No man's land

No man's land is land that is unoccupied or is under dispute between parties who leave it unoccupied due to fear or uncertainty. The term was originally used to define a contested territory or a dumping ground for refuse between fiefdoms.

The Denver Nuggets are trapped in No Man's Land.  Are they rebuilding or are they competing for wins?  On the one hand, Denver is stocked to the gills with young talent that needs playing time. The Nuggets have 7 players between 19 and 22 who are getting minutes this year, with 4 of those players in the back-court and another 3 bigs. They have a 20 year-old point guard and a 19 year-old combo guard who are their highest draft picks since Carmelo Anthony.  Half of the team is aimed at 2020 and beyond for contention, not 2017.  

On the other hand, Denver has several capable vets who continue to perform well. Will Barton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried are 4 of Denver's 6 best players in points-per-play as well as WS/48. That youth-stuffed back-court?  They occupy the bottom three spots in WS/48.  That makes sense – veterans who are already performing at their peak should be better than young guns who are just getting their careers started.

The problem comes in determining what sort of a team Denver is trying to be.  The Philadelphia 76ers embraced the tank – and The Process – in their attempt to land a superstar.  In Denver's own division Karl-Anthony Towns has been heralded nationwide as the Next Big Thing and is living up to it, doing something amazing nearly every night.  

The Nuggets don't have capital letter Plans or Players yet.  They have players – good ones, and a bunch of them – but nobody who (at this point) is shaking the pillars of heaven. Many of those players will require time to reach their peaks. The Nuggets also have a plan, but it's a flexible one.  They have hopes of playoff contention, but also a reasonable understanding of injury complications. 

“Let’s be honest, if there’s a situation where (Mudiay) is not playing well, or anybody else is not playing well, we have the depth to make changes,” Malone said Thursday. “We want to win games. A big part of last year was culture and development. This year … if we’re healthy, we feel it needs to be about winning, as well, to get our fans back and to feel good about the direction we’re heading in.”

In previous times, this particular tack might have been called judicious or prudent.  In the modern NBA where you need to either tank as if your life depends on it or load up with stars and take your shot it's viewed as naive at best, if not a complete waste of time.  If a player cannot lead this team to a championship this year then many feel he has no business being on the team.  Case in point: a local writer takes issue with Chandler’s presence with the Nuggets.

Chandler is a terrific and versatile weapon, but the idea that he should be taking the Nuggets on his shoulders and dragging them anywhere is silly. Like fellow vets Gallinari and Faried, Chandler is best suited to a major supporting role on a title team rather than the lead. That should never be a knock – it’s just a statement of the role you need to expect those players to fill if you plan to build a perennial contender. But roles are in question on this team. Mark Kiszla also had issues with Mudiay this week. Take this quote for example:

Recovery? The reclamation of Emmanuel Mudiay is not a reason to panic, if you take a step back and admit Mudiay is a project. Nothing more. Nothing less. On nights when he stinks, the young point guard needs to grab a seat and watch Denver teammates try to snare a victory. Treat him as just another player, not the franchise savior.

Kizla might not be wrong about any particular thing in the article, except maybe for the expectations he’s bringing to the table. The idea that Mudiay is not a project is a straw man.  He's a second year player who remains the youngest full-time point guard in the league.  In fact other than D'Angelo Russell there isn't another point guard within 2 years of his age. Of course he's a project.

The real question is how Denver straddles this No Man's Land between these youth projects and wins. Do you bench projects out of concern for today? These veterans could be perfect next to the right stars – but does Denver have those stars on-hand yet? By keeping (and re-signing) these veterans the Nuggets are making a choice: restricting the playing time of their young players in favor of veterans who might help in the win column now. Malone even said as much after the loss to the Raptors, chiding reporters for their expectations of Nikola Jokic:

Mentoring is an important veteran function, and no team should be built without them, but right now the Nuggets want to have their their cake and eat it too. The Denver front office is attempting to keep veterans who might help Denver to deeper playoff runs if the youth can learn quickly, while also restocking and doubling down on that young base of talent. It’s a juggling act, and one that few teams without obvious superstars among either set of players can pull off. The Nuggets are hanging out on the portion of the map marked “Here There Be Dragons” and trusting they have time. It can’t last forever.

Whichever way they choose to lean, eventually the Nuggets will have to choose competing now (consolidating some of the kids into a potential star) or later (moving some of the veterans to continue building for that 2020+ Finals run). As the definition says, No Man’s Land is where trash is piled and wars are waged. You can’t build a house there. You can choose right or left, gentlemen, but you have to choose – and soon.