The Denver Nuggets are in a great place overall.

A 33-14 record, led by two-time MVP Nikola Jokić, a resurgent Jamal Murray, and a repurposed Aaron Gordon, has positioned the Nuggets at the top of the Western Conference. The second place Memphis Grizzlies could certainly overtake Denver at some point, but the third place Sacramento Kings are a mile below them. The Nuggets and the Grizzlies have put in work during the first half of the 2022-23 regular season, and the Nuggets can relax a little knowing that the hardest part of their regular season is behind them.

If the Nuggets simply go 0.500 the rest of the way (let’s say 18-17), they will win 51 games in total and all but guarantee homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. They’re likely to play better than that too, having a distinct shot at setting the NBA franchise record in regular season wins at 58. If the Nuggets go 25-10 in their final 35 games, they will all but ensure a top two seed in the West playoff field and an outside shot at the top seed in the entire NBA. Denver’s current pace suggests they have a shot at it if they push for it, though they don’t have to.

Denver’s goal this season isn’t to set the franchise record for wins though. It’s time to win a championship or bust. The Nuggets clearly have a talented group, and if they truly believe they have the best player in the world on their roster, then there’s a significant opportunity to bring the first ever NBA Finals trophy to the Mile High City. That’s the goal.

So, can Denver do it? Sure.

Is it likely? Absolutely not.

That lack in likelihood lies in the parity of the NBA today. There are elite teams around the Nuggets that can also win a title. From the aforementioned Grizzlies, to the NBA record-leading Boston Celtics, to the Milwaukee Bucks, to the Brooklyn Nets. Beyond the elite class remain teams that feel they have at least a puncher’s chance: the reigning champion Golden State Warriors with Stephen Curry, the Philadelphia 76ers with Joel Embiid, and the Dallas Mavericks with Luka Dončić all fall into that category. Rightfully so, too.

There are no juggernauts in the NBA this year. The Nuggets, despite owning the second best record in the league, aren’t a juggernaut. They, along with other teams, have discernible and punishable weaknesses. For the Nuggets, it’s their defense and bench unit. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Nuggets still have the NBA’s 20th ranked defensive unit, a far cry from elite units generally featured in a legitimate championship hunt. In addition, the Nuggets are still getting outscored by 10.3 points per 100 possessions when Jokić is off the floor. That’s actually an improvement on where it was at the beginning of the season but still not sustainable for four playoff series’ in a row.

They don’t have to fix both problems entirely, but the Nuggets must do an even better job of mitigating problems, which leads us to Bones Hyland, Zeke Nnaji, and the trade deadline in just over two weeks.

Numbers with Hyland can tell different stories. On offense, the Nuggets aren’t as strong with their bench unit, but that’s to be expected without Jokić on the floor. Still, Hyland has been 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 a stacked 2021 draft class currently maintaining those averages.

This season, the Nuggets are getting roasted defensively with Hyland on the floor. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Nuggets are a full 11.6 points per 100 possessions worse defensively when Hyland’s on the court. That is one of the lowest differentials 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 on/off offender 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 he offers little resistance in allowing opposing scorers to nestle comfortably under the rim.

When he puts up resistance, he’s liable to foul, pushing the Nuggets closer to the bonus early in the second and fourth quarters when he’s out there. Hyland has the highest fouls per 100 possessions of any guard on the roster, and it isn’t from aggressive, pestering defense that can be cited for the likes of Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

There’s no doubt though that the Nuggets are loathe to give up on the Bones Hyland experience early though. Michael Malone previously stated that he was going to ride with Bones despite his shooting struggles during December, and that likely still applies. Bones’ numbers as a second year scoring guard remain highly impressive, averaging 30.4 points and 7.7 assists per 100 possessions on 54.5% true shooting. The only first and second year players in NBA history to match that combination of volume efficiency are a who’s who of elite players, plus Andrew Toney:

  • LeBron James
  • Michael Jordan
  • Dwyade Wade
  • Luka Dončić twice
  • Kyrie Irving twice
  • Trae Young
  • Andrew Toney
  • Bones Hyland

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

Another young player that may end up at the center of trade talks for the Nuggets is Zeke Nnaji.

Heading into training camp, Nnaji was the talk of the town, highlighted as a breakout candidate by players, coaches, and executives alike. The work he put in during the offseason set him up for the all important third-year leap. That didn’t happen for awhile, but Nnaji’s minutes became more consistent in mid-November, and he seems to be improving with reps and playing time.

The 22-year-old big man is finding his form as the Nuggets backup center. He has played in 37 of the Nuggets’ 47 games so far this season and is averaging just 12.7 minutes, 5.1 points, and 2.1 rebounds per game. Still, it’s the role he’s filling rather than the numbers he’s generating that have been most important. The Nuggets are currently at a -2.7 net rating in 781 possessions with Nnaji on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass. That net rating drops to -5.1 when sorting for just possessions with Nnaji at center, but it’s still an improvement on DeAndre Jordan’s -9.0 net rating in 871 possessions.

Backup center was always going to be a challenge for a Nuggets team that plays such a distinct style with Jokić. The Nuggets have mostly used Nnaji and Jordan as rollers to the rim rather than playmakers at the high post. It has simplified the game enough for Nnaji to become better at the things the Nuggets need him to do.

Nnaji’s goal lately: grab as many offensive rebounds as possible. He’s doing a good job too, maintaining an 11.9% offensive rebounding rate that ranks 22nd among all NBA players to play at least 400 minutes. He’s converting extra possessions into points, despite being undersized for the center position. It’s all about hustle.

Beyond just rolling to the basket and grabbing boards though, Nnaji’s once again displaying the traits that made him such an alluring piece for the Nuggets to hold on to, playing a switching style of defense and guarding 1-on-1 against smaller players that believe they can score against him. Nnaji is proving otherwise, holding opponents to just 0.70 points per possession on isolations this year, the best on the team.

The switchability Nnaji possesses is such an important trait for playoff basketball. Nnaji displayed that in his first and second years as well, but it was the fundamentals as a big man holding him back a little. Now, he’s averaging 69.9% on two-pointers and anchoring Denver’s defense in both switch and drop coverage. It has allowed Nnaji to have some important moments lately, and he’s proven himself worthy of a rotation spot in the playoffs, or at least the possibility of one.

Hyland and Nnaji are each 22 years old. They’re young. Christian Braun is the only other potential Nuggets rotation player in that age range, and he’s currently on the outside looking in. Those are the three pieces to Denver’s playoff rotation with the most uncertainty. Every other Nuggets rotation player (outside of Vlatko Čančar) has played significant minutes in multiple playoff series. The rest of the rotation is fully battle tested. With Hyland and Nnaji specifically, it’s less clear. They will be the pressure points opponents try to pick on in the playoffs, and the Nuggets know that.

The Nuggets basically have four options:

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

By far, the most likely options are the first or second, depending on how Hyland, Nnaji, and Braun fare in their current roles. The third option seems like a non-starter given Denver’s focus on culture and putting the team above oneself. It would be hard to do that and also have trust in the plan when so much money and opportunity is on the line for the young guys.

The fourth option has been bandied about. Hoops Hype’s Michael Scotto reported that the Nuggets were showing interested in veteran big man Naz Reid, speculating that Hyland could be part of the return in such a trade. Not only would that mean giving up on Hyland for a rental, but it would also likely mean the benching of Nnaji, alienating Denver’s other 22-year-old prospect. It seems like a bad plan in general, though Reid is a good player and could certainly help the Nuggets.

There are other players the Nuggets could target in the frontcourt if they’re looking for help, mostly some familiar faces. Utah’s Jarred Vanderbilt is an energetic big man with a bit more seasoning than Nnaji. He’s a dynamic rebounder and hustler with many of Nnaji’s same tendencies and would be good here. Charlotte’s Mason Plumlee is a great backup center option who would help facilitate offense at a higher level than any of Denver’s current bigs. Ditto for Isaiah Hartenstein in New York. All of those bigs would fit into the traded player exception generated by the Monte Morris trade this past offseason.

If it’s the backcourt the Nuggets want to solidify, the Nuggets will have to be more creative. Alec Burks in Detroit would be a creator capable of helping Denver’s bench scoring. Josh Richardson is an expensive option but could definitely be had from San Antonio. Neither are true facilitators, but the presence of Jokić, Murray, and Bruce Brown gives the Nuggets some flexibility to add an off-the-dribble scorer that can pass rather than an off-the-dribble passer that can shoot. Even an athletic guard with defensive skills like Hamidou Diallo could be an interesting add.

The Nuggets will continue to listen to offers. Though many will argue they shouldn’t feel pressure to do anything because of how good they already are, I’d argue that’s why they should be aggressive…because of how good they already are. How many opportunities during Jokić’s prime will the Nuggets have to win a championship with Murray, Porter, and Gordon all playing great basketball? It’s a rare thing, meaning 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 they believe will be really good? Absolutely. Could that mean one or both of Hyland and Nnaji could be traded? Sure. The Nuggets have an obligation to make the best decision for their organization’s future, and that might mean making a decision that’s really, really difficult.

The facts are: Denver can win a title if they don’t make a single trade. They’re good enough as is and have enough answers to various questions opponents will ask them. The Nuggets are good enough that they can dictate the terms of a matchup with Jokić and Murray, and their immediate supporting cast is one of the best in the NBA.

Just don’t be surprised if they opt for some finishing touches to their roster in the next two weeks.