The Denver Nuggets are in the middle of retooling their roster. They traded Arron Afflalo and shedded JaVale McGee's salary at last season's deadline. Then this offseason their best player, Ty Lawson, was sent to Houston, marking the end of a troubled era.
Trapped in the middle of a budding youth movement are a few veterans. None is more important for the future of the team than Danilo Gallinari. Gallo could be the team's best player next season or its best trade asset. Either way, how Gallinari performs and whether he's with the Nuggets past the trade deadline will tell us a lot about the direction Denver is going.
Gallinari finished the season playing like a star
After missing the entire 2013-14 season with a knee injury, Gallinari started out slow. He looked stiff and wasn't hitting his shots. As 2015 was starting, Gallinari averaged eight points on 36 percent from the floor. Brian Shaw didn't trust him and kept him on a short leash. His contract, which was slotted to pay him $10 million in 2015-16, was looking like an albatross.
A stretch in which the team lost 18 of 20 games to start the new year cost Shaw his job. That was a turning point for most Nugget players, including Gallinari. Melvin Hunt became interim coach and the atmosphere in Denver stopped being toxic. Gallinari was starting to hit his stride at that time, finally looking in game shape. The result was an unexpected renaissance.
Over the last two months of the season Gallinari averaged 19 points, five rebounds, two assists and a steal while shooting 40 percent on three-pointers. Only 10 other players had similar numbers during that span. On those final 19 games he was the player the Nuggets thought they were getting as the centerpiece of the Carmelo Anthony trade. Gallo played like a star.
Gallinari will have a huge role next season
With Lawson gone, there aren't a lot of proven scorers in the Nuggets' roster. It's very likely new coach Michael Malone will rely on Gallinari to be the first option on offense while Mudiay gets used to the faster speed of the game and Jusuf Nurkic returns from injury. His job, along with Wilson Chandler's and Kenneth Faried's, will be to make the transition easy for the rookies and young players by easing the pressure to be productive right away.
Gallinari has showed flashes of potential as a featured player in the past. He's not a ball-dominant star who can provide volume scoring consistently but he can go off at any time. The last stretch of last season was further proof that he can carry a heavy offensive load on at least a mediocre team. He's a streakier shooter than many would think but he's always a threat and he can get himself to the line thanks to a herky-jerky driving style and a penchant for drawing contact.
He's also a decent defender who uses his length to make up for his lack of elite speed in isolation situations, ranking in the 71st percentile in the league in that setting, per Synergy Sports. He's diligent when he has to close out on shooters, which explains why opponents shot five percentage points worse from beyond the arc when Gallo was the closest defender. He's not a lockdown guy but he can play heavy minutes without hurting his team on the defensive end.
At least on paper, Gallinari will the Nuggets' best player next season and will have plenty of chances to prove that the that final stretch wasn't a fluke.
Gallo will be a hot commodity at the trade deadline
The Nuggets used their cap space to renegotiate Gallo's contract, giving him a raise next season and adding two years to a deal that would have expired after 2015-16. The extension makes it impossible to trade him until February.
That works out perfectly for Denver. They will have Gallinari when they need him most: to start the season. It's highly unlikely the Nuggets shock the world and stay in the playoff hunt but there's no harm in making sure that they don't have a chance before making any moves. If as the trade deadline approaches it's obvious they are lottery bound, they can then look to rid themselves of long term commitments and go fully into rebuilding mode.
If Gallinari continues to perform like he did to end the season, there will be plenty of suitors. Solid two-way players always have them. The Grizzlies were interested before the extension and will surely be in the mix if they don't make a move sooner. The race to the lower playoff spots in the East is expected to be close and teams will be looking for any edge they can get. The Celtics have been linked to him in the past. Eric Gordon shot well last season but the Pelicans might be looking to get longer in the perimeter. Those are just some potential options.
Gallinari's contract is also a plus. The player option in the third year is not ideal but the dollar number is fitting for a player of his level. $14 million represents 20 percent of the cap this year, which looks like a lot. If projections hold, however, his future salary will represent 17 percent of the cap on 2016-17 and 15 percent in 2017-18. That's perfectly acceptable for a starter or a super sub during his prime.
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Next season will be a big one for Denver. It will show the front office the direction it needs to take. If Mudiay is as good as he looked in Summer League, Gallinari could be the scorer the squad needs to remain relevant in the short term. If a longer rebuild is in store, he should fetch the Nuggets an asset to kick-start it.
After two years spent in obscurity, Gallinari emerged late last season as the talented player he was before his injury ordeal. Now he might be ready to take the next step, whether with the Nuggets or elsewhere.