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Top five players (determined by PER) on the top five teams in the NBA (determined by winning percentage) are Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, LeBron James, Dwight and … Danilo Gallinari.
Seems odd, right? It must be noted that Gallinari’s PER is lower than all of those players but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s performing like the best player on a top five team in the NBA. And after 36 games with the Denver Nuggets, Gallinari was rewarded with a four-year, $42 million extension yesterday.
Gallinari’s extension is the third long-term commitment the Nuggets have made since the lockout ended, and it’s hard to disagree with any of them. Giving a 29-year old Nene $13 million every season until 2016 may be a bit risky, but the Nuggets needed a big man that could effectively carry an offense in spots and he fills that need. The other long-term deal the Nuggets handed out was to Arron Afflalo, who is the ultimate glue player at the shooting guard position.
With those three locked in for a few years, the only big moves that the Nuggets will have to make in the future – other than dealing with restricted free agent Wilson Chandler when he comes back to the states, though it seems like it’d be impossible for them to match any offers at this point – involves their two point guards.
Ty Lawson, who has looked like an all-star this season and is a big reason Denver gets out on the break so often, will be up for an extension next year. Denver will likely have to find someone to take on Al Harrington’s slightly expensive and long-term deal while also amnestying Chris Andersen this summer in order to free up room for Lawson’s deal, which should cost something close to $9 million a year. Keeping veteran Andre Miller around will be key, too, as Denver’s two point guard look with Lawson and Miller has been killer this season (Lawson/Miller/Gallinari/Harrington/Nene has been their best line-up). Miller will soon be 36 years old and he’s made over $70 million off of contracts during his career. Would he give Denver a hometown discount? He sure loves playing for George Karl.
If Denver is able to get Lawson to stick around long-term, they’ll be looking at a nice core of Lawson, Afflalo, Gallinari and Nene with rookies Kenneth Faried and Jordan Hamilton being locked in until 2015 if Denver picks up their team options. Throw in players X and Y from the draft and from future signings (veteran’s minimum and MLE) and with Karl at the helm, that’s a group that can continue to compete in the Western Conference. And the best part about that group?
There’s not a single superstar in the bunch.
Hit the jump for the rest of Mark’s piece…
The Nuggets tried the whole “have a superstar lead your team in scoring thing” and it didn’t end very well. Well, actually it ended pretty darn well as they turned that superstar, Carmelo Anthony, into three key rotation players. Now Denver is one of the few teams in the league having success operating without a superstar. Along with Philadelphia, Indiana and Portland, Denver has been tremendous this season not because they have someone that can play hero ball late in games like Oklahoma City or Miami or Los Angeles, but because they have 10 different players that can contribute at any point in time.
They’ve combined their extreme depth with a up tempo style that no other team in the league can rival. They lead the league in possessions per game with 98.5, which is slightly up from their 98.0 pace from last season. The difference between the Nuggets and the other teams that push the ball is that they are efficient when they rush up the floor. Rather than settling for jumpers with 20 seconds left in the shot clock, the Nuggets are simply beating teams down the floor off of rebounds and getting easy buckets in transition. The three teams that follow Denver in possessions per game (New York, Cleveland and Washington) rank 22nd, 23rd and 30th, respectively, in offensive efficiency. Denver ranks fourth. According to 82games.com, 41% of Denver’s shots come within the first 10 seconds of their possessions. And if you take a long jumper? It’s rarely takes them more than five seconds.
Gallinari has been vital in the execution of Denver’s gameplan. Gallo’s size allow the Nuggets to play small, giving them more speed to get out and run. He’s played 47% of Denver’s total minutes at small forward this season and 20% of their total minutes at power forward. Gallinari is also an expert at leaking out after if his man takes a jumper and outside of the lay-up he blew against the Lakers that cost the Nuggets the game back on New Year’s Day, he’s been excellent at the rim. He’s averaging a career high 4.1 shots at the rim this season and he’s making 65% of them, which is above the league average. And his effort on the defensive end has actually been a plus, save for his performance against a few select power forwards that he never had a chance against.
Even more important than Gallinari’s ability to get out and run the floor are his improvements in the halfcourt, and it’s those improvements that netted him his extension. Gallinari is known by that stems solely from his 44% three-point percentage in his rookie season, which was made up of only 28 games. Other than that, Gallinari has been rather mediocre from three-point land (he’s only at 31% this year) and only slightly above average from 16-23 feet. You wouldn’t think it by looking at him, but Gallinari is actually one of the league’s very best attackers.
Of players that are averaging at least 25 minutes per game, Gallinari ranks sixth in free throw rate. The only non-center above him on the list is James Harden, which means he has a higher free throw rate than LeBron James, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin and so on. When you have a player that has so adept at drawing fouls and is at least a three-point threat, you get an efficient scorer. Gallinari ranks fourth behind only Ray Allen, Hedo Turkoglu and LeBron James in true shooting percentage for swingmen and he only sits behind James and Kevin Durant in PER for small forwards.
Gallinari isn’t an elite scorer, but on a team like Denver’s, one that leads the league in assist rate, he doesn’t need to be. Gallinari doesn’t need to be able to catch the ball in the pinch post, stare down his defender and shoot a contested 18-footer. We’ve become increasingly aware just how bad those shots are, so when Denver dealt Carmelo, they ditched the inefficient offensive habits, too.
Want proof of that? Well, the Nuggets are last in the league in 16-23 footers attempted per game, with an average of just 12.9. Carmelo himself is averaging 6.6 shots from that range himself this season. And guess who leads the league in attempts per game at the rim. Go ahead, guess. If you guessed “the Denver Nuggets,” you are right. Denver is taking 33.2 shots at the rim per game this season, nearly six more than the second place team (Memphis).
This is a team that works to get the ball into the paint. This is a team that works the ball around the perimeter to force the defenders to guard five players on a single possession. This is a team that scored 92 points in the paint in an NBA game last night. Sure, it was against the Sacramento Kings, but when you make four baskets outside of the paint and score 122 points, you know your offense is awesome.
With such an efficient plan in place, the Nuggets don’t need a superstar. They just need cohesion. And with a core of Lawson, Andre Miller, Arron Afflalo, Nene, Timofey Mozgov (he’s tall), (dare I say) Al Harrington, Corey Brewer, Rudy Fernandez, Chris Andersen and Gallinari, they have that in spades.
And I’m not sure you can say the same thing about Carmelo’s new team. Or his old one, for that matter.