Last week, when Caesars Sportsbook Assistant Director of Trading Adam Pullen was asked to compare the flavor of the 2021-2022 season, the Memphis Grizzlies, to another up-and-coming team of recent memory, he singled out the Nuggets.
“The Nuggets, the last three years they’ve done well in the playoffs and got to the conference finals once,” said Pullen. “It’s tough when you’re a young team, and experience matters in the playoffs. But all it takes is a couple of players, and team chemistry is worth a lot.”
“All it takes is a couple of players” is a duplicitous mantra for Denver fans. On the one hand, the possible return of injured guard Jamal Murray this season has kept the Nuggets on the fringe of legitimate Western Conference title consideration (30/1 at Caesars) at Colorado’s sportsbooks, even as repeat MVP hopeful (15/1 at FanDuel and feeling “disrespected”) Nikola Jokic struggles to keep the team — which fell to 20-19 Tuesday after blowing a huge lead to the Clippers at home — in the playoff race. On the other hand, Murray hasn’t seen game action in about a year — and third banana Michael Porter Jr.’s even more uncertain and potentially prolonged absence only makes matters worse.
“If you get Murray back and get the seventh seed and are healthy other than Porter, [the Nuggets have] a decent chance [of winning the West], like everybody else,” said Pullen. “Hyland, who I loved in college, he’s been great.”
Hyland would be Denver rookie Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland, a late first-round pick out of Virginia Commonwealth. The lanky Bones played one of his best games of the season on Nov. 14 in a 124-95 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, who are 11-point underdogs at Caesars for their visit to Denver on Thursday.
As part of a three-man point guard rotation keeping the seat warm for Murray, Hyland has flashed enough chops to emerge as a longshot candidate for Rookie of the Year, drawing odds of 100/1 from Caesars — the same odds assigned to lottery pick Jalen Suggs of Orlando, who some observers thought could be selected with the very first pick in the most recent NBA draft.
On Thursday, Hyland will likely square off at times with Anfernee Simons, a similarly skinny 24-year-old combo guard who’s enjoyed a breakout season in his fourth year with Portland. Simons, who’s averaging 15 points per game, and ex-Nugget Jusuf Nurkic were among five starters in double figures for the 16-24 Blazers during an upset victory over the Brooklyn Nets in Portland on Monday. While the Nets — still favored to win the NBA title (+270 at PointsBet) despite Klay Thompson’s return to Golden State’s lineup — were playing without James Harden and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers’ active roster was even more depleted, with Nurkic the only regular starter to take the floor.
Nurkic, a Bosnian, and Jokic, a Serb, enjoyed a timeshare at center — and occasionally shared the floor in super-sized lineups — for Denver for a season and a half before the Nuggets dealt the former to Portland (for Mason Plumlee) in 2017, having correctly determined that he was a poor man’s version of the latter.