The Charlotte Hornets have plenty to deal with when they play the Western Conference's top team, but other issues could be hanging over the team ahead of Saturday's game at the Denver Nuggets.
Charlotte (18-19) goes to Denver without center Cody Zeller and with trade rumors swirling. The Sporting News reported that league sources said the team is looking to trade center Frank Kaminsky and unload the contracts of Nicolas Batum and Bismack Biyombo.
It's a lot of distraction going into a game against the surging Nuggets. Denver (25-11) is getting healthier and is coming off an impressive 117-113 road win in Sacramento on Thursday after trailing by 15 points in the second half.
Guard Gary Harris and forward Paul Millsap have returned from lengthy injury absences, and guard Will Barton is getting closer to returning. The Nuggets are deep and playing well in the dog days of the NBA schedule, and they are getting plenty of big-time performances.
Center Nikola Jokic had a triple-double in a win over New York on Tuesday, and guard Jamal Murray scored 34 points in the second half against Sacramento. Role players Malik Beasley (a career-high 23 points against the Knicks) and Monte Morris have helped make up for injuries.
Murray has been putting up big numbers despite playing on a sore ankle injured in a win over San Antonio on Dec. 28. He is averaging 30.3 points, 5.5 assists and 5.5 rebounds in the last four games. His performance Thursday had head coach Michael Malone comparing Murray to a superhero.
"Jamal went into the phone booth and came out like Superman in that second half," Malone said.
Denver has won four straight and will try to avenge a 113-107 loss at Charlotte on Dec. 7. The Nuggets are also trying to keep things in perspective despite sitting atop the loaded Western Conference.
"I know people are excited that we're in first place right now, but there's 46 games to go," Malone said after the win over Sacramento. "A lot of basketball."
The afternoon matchup with Charlotte could be a classic trap game for Denver. The Nuggets are 15-3 at home and are playing a team that is 4-11 on the road and without its starting center. Zeller, who started 35 of the first 36 games this season, is out 4-6 weeks after having surgery to repair a fracture in his right hand.
Willy Hernangomez started in place of Zeller against Dallas on Wednesday but had just six points in 18 minutes of the blowout loss.
The Hornets are also without guard Jeremy Lamb, who has been out with a hamstring injury. Rookie Devonte' Graham, a second-round pick from Kansas, started for him against Dallas and scored 10 points in 34 minutes; he could keep starting until Lamb returns.
"He's rarely had a bad stretch of basketball," Charlotte head coach James Borrego said of Graham on Tuesday night. "He's just solid. He makes good plays, winning plays. He makes other players better. There's a confidence about him, a strength about him. I feel very confident with him out there on the floor."
Updated January 4, 2019