.
To point out, Nuggets’ head coach Mike Malone did not shy away from making snide remarks directed towards the Lakers’ team during the playoffs last year. Notably, after a Game 2 Nuggets’ win to go up 2–0 in the Western Conference Finals, Malone called out the media, in regards to how all the headlines were about LeBron James and the seventh-seeded Lakers rather than Jokic and Denver.
“All everybody talked about was the Lakers,” Malone said. “Let’s be honest, that was a national narrative: The Lakers were fine. They’re down 1-0 but they figured something out. No one talked about that (Nikola Jokic) just had a historic performance… The narrative was about the Lakers and their adjustments. So you put that in your pipe, you smoke it, you come back and you know what, we’re going to go up 2-0.”
During the Nuggets’ championship parade, Malone was seen wearing a shirt with that same phrase imprinted: “Put this in your pipe and smoke it.” Not to mention, the Nuggets’ head coach was even referred to as the ‘Lakers’ Daddy’ throughout the celebration. That is to say, it didn’t stop there, in the aftermath of the Nuggets winning the championship, the jabs continued to be thrown during the summer. When making an appearance on The Pat McAfee Show, Malone made a joke about James’ consideration to retire from the NBA after the Nuggets’ sweep of the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. “Speaking of the Lakers, I just want you guys to know this is breaking news: I’m thinking about retiring. Only kidding, only kidding,” Malone said while on the show.
Following this interview, LeBron made a cryptic message on social media, “In Europe for the last few weeks minding my business and I hear I’m on your mind that much huh???” James wrote. “I mean I guess I see why… Enjoy your light but just know I’m the SUN.”
Important to remember, James and Malone’s relationship goes all the way back to LeBron’s first tenure with the Cavaliers, as Malone served as an assistant coach in Cleveland from 2005 to 2010. Together, they helped the Cavs reach the playoffs five straight seasons, as well as lead the franchise to its first-ever NBA Finals appearance in ‘07.
When James was asked by reporters this week about when he will respond to all the disparaging comments, he smiled and said “There will be a time… when everybody will get it for sure.” Despite downplaying the motivation from the Nuggets’ antics this summer, this LeBron-led Lakers team definitely has a lot of bulletin board material to use for their opening night game in Denver.
James wasn’t the only one who took note of the trash talk, as even Lakers’ head coach Darvin Ham responded to Malone’s comments this offseason when he appeared on the #thisleague UNCUT podcast with Marc Stein and Chris Haynes. “Oh wow, bring up ‘Money Mike,’ the Lakers’ daddy, right? That’s what they call him now, the Lakers’ Daddy…” Ham stated. “God bless his soul. This s*** ain’t over. God bless his soul.”
The Western Conference Finals series from last year has sparked a rivalry between the Lakers vs. Nuggets, and the hostility shown toward each side will only be heightened as both take the court on October 25. Nuggets’ guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who won a ring with the Lakers in 2020, recently talked about the clash with his former team in an interview, “we had to give them that butt whooping… it was personal but it wasn’t personal,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We did something that hadn’t been done in a long time, you know as far as the Lakers getting swept and for us making history, making the finals for the first time. They’ve been talking and we’ve been talking back and forth now, and you know they can’t wait for the first game, and same here.”
To add fuel to the fire, the Nuggets’ ring ceremony is going to take place on opening night, right in front of the Lakers team who will have to watch their opponents receive their 2023 world championship rings, as if they needed any more motivation.