The Denver Nuggets' season may have flashed before the eyes of everyone in the Pepsi Center on Thursday night as forward Danilo Gallinari suffered a left knee injury in the second quarter of the team's game against the Dallas Mavericks. He will undergo an MRI on Friday, but team doctors fear Gallinari has a torn ACL and that he will miss the remainder of the season.
The Nuggets have depth at every position, but do they have the right combination of talent to replace everything that Gallinari can do?
Denver is a team without a true superstar player, and George Karl has done a masterful job at putting players in positions to succeed this season, but for some reason, their talent mix still feels delicate. Nate Timmons at Nuggets blog Denver Stiffs recapped the win over Dallas on Thursday -- a victory that pushed the team two games ahead of the Clippers for the No. 3 seed and guaranteed the Nuggets a top-4 finish in the conference -- and he outlined the intimidating size of the void that Gallinari would leave behind:
What will the Nuggets miss with Gallo out of the lineup?
1.) Scoring - he's the second leading scorer on the team.
2.) Crunch-time scoring - he has proven over-and-over that he can/will hit big shots.
3.) Rebounding - he's been great late in games securing boards.
4.) Passing - he's one hell of a play-maker and a creative passer.
5.) Defense - he covers the perimeter and has been great in the post.
6.) Leadership - no question.
7.) Intangibles - he just makes the game easier for his teammates.
8.) Free throw shooting - the team's best foul shooter and frequent trip taker.
George Karl noted the strength of the team's depth after the game, saying "we gotta figure things out and don't feel sorry for ourselves, just hang in there. We're versatile and we're deep."
Let's try to break down how the Nuggets can cope.
The 24-year-old Gallinari started the season slowly. He shot just 28.1 percent from three-point range over the first 16 games of the season, but then quickly improved and raised his long distance accuracy enough to qualify as the third-best year of his career (37.3 percent). He's the team's second-leading scorer at 16.2 points per game, and he has been efficient (56.1 true shooting percentage) in that role.
The Nuggets benefit greatly when Danilo is on the floor. They have outscored opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions with the Italian shooter in the lineup (2,309 minutes) this year, and both the offense and defense improve with Gallo on the court, according to NBA.com's media-specific stats page. Those are big shoes to fill.
The scoring duties may now fall more to Wilson Chandler. That isn't a bad thing at all, at least in theory. With Chandler on the floor the Nuggets have outscored opponents by a whopping margin of 8.5 pts / 100 poss, which is an even better mark than Gallinari. Chandler is posting some of the best numbers of his career through 37 games this season -- 11.9 PPG, 40.2 percent from three-point range, a true shooting percentage of 53.8, a 15.4 PER -- so he could be primed to take on a bigger role on offense. In fact, Chandler has scored 10+ points in 10 of his last 15 appearances. He has only played 887 minutes this year, so he should be fresh down the stretch, which could be a big advantage for the Nuggets.
Chandler has shot the three ball well this year, but he doesn't space the floor quite as well as Gallo does. That's where young shooters Evan Fournier (42.1-percent from three-point range) and Jordan Hamilton (37.5 percent) could play a role. George Karl has limited the minutes for these two players for most of the season, but now he may be forced to mix-and-match to help the Nuggets find the right floor balance on offense in certain lineups with Andre Miller, Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, etc.
Rebounding and Defense
If Karl shifts minutes to Hamilton, Fournier and Chandler, the Nuggets get smaller in most lineups. That's just what happens when a versatile 6'10 shooter goes down. At times Karl has liked to use big defensive lineups down the stretch with Corey Brewer as the de facto point guard to shut down opponents in big moments, but the calculus changes in the front-court without Gallinari. It's difficult to replace his combination of size and quickness with one guy, so it may come down to a give-and-take on offense and defense. A bit more of JaVale McGee and Kosta Koufos with Chandler and Iguodala against bigger teams to help with rebounds and hopefully help with interior defense. A bit more of Hamilton and Fournier against small teams, or maybe even Iguodala and Chandler as hybrid forwards, to exploit defenses and score points in bunches.
Andre Iguodala has played in big games and he should be able to provide veteran leadership along with Andre Miller when the post-season rolls around. For as good as Gallinari has been this season, it's important to remember that the Nuggets pushed the Lakers to seven games even with Gallo shooting 36.2 percent from the field and 17.4 percent from beyond the arc in the playoffs. If the depth of the roster can provide something better than that this season -- and it's a good bet they can -- the Nuggets should still be very dangerous.
Of course, this exercise all hinges on the health of Ty Lawson, who has been sidelined with a tear in his right plantar fascia. Lawson can push the offense into transition and attack the paint before the defense ever gets set, which provides Denver with a huge advantage. Andre Miller, for all his veteran charm, can't replicate much of anything that Lawson does for the team. In a way, the Gallinari injury puts a spotlight on Lawson's recovery. The delicate balance for a team without a star can withstand one injury to a top scorer, but probably not two.