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Exploring possible trade destinations for Nuggets' Bones Hyland

Exploring possible trade destinations for Nuggets' Bones Hyland

"We're a championship team."

That's what Nuggets guard Jamal Murray said, as part of a larger answer about the team's prospects after Thursday night's 134-117 win over the Golden State Warriors. Murray was a big part of the win, scoring 33 points (9-of-12 from two, 3-of-11 from three), dishing out 8 assists and grabbing 5 rebounds in a little over 30 minutes.

"All that stuff, not being happy, has gotta go out the window or else we’re not going to win," Murray said. "It’s nice to have a coach that knows that and knows what we’re trying to accomplish.”

There are a couple of ways to decipher the rest of Murray's words. You can take the "duh" approach and leave it there. Any team with title aspirations — and the Nuggets, headlined by MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic while boasting the West's best record, certainly fit the bill — needs buy-in. Beyond the Xs and Os and rotation decisions, a head coach's primary responsibility is to get buy-in from its players. 

Michael Malone has appeared to get that for the most part. You can see that most blatantly with the Nuggets' defensive performance. Per Cleaning The Glass, they're up to 16th in defensive rating on the year, excluding garbage time. In early December, I wrote about how pourous their then-ranked 27th defense was; Coach Malone seemingly lamented it every other game.

If you read a little deeper into Murray's reminder for connectivity, you could interpret it as a message to second-year guard Bones Hyland.

Hyland didn't appear in Thursday night's game. He only played four minutes in Tuesday's win over (what's left of) the New Orleans Pelicans. In fact, here is Hyland's minute count over the Nuggets' past 10 games: 8, 15, 18, 8, 11, 0 (inactive), 24, 21, 4, 0 (DNP).

There have been reports of Hyland and Malone not seeing eye-to-eye. It would make sense; young players — especially young guards — have to do a lot to earn Malone's trust on both ends of the floor.

Hyland is a microwave scorer, unafraid to pull from 30 feet if he's feeling it. He's drained nearly 38% of his threes on high volume (5.7 attempts in 19.5 minutes) this season. He's also, at this stage of his career, a harmful defender due to his off-ball awareness and shaky screen navigation. Those are hard sells for Malone fundamentally, even while acknowledging how talented Hyland is.

But with the relationship appearing to deteriorate, trade rumors have continued to swirl. Most recently, ESPN's Tim MacMahon essentially called a Hyland trade an inevitability. Brian Windhorst didn't go that far, but it seems the writing is on the wall in Denver. 

Beyond the intrigue of the Nuggets potentially moving Hyland this early, figuring out who they'd actually pursue is also challenging.

It's easy to look at the roster and pinpoint what they should pursue. Finding a bigger, more reliable two-way presence on the perimeter would be at the top of the list. As it stands, rookies Christian Braun and Peyton Watson are the only "3s" between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-8 on the roster. Braun has been in and out of the rotation this season despite his positive flashes, and we've seen virtually nothing from Watson.

If they land on another guard to directly replace Hyland, that player would need to hold their own defensively — and likely be capable of punching above their weight — while being able to toggle between on and off-ball duties. Murray has been commanding the second unit when staggered away from Jokic; ideally, you'd want to take some of that creation burden off of him.

The "who" of it is what makes this tough. Hyland isn't just a young trade chip — he might be the trade chip for the Nuggets considering their first-round pick situation. Due to prior trades, the earliest available first-rounder they can move is their 2029 first. Cashing in Hyland for a veteran could still be the move, but it'd be beneficial to add a vet who could move the needle this year and next year, at the very least.

No team wants to "lose" a deal obviously, but there's heightened importance in nailing a trade involving Hyland because of it.

For that reason, I'd imagine the first call would be to the Chicago Bulls. Alex Caruso doesn't fit the wing-with-size archetype, but he doubles as one of the NBA's stingiest and most versatile perimeter defenders. He is one of the best screen navigators in the sport, possesses quick hands that allow him to pester ball-handlers and restrict passing lanes and has the strength and guile to defend bigger wings or forwards when called upon.

A fun stat, per Second Spectrum: Over the past two seasons, possessions featuring a post-up defended by Caruso have garnered just 0.82 points per possession (PPP). Among the 114 players who have defended at least 75 post-ups in that time frame, that mark ranks 11th. Players ahead of him include Pascal Siakam (0.74 PPP), Draymond Green (0.75 PPP), PJ Tucker (0.76 PPP), Onyeka Okongwu (0.78 PPP) and Jayson Tatum (0.8 PPP).

Any questions concerning Caruso come on the offensive end of the floor. He's currently shooting 40.2% from deep, but is only attempting 4.3 threes per 100 possessions, the second-lowest clip of his career. Because of his infrequent trigger — with more infuriating catch-and-holds sprinkled in this season — defenses are okay defending him conservatively on the perimeter. 

Caruso remains a smart cutter and a tough-as-nails screener, making him an ideal partner for Nikola Jokic whenever they play together. His cross screens consistently help Nikola Vucevic establish deep post position; it's easy to see him doing the same for Jokic. There's also room for him to act as a brush screener whenever the Nuggets want to utilize Jokic as the pick-and-roll ball handler.

Per Marc Stein of Substack ($), the Bulls reportedly want two first-round picks in a deal for Caruso. Would the Bulls consider Hyland as a first-rounder, and would the 2029 first the Nuggets could actually offer be enough to entice them? If so, Hyland, Jeff Green, Ish Smith and the 2029 first is a package that could get the ball rolling.

(There would be haggling, of course. The Nuggets would rather add second-rounders — they have six, including two this year. If they do include the first-rounder, I'm sure they'd ask for protections — or explore what it would take to get the Bulls to include Andre Drummond in the deal as well. In short, there are conversations to be had here.)

If not the Bulls, the Nuggets should check in with the Washington Wizards again. They just did business over the summer with the wing room; why not see if they could pry Delon Wright out of there? It would take one of Green or Smith along with Hyland for salary-matching purposes. Because of the age gap and team control aspect, the Nuggets may be able to ask for minor draft compensation.

Among available forwards, I wonder if they'd call the Phoenix Suns and check in on Jae Crowder. Because of Crowder's contract status — he's set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer — the Nuggets likely wouldn't have to think about including a future first. The Hyland-Green-Smith triumvirate would work salary-wise for Crowder and a minimum piece (maybe Jock Landale or Josh Okogie).

STRAY THOUGHTS

  • If the San Antonio Spurs didn't already have multiple guards they're somewhat invested in, a Hyland-led package for Josh Richardson would be something worth exploring.
  • Same guard-heavy issue with the Utah Jazz, otherwise a Jarrod Vanderbilt deal would be at the top of the list for me.
  • The Sacramento Kings and Warriors have reportedly been linked to Matisse Thybulle. The Nuggets have the offensive infrastructure to slot Thybulle in as a cutter and occasional screener. How would we feel about a Hyland/Green for Thybulle/Shake Milton swap? Feels like a third team would be needed to balance things further for the Sixers, but I'd be intrigued.
  • Hyland for Cam Reddish is the "Man, everybody would hate this" trade that I can't push in good faith.
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