After spending pretty much all of December and January in Denver the Nuggets hit the road for three games this week. Here’s what I’m keeping an eye on.
Does the defense travel?
Every NBA team plays better defense at home. It’s one of the universal laws of this league. The Nuggets played 17 of their last 22 games in Denver, went an NBA-best 18-4 in that stretch, and were the NBA’s sixth-best defense during that portion of their schedule. On the year, the Nuggets have the seventh-best defense at Ball Arena and the 26th-ranked defense on the road. It’s really been as simple as that for this team.
As the Nuggets set out on a difficult three-game road trip, the question now turns to how real was this recent good run of defense? Was it becasue the Nuggets figured something out, or was it due to the fact that Denver mostly played at home? The Nuggets are set to face the Pelicans (Tuesday), the Bucks (Wednesday) and the 76ers (Saturday). That’s the 12th, 23rd and 7th offenses respectively this season. It’s not a murderer’s row of offenses by any means, but we’ll have a good idea of where this defense actually stands by the time the Nuggets return home from this trip next Tuesday.
Can Jamal Murray keep raising his game?
Here’s what Murray did over that 22-game stretch: 19.7 points per game (45.2 FG%, 38.9 3P%), 4.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game. To me, he looks back. I came to that conclusion after Murray scored seven of the Nuggets’ final 11 points down the stretch in a thrilling home win over the Timberwolves three games ago. The way he took over late in the fourth quarter was reminiscent of Murray pre-injury.
Murray has been checking off boxes over the last month. He’s playing in back-to-backs now. He’s taking command of Denver’s second unit when sharing the floor with Bones Hyland. He’s playing a leading role late in close games. These are all great signs as we head to toward the All-Star break and the regular-season stretch run.
That Murray-Jokic two-man has also looked pristine when both players have been on the floor as of late. As the ball handler in pick-and-rolls this season, Murray is averaging 1.04 points per possession, the sixth-most efficient mark in the league behind Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, DeMar DeRozan, Luka Doncic and Damian Lillard (minimum 200 possessions). His rhythm is returning.
Bones Hyland needs a good road trip
Hyland desperately needs a good game. His averages over his last six games are ugly: 5 points per game on 11-41 (26.8%) shooting from the field and 4-25 (16%) shooting from 3, 1.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists, in only 13.8 minutes. It’s a far cry from the numbers he was putting up and the impact he was making a few weeks ago when he hit double-figures in scoring in eight-straight games. He’s currently questionable for Tuesday’s matchup in New Orleans with a left finger sprain.
Hyland just hasn’t been close to good enough lately. And while he’s had some highs this season, I don’t think he has met the on-court expectations those inside and outside the Nuggets’ organization had for him entering the year. That being said, Hyland still has time. Things can flip quickly, but he’s got to find a rhythm soon.
If he doesn’t raise his game before the trade deadline, I could see the Nuggets seriously entertaining the possibility of moving him in order to add a player that’s going to be more reliable in the playoffs. The bottom line is that it’s just very rare for young players to play a big role in the Finals (Jordan Poole for the Warriors last year was an exception). Right now, he’s someone who could win or lose the Nuggets a playoff game or series.
That being said, Hyland is a rare offensive talent. That’s why I remain so high on him and his future. Players as young as him with his kind of offensive firepower don’t come around often.
Here's the list of qualified first and second year players to post a season with 30 points and 7 assists per 100 possessions on at least 54% True Shooting.— Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn) January 24, 2023
Arbitrary cutoffs, yes.
Impeccable company for Bones Hyland, yes. pic.twitter.com/CRvE4OAuza
Naz Reid trade chatter
A report from HoopsHype on Monday linked the Nuggets to Timberwolves center Naz Reid. On paper, it could make some sense. Backup center remains a question mark for the Nuggets heading toward the trade deadline and Reid is good. Really good. The Nuggets saw him up close last week too when Reid started at center for Minnesota in Denver and went for 17 points. He would give the Nuggets what they had last season in DeMarcus Cousins: a playmaking center who’s athletic, can shoot, score 1-on-1, beat guys off the dribble and just makes stuff happen. He’d provide a boost for the Nuggets’ bench.
I really like Reid and think he’d be more of a household name if he wasn’t playing behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert in Minnesota. He’s got some untapped potential too at only 23-years-old. He’s a free agent after the season and I believe a team that acquired Reid would have his bird rights and be able to re-sign him next summer.
But I don’t think Reid is the most logical candidate for Denver to spring for. I think the Nuggets would prefer and be better off adding a wing defender rather than backup center for the playoffs. A big guard/forward that Michael Malone trusts defensively would be more valuable in a postseason setting than a backup center that’s not going to play alongside Jokic.
Hyland could be a trade candidate at the deadline if his play doesn’t improve, but I don’t see a 1-for-1 swap for someone like Reid happening like has been talked about online. Trading Hyland, who still has two more years on his rookie contract for an impending free agent like Reid would be bad business.
Rivals Week vs. the 76ers
This is going to be a massive game with a ton of eyeballs on it. I think it could sway a lot of MVP voters too. The Nuggets are in Philadelphia to play the 76ers next Saturday on national television (ABC, 1 p.m. MT) as part of the NBA’s new Rivals Week.
If Jokic plays well and dominates Embiid, he’ll be the clear MVP front-runner. If Embiid gets the better of the back-to-back winner, he’ll make up a lot of ground on Jokic in the race. This one is going to be fun and narrative forming. There will be a lot at stake in terms of back-to-back MVP’s, legacies and Twitter beefs, if you care about that type of thing. If you don’t, it will just be a good test for the Nuggets against one of the best teams in the East.