"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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.