Bones Hyland, Zeke Nnaji and the Denver Nuggets make for a trade deadline conundrum

The Denver Nuggets are in a great place overall.

A 33-14 record, led by two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, campaigner Jamal Murray, and a rehire Aaron Gordon, put the Nuggets atop the Western Conference. The second-place Memphis Grizzlies can certainly beat Denver at some point, but the third-place Sacramento Kings are within a mile of them. The Nuggets and Grizzlies have worked through the first half of the 2022-23 regular season, and the Nuggets can relax a bit knowing that the hardest part of their regular season is behind them.

If the Nuggets simply go . 500 the rest of the way (say 18-17), they’ll win 51 games total and all but secure home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. They’ll likely play better than that, too, as they have a distinct shot at setting the NBA franchise record for regular season wins at 58. If the Nuggets go 25-10 in their last 35 games, they’ll all be guaranteed the top two seeds. In the playoffs for the West and an outside shot on the top seed in the entire NBA. Denver’s current pace suggests they have a chance of making it if they press for it, although they don’t have to.

Denver’s goal this season isn’t to set a winning record though. It’s time to win a championship or go bankrupt. The Nuggets clearly have a talented bunch, and if they really believe they have the best player in the world on their roster, there’s a big chance they’ll bring their first NBA Finals trophy to Mile High City. That’s the point.

So, can Denver do it? Definitely.

Is it possible? of course not.

This lack of possibility underlies par in today’s NBA. There are elite teams around the Nuggets that can also win the title. From the aforementioned Grizzlies, to the NBA’s leading Boston Celtics, to the Milwaukee Bucks, to the Brooklyn Nets. Beyond the elite class remain the teams that feel they own it at least Hitting Chance: The reigning champion Golden State Warriors with Stephen Curry, the Philadelphia 76ers with Joel Embiid, and the Dallas Mavericks with Luka Donjic all fall into this category. Right about that too.

There are no professional players in the NBA this year. The Nuggets, despite having the second-best record in the league, are no juggernaut. They, along with other teams, have identifiable and punishable weaknesses. For the Nuggets, it’s their defense and seat unit. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Nuggets still have the 20th most defensive unit in the NBA, a far cry from the elite units that have generally emerged in a legitimate championship chase. In addition, the Nuggets still averaged 10.3 points per 100 possessions when Jokić is off the ground. This is actually an improvement from the start of the season but still not sustainable for four playoff series in a row.

They don’t have to completely fix both problems, but the Nuggets should do a better job of mitigating the issues, which brings us to Bones Hyland, Zeke Nnaji, and the trade deadline in just over two weeks.

Numbers with Hyland can tell different stories. As for offense, the Nuggets aren’t as strong with their bench unit, but that’s to be expected without Joki on the floor. However, Hyland was productive in his minutes, averaging 12.3 points and 3.1 assists per game while shooting 38.9% from three-point range. He is the only player in the 2021 draft stack class currently maintaining these averages.

This season, the Nuggets are roasting defensively with Hyland on the ground. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Nuggets are 11.6 total points per 100 possessions worse defensively when Hyland is on the field. This is one of the lowest spreads in the entire NBA and a glaring red flag. It would be understandable if other players on the bench were the same way, but the second worst tackler for the Nuggets defense this season is DeAndre Jordan at -6.8 points per 100 possessions.

The eye test certainly matches the numbers here. Hyland’s size continues to put the Nuggets in compromising positions, and it offers little resistance in allowing opposing scorers to settle comfortably under the rim.

When he fights back, he’s prone to fouling, which brings the Nuggets closer to the bonus in the second and fourth quarters when he’s there. Hyland has the highest number of errors per 100 possessions of any guard on the list, and it’s not from the aggressive, disruptive defense that can be cited for the likes of Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

There’s no doubt that the Nuggets hate giving up on the Bones Hyland experience early. Michael Malone previously stated that he was going to ride Bones despite struggling with shooting during the month of December, and it’s likely that that still applies. Bones’ numbers as a second-year scoring guard remain very impressive, as he averaged 30.4 points and 7.7 assists per 100 possessions on 54.5% real shooting. The only first and second year players in NBA history Match this combination of scale efficiency They are elite players, as well as Andrew Toney:

  • LeBron James
  • Michael Jordan
  • Dwight Wade
  • Luka Donjic twice
  • Kyrie Irving twice
  • Tra Young
  • Andrew Tunney
  • Hyland Bones

It’s a healthy reminder that even though the plus-minus numbers aren’t great Hyland isn’t a player the Nuggets must be feeling excessive pressure to trade too early. He will be a really good player.

Another young player who could end up at the center of trade talks with the Nuggets is Zeke Nnaji.

Heading into training camp, Nnaji was the talk of the town, highlighted as a runaway candidate by players, coaches, and executives alike. The work he did during the vacation period is preparing him for the important third year leap. It hasn’t happened for some time, but Nnaji’s turnout has become more consistent in mid-November, and it seems to be getting better with cast and playtime.

The 22-year-old big man is finding his form as a backup center for the Nuggets. He’s played in 37 of the Nuggets’ 47 games so far this season and averages 12.7 minutes, 5.1 points, and 2.1 rebounds per game. However, it is the role it plays rather than the numbers it generates that is most important. The Nuggets currently sit at a -2.7 net rating on 781 properties with Nnaji on the ground, according to Cleaning the Glass. That net rating drops to -5.1 when counting for only possessions with Nnaji in the center, but it’s still an improvement over DeAndre Jordan’s net rating of -9.0 at 871 properties.

The backup position has always been a challenge for the Nuggets playing style with Jokić. The Nuggets mostly used Nnaji and Jordan as rollers on the edge rather than playmakers on the high position. The game has made it easy enough for a survivor to get better at the things that nuggets need to do.

Najib’s goal recently: to grab as many offensive rebounds as possible. He’s doing well, too, maintaining an offensive rebound rate of 11.9% and ranking 22nd among all NBA players to have played at least 400 minutes. He converts extra possessions into points, despite being smaller for the starting quarterback. It’s all about hustle.

In addition to simply rolling to the basket and grabbing boards, Nnaji once again displays the traits that made him such an enticing piece for the Nuggets to grab, playing a defensive switch-up and one-on-one guard against smaller players who believe in him. They can register against it. Nnaji proves otherwise, holding opponents to just 0.70 points per possession on the Isolation this year, best on the team.

Nnaji’s interchangeability is an important attribute of playoff basketball. Nnaji showed it in his freshman and sophomore years as well, but it was the basics as a big guy that held him back a bit. Now, he averages 69.9% on two throws and pins the Denver defense in both switch and drop coverage. He’s allowed Nnaji some big moments lately, and he’s proven he deserves a rotation spot in the playoffs, or at least the possibility of one.

Both Hyland and Nnaji are 22 years old. They are young. Christian Brown is the only other prospect for the Nuggets’ rotation in that age group, and he’s currently on the outside looking in. These are the three pieces to Denver’s playoff turnover with the most uncertainty. Every other Nuggets rotation player (outside Vlatko Čančar) has played significant minutes in multiple playoff series. The rest of the rotations are fully battle-tested. With Hyland and Nnaji specifically, it’s less clear. They’ll be the pressure points opponents try to pick in the playoffs, and the Nuggets know that.

Nuggets basically have four options:

  1. Live with mistakes and play young
  2. Cut the minutes for the guys and give them to the veterans already on the team
  3. Trade for a veteran and risk alienating the youngster
  4. Trade the youngster for the veteran

By far, the most likely choices are either the first or the second, depending on how Hyland, Nnaji, and Braun perform in their current roles. The third option seems like a non-starter given Denver’s focus on culture and putting the team above itself. It will be hard to do and also to trust the plan when there is so much money and opportunity at stake for young people.

The fourth option has been manipulated. Hoops Hype’s Michael Scotto reported that the Nuggets had expressed interest in veteran big man Nas Reed, speculating that Hyland could be part of the payoff in such a trade. Not only would it mean giving Hyland up for hire, but it also likely meant hiring Nnaji, alienating another 22-year-old Denver prospect. Seems like a bad plan overall, though Reed is a good player and can definitely help the Nuggets.

There are other players the Nuggets can target in the front yard if they’re looking for help, and most of them are familiar faces. Jared Vanderbilt of Utah is a big, energetic guy with a little more spice than Nnaji. He’s a dynamic rebel and prankster with many of the same tendencies as Nnaji and he’d be fine here. Charlotte’s Mason Plumlee is a great backup center option that should help facilitate offense at a higher level than any of Denver’s current top players. Same for Isaiah Hartenstein in New York. All of those seniors fit with the exception of the traded player created by the Monte Morris trade in the offseason last season.

If this is the backcourt the Nuggets want to solidify, the Nuggets need to be a little more creative. Detroit’s Alec Burks will be a starter who can help Denver score goals. Josh Richardson is an expensive option but definitely obtainable from San Antonio. Neither are true facilitators, but the presence of Jokić, Murray, and Bruce Brown gives the Nuggets some flexibility to add an elusive scorer who can pass rather than an off-dribble passer who can shoot. Even an athletic goalkeeper with defensive skills like Hamidou Diallo could be an interesting addition.

The Nuggets will continue to listen to shows. Although many will argue that they shouldn’t feel pressured to do anything because of how good they really are, I would argue that this is why they should be aggressive… because of how good they really are. How many chances during Joki’s Prime will the Nuggets have to win a championship where Murray, Porter, and Gordon all play great basketball? It’s rare, in the sense that the Nuggets shouldn’t feel the need to hold back if they see a path that legitimately improves their title odds.

Could that mean letting go of a young player who they think would be really good? at all. Could that mean one or both of Hyland and Nnaji could be traded? Definitely. The Nuggets have an obligation to make the best decision about the future of their organization, and that can mean making a really tough decision.

The facts are: Denver can Winning the title if they don’t make a single deal. She is good enough the way she is and has sufficient answers to many of the questions opponents will ask her. The Nuggets are good enough that they can dictate match terms with Jokić and Murray, and their immediate supporting cast is one of the best in the NBA.

Just don’t be surprised if they pick a few finishing touches off their list in the next couple of weeks.

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