There’s an abundance of items on general manager Tim Connelly’s to-do list this summer, which includes, but isn’t limited to the No. 13 pick in the upcoming draft, an extension for rising two-guard Gary Harris, a fresh contract for restricted free agent Mason Plumlee, and what to do at the point guard position where the Nuggets are overloaded with three primary ball handlers in Jamal Murray, Jameer Nelson, and Emmanuel Mudiay.
Another action item, and one that will likely draw more fanfare and attention around the league than the other three is unrestricted free agent Danilo Gallinari, who will reportedly decline his $16.1 million player option for the 2017-18 season and test the waters of unrestricted free agency for the first time in his eight-year career.
Gallinari’s spent the last 5.5 seasons in Denver. The 29-year-old has love for the Mile High City, a place he says he wants to permanently call home when his playing days eventually draw to a close. When he signed a two-year, $34 million extension with Denver in 2015 — the summer the Nuggets hired Michael Malone — Gallinari said he “was very happy” to stay in Denver. He’s a fan of the organization and a fan of the city.
Over those 5.5 seasons, Gallinari has played in a fitting 303 regular season games with the Nuggets but just 12 playoff matchups. He helped lead Denver to the third seed in the Western Conference and 57 wins in 2013 before tearing his left ACL. He’s battled back from countless injuries, went through three different coaching staffs and stayed committed through Brian Shaw‘s two forgettable seasons. Gallinari then carried the load in Malone’s first season at the helm in Denver and watched as the Nuggets gradually transitioned into a Nikola Jokic-lead attack this past year.
Gallinari has grown up with the Nuggets. He’s a much different player and person from the spry 23-year-old that arrived in Denver in February 2011 from New York. Gallinari’s been through it all inside the walls of Pepsi Center, but this summer it’s time for the Nuggets to move on, flip the page and go forward without their longest-tenured player.
The first-time unrestricted free agent controls his market this summer. Unlike Plumlee’s restricted free agency status where Denver can match any team’s contract proposal, Gallinari’s camp can field offers from any organization with a sufficient amount of cap room and sign where he pleases.
And Gallinari will be a wanted man. The Celtics and Clippers, two teams who have had rumored interest in the swingman over the past two seasons, make sense for the small forward. As does Houston, who’s looking to bridge the gap between themselves and Golden State. Middling eastern conference franchises like Miami or Toronto could look at Gallinari as the piece that gets them to within a move or two of a competitive series with Cleveland.
The Nuggets will make an offer too. Sure, Denver should try and retain Gallinari’s services, but only if he’s willing to sign a market or team-friendly deal. But don’t hold your breath. Gallinari’s camp is looking for a four-year deal and one that will pay him, upwards of $100 million, according to Nuggets’ color commentator Scott Hastings, who’s made that claim multiple times on Altitude radio over the past two weeks.
Gallinari probably won’t get $25 million per year but his name will quickly rise to the top of teams’ wish lists as top-tier free agents in their primes take the five-year maximum contracts that only their current clubs can offer. Denver would be wise to avoid a bidding war that will eventually breach the $20 million mark.
The Nuggets needs to flip the page, move on from Gallinari and let him flourish elsewhere. He’s put in the time in Denver and deserves an opportunity to win elsewhere. Maybe even contend for a championship for the first time in his career, something he could be able to do in a city like Boston or Houston.
Of course, there’s a case for keeping Gallinari in Denver. When he’s healthy, Gallinari’s an elite offensive player. He logged 63 games last season, the most he’s played since 2013 and posted the most efficient offensive season of his career.
Gallinari scored 0.97 points per possession last season in isolation situations according to NBA.com and placed in the 75th percentile of the league in that category. He got the free throw line 15.6 percent of the time last year when isolated which was the 11th best mark in the league out of players with more than 120 ISO’s. He’s a rim-charging bull with no fear on the offensive end of the floor — that’s been the one constant for Gallinari when healthy.
But the amount of ISO possessions Gallinari had last season plummeted by 55 despite the 10 more games he played in last season compared to 2016. It’s a direct effect of Jokic and Denver shifting away from a reliance on Gallinari to initiate and control the offense towards an attack that preaches ball and player movement — not straight isolations.
Give credit to Gallinari for changing his game and adapting to Jokic. As a result of the reduced isolations, Gallinari saw his field goal attempts in catch-and-shoot situations go from 222 in 2016 to 309 last season, and he shot a 44.7 percent from the field and 38.9 percent from three on the year, the highest marks since his debut season in 2009.
The numbers show that Gallinari was willing to adapt his offensive flow, most likely due to Jokic but also to save his body from clashing with 7-footers at the rim. It’s something his potential suitors have taken notice of and it makes him more appealing as an off-ball player.
Replacing Gallinari and his 18.2 points per game won’t be easy, as Joel Rush detailed on BSNDenver.com earlier this month. Jokic, Murray, Harris, and Chander along with Denver’s bench mob will be counted on for more production. However, they’re more than capable. Murray is in for a big jump in year two. Harris’ toolbox seems to gain more inventory with every minute he plays. You know what you’re getting from Chandler, Will Barton, and Co.
The Nuggets can ease the loss of Gallinari’s with those already on their roster and at times last year Denver showed they can plug-and-play their rotation around Jokic and still post a league-leading offensive efficiency. But Denver, with just $55 million in committed salary for next season, can also replace some of his production through free agency if they so choose.
Denver’s issues on defense were well documented last season, and their defensive deficiencies will surely be addressed this summer. The Nuggets need a defensive upgrade on the wing and Gallinari has slipped on that end of the floor in recent years as injuries seem to have sapped some of his quickness.
Both the Nuggets and Gallinari need a change. Denver needs to upgrade their defense and move on from someone who’s been a staple at the small forward position for the last five seasons, while Gallinari deserves to move on to a contender that’s looking to take that next step.
It will be tough to replace his production on offense and if the Gallinari does move his talents out of Denver, Chandler will likely have a more defined and consistent role, something he was unhappy about last year.
Breaking up after 5.5 years together is tough for everyone involved. Your routine and day-to-day life, which has been second-nature for what seems like forever, is suddenly thrown off its axis. But the Nuggets and Gallinari need to move on, for both parties’ sake.