On Wednesday night, Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone was awarded the honor of coaching Team LeBron at the All-Star game in Salt Lake City this February. The Nuggets are currently in first place in the Western Conference, and coaching the All-Star game is seen as a reward to coaching staffs that put in all of the hard work throughout the season.

It was yet another reminder of the Nuggets success as a squad this year. A 35-16 record through 51 games is one of the best in franchise history. If the Nuggets maintain that pace, they will win 56 games this year, one off the franchise record. With Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon, and Michael Porter Jr. playing the way they are, it’s easy to dream big about the playoffs and of championships.

Getting the team healthy was the first big step. The next big step was to add the right talent and versatility around the core. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown have been great in that regard, focusing heavily on the defensive end and filling in the gaps offensively. The five starters plus Bruce Brown are all averaging at least 28 minutes a night, shouldering a heavy burden and playing great basketball together.

There are basically zero questions about Denver’s top six players other than situational lineup subs for Porter. Outside of those top six though, the Nuggets are still trying to figure out who they can trust from night to night.

Bones Hyland was supposed to be the next guy up, providing explosive offense off the bench and offering a change of pace from Denver’s balanced, passing heavy attack. That hasn’t manifested this year, and it’s gone badly enough that the Nuggets are seriously considering trading Hyland.

Jeff Green and Vlatko Čančar have each had their moments as complementary forwards, but neither player has played with consistency in the areas the Nuggets need. Zeke Nnaji and DeAndre Jordan were initially platooning at center. That has since abated with Nnaji taking the role entirely, but Nnaji played just three minutes last game in a show of little faith in a close contest. Rookie Christian Braun, though he’s shown great habits and intangibles, is still just a rookie and difficult to trust himself.

Beyond that group of bench players, Ish Smith, Davon Reed, Peyton Watson, Jack White, and Collin Gillespie just haven’t had a lot of opportunities to impact the game this year and are unlikely to seriously contribute in the playoffs as a result.

So, the Nuggets are stuck without a consistent bench that they can rely upon in the playoffs unless internal improvement occurs (unlikely) or a trade happens in the next week. Trades are difficult to execute, and they take two teams to tango; however, the Nuggets are in a position where acquiring another helpful bench player makes a lot of sense heading into a hopefully deep playoff run.

What can the Nuggets trade?

Let’s assume that the starters and Bruce Brown, Denver’s foundational pieces for their championship rotation, are untouchable.

Christian Braun isn’t “untouchable” but it’s unlikely he gets moved. He’s a player the Nuggets like a lot, and he fits well into their present and near future as a versatile guard/wing defender. He may end up being their starting shooting guard after some years of seasoning.

Bones Hyland is probably Denver’s next most valuable trade chip: a scoring guard with some playmaking capability but major defensive weaknesses. He’s just 22 years old, and rebuilding teams could see an opportunity to acquire Hyland and hope he exceeds what is widely considered a “sixth man scorer” expectation. Zeke Nnaji and Peyton Watson are two young players that might have some value around the league, but they might not given how little they’ve played so far in their careers.

Beyond the starters, Brown, Braun, Hyland, Nnaji, and Watson, Denver’s other players would largely be considered “salary filler” for potential deals involving young players and/or picks.

The Nuggets don’t have a lot of draft capital. The only first round pick they can trade is a 2029 first rounder, and they’d have to remove protections from some of their other firsts to make it possible. They have second rounders in each of the next four drafts as well as 2029, but it’s hardly a war chest of draft capital to make deals. In addition, two of the team’s second rounders in 2025 and 2026 are tied up in protections for first round picks, so they can’t be dealt just yet.

What do the Nuggets need?

As mentioned above, the Nuggets need bench help. Even in their minutes without Hyland, the Nuggets still have a -2.5 net rating in 746 possessions with Jokić on the bench, according to Cleaning the Glass. Remove Murray from that equation, and the net rating drops to -9.5 in 356 possessions. The team is dependent on Jokić and Murray (unsurprisingly) but if Murray were to miss time, the Nuggets need to have another player who can create some offense off the bench. Going “all-defense” is fine for brief stretches, but the Nuggets will need more. Maybe it’s staggering Porter instead, but who knows?

Either way, solidifying the frontcourt minutes without Jokić are also very important. Between Green, Nnaji, Čančar, and Jordan, the Nuggets have options. It just remains to be seen if they have the right player for Malone to rely upon in playoff moments. Green is the player that is trusted most, but he still leaves something to be desired, as do all of the current players. A traditional backup center could pay off, somebody that can play all of the minutes that Jokić doesn’t play and limit the drop-off that occurs without the team’s best player. A more versatile wing or forward would also be helpful, giving the Nuggets another tool in the toolbox for Malone to deploy as needed.

Dec 28, 2022; Sacramento, California, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Bones Hyland (3) and guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) during the game against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Is Bones Hyland really going to be traded?

There are rumors from just about everyone about Bones. He’s clearly displeased with what has occurred this year, and though it might be a bridge too far to say he’s demanding a trade, he would certainly be open to a change in scenery if it occurred.

The Nuggets, as it turns out, seem open to the idea too. A distinct lack in assets and a clear weakness on the bench have pushed the Nuggets to be relatively aggressive in finding a Bones deal. It doesn’t mean that he will be traded, but the possibility has certainly opened up in the last few weeks.

Denver’s biggest weakness as a team remains defense. Even though the Nuggets have made improvements the last few weeks, lineups with Bones out there still possess an absurd 119.2 defensive rating, the highest among all qualified players that don’t also play for the Detroit Pistons or San Antonio Spurs. That is untenable.

If the Nuggets do end up trading Bones, it leaves Jokić and Murray in a place where they are the only primary creators in the rotation capable of legitimate off-the-dribble scoring. Brown can do some things but too often settles for a floater. Ish Smith is outside of the rotation but doesn’t seem likely to be in a playoff rotation for the Nuggets in April, May, or June. That means that if the Nuggets do end up trading Bones, they probably have to acquire somebody they trust to do some scoring off the dribble.

Fake trade ideas

A trade deadline article would be incomplete without some ideas of how to improve the team.

Trade #1 (The original idea)

  • Denver Nuggets receive: Naz Reid, Jordan McLaughlin, 2023 second round pick via NYK
  • Minnesota Timberwolves receive: Bones Hyland, Davon Reed

Rumors involving Hyland and Reid started this whole trade saga, and it still makes a degree of sense. Reid would bolster Denver’s frontcourt in a big way. His versatility as a passer, floor spacer, and scorer off the dribble would give the Nuggets a player they could play through without Jokić out there. Hyland would reunite with Tim Connelly as a potential longterm replacement for D’Angelo Russell.

The problems for Denver in a one-for-one swap were the value and the positional issues. Letting go of a guard without getting one back isn’t great for Denver’s depth, so the Nuggets also swap Davon Reed for Jordan McLaughlin, a backup point guard who has been out with a calf injury but would provide Denver some insurance in the playoffs in case an injury occurs. The Nuggets also acquire a second round pick as compensation just in case Reid walks in free agency this offseason, though he might stick around as a long term backup center option.

Trade #2 (The Zach Lowe special)

  • Denver Nuggets receive: Naji Marshall, 2024 second round pick via CHI
  • New Orleans Pelicans receive: Bones Hyland

This was a trade idea floated by Lowe in his latest podcast. The Pelicans could use additional shooting, and the Nuggets could use additional wing depth. Marshall is a 6’7″ wing who just turned 25. He has another guaranteed year on his contract after this one, meaning this isn’t just a rental. He fits the mold of Denver becoming more versatile and defensive-minded, while Hyland goes to New Orleans to be a higher ceiling option for a team with a young core.

Again, the Nuggets collect a second round pick for their trouble, though the real prize is Marshall, who would give the Nuggets another option for Malone and the Nuggets to deploy in a playoff series. He’s not a weak link defensively and would certainly benefit from Denver’s cutting, motion offense too.

Trade #3 (Find the right player)

  • Denver Nuggets receive: Deni Avdija
  • Washington Wizards receive: Bones Hyland, Zeke Nnaji

The Wizards are still rebuilding, but they’re also trying to find ways to retain impending free agents Kyle Kuzma and Kristaps Porzingis. After moving Rui Hachimura to the Los Angeles Lakers to better accomplish that goal, the Wizards double down and send out Avdija, who has had flashes but hasn’t put it all together for the Wizards in his third season.

The Nuggets would certainly be willing to take Avdija on though. He’s an ideal fit for what the Nuggets are looking for on their bench, a versatile defensive option with passing skills and a high IQ. He isn’t a scorer or shooter by any means, but there’s still time for him to develop. He would be a trustable option for the Nuggets in a playoff series.

The Wizards would receive both Hyland and Nnaji in the deal, young players with upside in larger roles that the Wizards may be able to afford in the near future. Hyland would be a solid creator off the bench who could bring some energy to a team that clearly needs it, and Nnaji would be a sturdy defender to place in between Kuzma and Porzingis in the right lineups.

Trade #4 (Let’s get weird)

  • Denver Nuggets receive: Precious Achiuwa, Otto Porter
  • New York Knicks receive: Jeff Green, two second round picks via TOR
  • Toronto Raptors receive: Bones Hyland, Isaiah Hartenstein

The Raptors need a center badly, but they have an athletic big man in Achiuwa already that’s really good. He’s not a long term option for them at center, nor would he be for the Nuggets, but he’s a really talented player. The Nuggets could use a guy like that in their rotation.

So, Denver calls up New York and gets them Jeff Green, another veteran forward for Tom Thibodeau to use in his rotation, so that Isaiah Hartenstein can be freed and put in Toronto instead. The Raptors would value a legit seven-footer, so much so that they’d be willing to let go of Achiuwa for the right price.

To facilitate the deal, the Nuggets send Hyland to Toronto, another team that would value his shooting, and take back Otto Porter’s contract. If healthy, Porter would be a player that could help Denver. Right now though, he’s likely just viewed as guaranteed money that Toronto won’t want on their books for next season. The Nuggets don’t get a ball handler to replace Hyland, but they do get Achiuwa, a versatile athlete who can switch everything and has enough ball skills to contribute offense to the second unit.

The Nuggets are currently in a tough position with Bones, but they have a championship window to worry about. The most important thing they can do is capitalize on that window by adding another player the Nuggets can trust in a playoff series (or several).

The foundation is there for the Nuggets to win a championship. Let’s see how they finalize their roster in the next week to better make that dream a reality.