Danilo Gallinari is, somehow, still here. He is one of just three players remaining from the 2012-13 Nuggets, the 57-win NBA race car that looked, during sublime moments of chaos, like it might outrun the trope that a team needs a top-10 superstar to contend. He is also, in many ways, the symbol of that team’s downfall; his severe ACL injury in April 2013, a few weeks before the playoffs, was the first in a chain of events that exploded an entire team in less than two months.
“That’s really what got us fired, if you think about it,” says George Karl, the current Kings coach who as the Nuggets coach embraced a quirky run-and-gun style perfect for Denver’s mile-high air. “Put it this way: There have been more than a few times when I have thought about what might have happened in Denver if Gallo hadn’t gotten hurt.”1
Other things happened to derail that 2013 team, of course. Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried dealt with injuries in the postseason, and the Golden State team that eliminated Denver in six games made itself into something.
Gallinari has since morphed into a stand-in for the aimlessness of a franchise trapped, by its own doing, in the inescapable NBA dead zone of mediocrity. He stood on the sidelines for all of 2013-14, recovering from multiple knee surgeries as the team fragmented during the mopey and mismatched Brian Shaw era. Players left, losses mounted, Ty Lawson’s off-court issues ran him out of town, Shaw got fired. What had been a proud, fiery team exultant in its unique identity sank into an unrecognizable malaise. Denver seemed to recognize that when it dealt Arron Afflalo and Timofey Mozgov for extra draft goodies; the Nuggets were primed, finally, for a total rebuild. Maybe the other veterans were next to go.
And then something funny happened: Gallinari went bananas over 24 games after the All-Star break, averaging 19 points per game on 44 percent shooting, including 40 percent from deep, and playing as the multi-positional jack-of-all-trades Denver envisioned when it nabbed him as the centerpiece of the Carmelo Anthony deal.2 It was tempting to dismiss Gallo’s surge as springtime numbers-grabbing on a terrible team, but he kept it up in leading Italy to the quarterfinals at Eurobasket this month.
He ranked in the top 10 percent of the league in points per possession after the All-Star break in just about every play type, per Synergy Sports: pick-and-rolls in which he handled the ball; pick-and-rolls on which he screened; isolations; spot-ups; and fast-break chances. That is really unusual.
Gallinari might be all the way back, and he just turned 27. That should be an indisputably good thing for Denver, and it probably is. But it’s fitting that the return of the Rooster raises questions for perhaps the league’s most confusing franchise. Can he stay healthy? And can he sustain this form over a full season?
Gallinari came into the league with back issues, and he’s recovering from tears in both his ACL and meniscus cartilage. All the Nuggets can do is throw every training asset they have at him and hope it works out.
On the floor, Gallinari subsisted on high-degree-of-difficulty shots even though Denver mostly played him at power forward in smallish lineups, often with Kenneth Faried at center, designed to generate easier looks. Gallo would grind the offense to a halt, survey the scene, and jack brutal jumpers off dribbles and jab steps.
The positive spin: Gallo is a cold-blooded shot-maker, and he can nail shots few should consider. Imagine what he could do once Mike Malone, the team’s new coach, has time to (hopefully) install a half-court offense that flows for the full shot clock.
The negative spin: What if Gallo just enjoyed a random extended hot streak after years of weirdly inconsistent jump-shooting? Gallinari couldn’t jet around Derrick Favors in that second clip, and if he can’t blow by opposing power forwards, his value as a playmaking 4 tops out early. Can anyone rely on shots like these?
Holy hell. But both of those toughies highlight the rare versatility that makes Gallinari valuable. He can act as both ball handler and screener in the pick-and-roll, unlocking so many combinations that defenses can never know quite what to expect when Gallo is at full Energizer Bunny activity levels. He can screen for his point guard, pop out for a potential 3-pointer, and, if that’s covered, shift right into a power forward-center pick-and-roll with Faried or Jusuf Nurkic. Opponents default into switches just to keep up, and Gallo can punish switches in either direction.
Slot a little guy like Eric Gordon onto him, and Gallo goes into his Dirk impression: post up at the middle of the foul line and conduct office hours. Give a big lug the job, and Gallo will pull the ball out for a footrace. When he’s feeling frisky against an opposing center, Gallo has a delightful habit of backtracking all the way to midcourt, like a track star gearing up for the triple-jump. If those centers retreat just one extra step, bracing themselves for a drive, Gallo will pull up for audacious F-U 3s in their grill.
At his best, Gallo opens up cracks in a defense. If two defenders hesitate for even a split second in switching against him on a pick-and-roll, a lane will emerge — either for Gallo or for his partner on the play. If he screens and pops for a triple, he’s dangerous enough to draw a third defender up from the corner:
If he whips that pass to Wilson Chandler open in the left corner, the Nuggets will be in the midst of one of those ping-ping-ping pass-and-drive sequences that make the Warriors and Spurs so hard to guard.
Gallo in those moments last season leaned too much toward stopping the offense and going one-on-one — usually for long jumpers. He made a bunch, but Gallinari buries his all-around skill playing that way. He’s a crafty driver, all shoulder twitches and expert footwork, and a smart passer who slips the ball through tight spaces. “He can become a little over-reliant on his jumper,” Karl says. “But he can handle, and he makes good decisions. That’s where the league is going. It used to be about executing plays. Now it’s about passing and spacing, and putting smart players in positions where they can make quick decisions. Gallo can do that.”
In other words: Gallo should be perfect for the pace-and-space era!
Post-injury, Gallinari didn’t get to the rim or the foul line as often as he did at his pre-injury best, but perhaps that will change as he feels more confident in his knee. He drove to the rim much less often during the second and fourth quarters, per SportVU data provided to Grantland, but he showed the old herky-jerky explosiveness early in his shifts:
The Nuggets also have to see how Gallinari manages playing more on the wing, and with a rookie, Emmanuel Mudiay, playing in Lawson’s spot. Lawson wore out his welcome, but he’s a zippy playmaker who single-handedly created open 3s for Gallo and others. He pushed the pace, streaked by opposing point guards, and threw crazy Rondo-style wrap-around slingshots from under the rim all the way out to the top of the arc. Gallo munched on a bunch of easy spot-up 3s just by standing around, waiting for Lawson to make a play:
Faried is the only traditional big man in that photo, and you can see how open the floor was when Denver played that small style — with Gallinari as the nominal power forward. It was also a way for Denver to get its three highest-paid players — Faried, Gallinari, and Chandler — on the floor at the same time, an awkward contortion act that involves either playing Faried at center or Chandler at shooting guard in super-big lineups.
Denver will have trouble finding time for small ball if all of its bigs are healthy. All five of Nurkic, Nikola Jokic, King Joffrey Lauvergne, J.J. Hickson (merely typing his name makes me throw up in my mouth a little), and Darrell Arthur will compete for minutes around Faried. Maybe playing big is healthy for Denver in the long run, anyway. Smaller groups with Faried and Gallinari manning the two “big” spots will struggle on defense and on the glass. Opponents feasted when posting up Gallinari last season, per Synergy Sports, and Gallinari inflames the problem by gambling for reach-around steals that just aren’t going to happen:
If Dirkenstein can spin around that lurch, almost any big man can pull the trick. At the other extreme, Gallo can get ultra-physical, leaning his chest into an opponent’s back with such force that cagey post-up guys use Gallinari’s momentum against him — a sort of inverted “pull out the chair” maneuver:
Gallinari can be a stout post defender when he keeps things simple and maintains better balance. He’s strong, he tries hard, and he raises his arms high to challenge shots. Big guys can push him around a bit, but smart teams will live with so-so post players flicking 8-foot hook shots over a good arms-up challenge.
Still: Becoming a real team again means finding the right balance between offense and defense, and it seems inevitable that small-ball lineups will hemorrhage too many points. Denver may not have enough perimeter talent to play small, with Mudiay learning the ropes and Randy Foye, Will Barton, and Gary Harris3 splitting time at shooting guard. But damn if those groups aren’t dynamic in ways that cause real issues — with Faried pogoing down the lane sucking in defenders, and enough pick-and-roll duos to confuse any defense.
This is an important sophomore season for Harris, by the way.
They also don’t suffer spacing issues like this:
Good luck creating anything when defenses can clog the lane off of both Nurkic and Faried. Jokic and Lauvergne have more perimeter-oriented games that would make them interesting front-line partners for one of the Faried/Nurkic battering rams.
Maybe one of Denver’s centers emerges in a year or two as the kind of expert rim protector who makes sliding Gallinari to power forward palatable. Nurkic looked more agile defensively as a rookie than most scouts expected.
But Gallinari’s positional flexibility is a strength, not a weakness. He should toggle between both positions for any team, depending on roster context, coaching strategy, and specific opponents. Memphis sniffed around Gallinari at the trade deadline, per several league sources, and would have used him just as it did Jeff Green: as its starting small forward, playing heavy minutes at power forward in bench lineups and situations that called for it. Teams with starting frontcourts less accomplished than the Grizzlies’ brothers-from-another-mother, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, might tilt the equation toward more minutes for Gallinari at power forward.
Denver discussed deals for Chandler, Gallinari, and Lawson ahead of the trade deadline, and it absolutely could have snagged future first-round picks for the first two, according to sources around the league. The Lawson trade market was trickier; Denver asked for two first-round picks in some talks, sources say, and it could not have known at that time quite how toxic Lawson would become just a few months later.
But there is an alternative universe in which Denver flips all three and enters the 2015-16 season with a half-dozen extra first-round picks and a real chance to finish last in the West — a legitimate rebuild. The Nuggets instead traded one of the extra first-rounders they already had, an Oklahoma City 2016 pick likely to fall below no. 20, to dump JaVale McGee on the Sixers — and open up the sliver of cap space they needed to extend Chandler.
The Lawson trade with Houston freed a new chunk of space, and the Nuggets used it to ink a two-year extension with Gallinari. Those were smart, forward-thinking moves that kept two good players out of what will be an overheated 2016 free-agency market.
They also set Denver up with enough good players to win 30 or more games and land in that sour spot late in the lottery where no one wants to be. Gallinari and Chandler aren’t old, but at 27 and 28, respectively, they will almost certainly be past their primes — and perhaps on another team — by the time Mudiay and Nurkic are ready to win big. Does Chandler move the needle enough to justify a bad team sacrificing a first-rounder — even one in a spot that typically nets a fringe player?
GM Tim Connelly says the Nuggets already have enough future picks, and that they felt comfortable dealing one — and punting on gathering others — to extend two players in their primes. They have extra first-rounders from Houston, Memphis, and Portland, plus the right to swap picks with New York in the next draft. Teams with too many picks literally can’t use them all given limits on roster size, and the Nuggets know that picks outside the lottery are hit-or-miss. “Given the future picks we already had, we weren’t inclined to sell off good players,” Connelly says.
The Nuggets feel they have the picks, talent, and cap flexibility to strike if a star becomes available. “We have both financial and personnel flexibility,” Connelly says, “which should allow us to be aggressive and opportunistic.”
But if Denver and New York are close in the standings, the right to swap picks the Nuggets got in the Carmelo trade won’t mean much. The first-rounder from Portland only goes to Denver if the Blazers make the playoffs in either 2016 or 2017; if Portland misses out in both years, which seems likely, that pick becomes a low second-rounder. Denver is already out second-rounders in the next two drafts, and if the Nuggets don’t improve, the second-rounder they owe Houston in 2017 might end up only a few spots lower than the first-rounder Houston will fling to Denver next year as part of the Lawson deal.
In other words: Denver’s cache of picks might be what Cher from Clueless would call a Monet. The Nuggets don’t have quite the stockpile of Boston, Phoenix, or Philly. And Denver’s cap room won’t be worth much in a world where just about everyone has it. It’s a cliché, but it’s also true: Moving up from the middle is hard. You have to be almost perfect, and lucky. It’s why this situation feels a little more hopeless than it should, given the talent already here.
Gallinari’s return to form provides a welcome bit of hope. You can understand why the Nuggets kept him. The Kroenke family, which owns the team, has never had the stomach for a teardown. Gallinari loves Denver, and that means something to a franchise that watched its keystone superstar hold it hostage four years ago. “We place a premium on guys who want to be here,” Connelly says.
And Connelly, colleagues say, lives to kick ass at the draft. In six months, it might be clear that both Mudiay and Nurkic should have been top-five picks, and most rebuilding teams would salivate at that two-man foundation. Nail half of their first-rounders over the next two or three years, and the Nuggets could be the next Jazz. Utah had the benefit of two blue-chip no. 3 picks, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, but if something breaks wrong for either Denver or New York, perhaps the Nuggets will get one more shot toward the top of the lottery. Both conferences look better at the bottom; it may not take as much bad luck for a so-so team to end up like the accidentally awful 2013-14 Bucks.
Besides, Connelly is right that Gallinari and Chandler are in their primes, and it’s nice to have veteran leadership. They’re under good, movable contracts — just like almost everyone else on the team. The process hasn’t always been clean, and the cold math says Denver should have swallowed hard, made some painful trades, and gone full (Sam) Hinkie.
But not every front office has the leeway to do that, and in Mudiay and Nurkic, perhaps Denver already has the sort of players Hinkie’s plan in Philadelphia is designed to catch. Maybe they’ll catch some more. The odds of Denver transforming into a title team over the next half-decade are super slim, just as they are for any team without a superstar. But it’s nice to have things to feel good about. Gallo being Gallo is something to feel good about.