Predicting the impact of Danilo Gallinari’s season-ending knee injury on Denver’s playoff hopes is one of the trickiest bits of analysis the NBA’s roulette wheel of injury luck has given us this season. The Nuggets might be one of the league’s deepest teams, full of wing types ready to sop up Gallinari’s minutes and ballhandling duties. But one of those wing types, the scorching Wilson Chandler, didn’t become a big-minutes fixture in George Karl’s rotation until mid-January — one of many in-season quirks that leaves us with dangerously small sample sizes almost everywhere we look. And an even more important Denver player, Ty Lawson, is dealing with plantar fasciitis. He might not return until the playoffs, and his health will be in question when he does take the court again.
The Nuggets, it seems, are determined to confound conventional wisdom, even by accident. The numbers, as John Schuhmann of NBA.com noted last week, are encouraging, even though Denver has played much better ball on both sides of the floor with Gallinari on the court. Denver has destroyed opponents while playing small-ball, with either Gallinari or Chandler at power forward, and the Chandler versions of those lineups have worked like gangbusters in a smaller sample of minutes. The Nuggets have outscored opponents by a gigantic margin — nearly 15 points per 100 possessions, much better than Oklahoma City’s league-leading mark — when the wing trio of Chandler, Andre Iguodala, and Corey Brewer has shared the floor, per NBA.com.
Those three wings will make up the core of Denver’s small-ball units now, with a point guard and a big man bookending things. Those lineups have thrived, mostly thanks to an ultra-stingy defense and an insane ability to force turnovers; Denver opponents have coughed it up on 18.8 percent of possessions when the six arms belonging to Chandler, Iguodala, and Brewer are disrupting passing lanes, a rate of forcing turnovers that would lead the league by a decent margin, per NBA.com. Karl told Grantland late Monday night that he plans to go small as often as normal, even without Gallinari, in part because he believes the Nuggets’ offense can survive the loss of Gallinari’s all-around game — and his outside shooting, a rare commodity in Denver — by forcing heaps of turnovers and getting out on the break. “The only positive here is that with Wilson playing 30 to 35 minutes, we are a better defensive team,” Karl says. “We need to create offense with defense. If we can consistently get at least 20 points off turnovers, our offense will be fine.”
Brewer, always reaching for steals and leaking out for fast breaks, will be a key to that. And in the short-term, Anthony Randolph will get a chance to fill some of the power-forward minutes, as well. In news that will shock just about anyone who has watched Randolph play, Karl calls the perpetual project Denver’s “best big pick-and-roll defender,” at least when it comes to using his speed to attack ball handlers, trap them, and force more of those delicious opponent turnovers. “With Anthony and Corey Brewer, the way they run around, sometimes it doesn’t really make any sense,” Karl says. “But sometimes it kicks ass.”
Either Randolph or Evan Fournier will likely lose his rotation spot when Lawson returns, and Karl says Fournier is in the lead to keep the minutes he’s earned with his strong play of late at backup point guard. That itself is a sign that Karl is committed to going small in his customary doses. It’s also a reminder that Lawson might be the real key here, at least when it comes to Denver winning a first-round series in which it will likely have home-court advantage, and at least pushing a Western Conference heavyweight in the second round. The numbers suggest that Denver should be able to do that without Gallinari, provided Lawson returns at something like top form.
“If we get Ty back at 80 percent, I think we’re going to be fine,” Karl says. “I think we have enough pieces, and that we can do it like we’ve been doing it all year — with some defense, with our little lineups, and with old man Andre [Miller] at the point.”
Karl isn’t sure Lawson will reach 80 percent, though. “That’s the variable people aren’t talking enough about,” he says. “Will Ty be at 60 percent? Seventy percent?” Karl hopes to get Lawson into one or two games before the playoffs, he says. “I don’t want to put him in a playoff game without even playing on an NBA court for weeks before.”
And these are really the only firm stances I’m prepared to take on the Gallo-less Nuggets right now:
• If they get Lawson back at something close to 100 percent, they should have enough to get by Golden State or Houston, provided they clinch the no. 3 spot. Things get dicier if they fall into the no. 4/no. 5 bracket. Although if Denver maintains home-court advantage, they’d be at least an even-money bet to beat Memphis or the Clippers.
• If Lawson is out or severely limited, Denver's vulnerable against any first-round opponent, even a Golden State or Houston team that would have to win at least one game in Denver, where the Nuggets are 35-3 and generally terrifying. We just don’t know quite enough about a Denver team without both Lawson and Gallinari. Only 11 of the 51 Denver lineups that have logged at least 15 minutes this season lack both players, and several of those lineups feature fringe rotation guys (Jordan Hamilton, Timofey Mozgov) unlikely to see real minutes in the playoffs, per NBA.com. The Nuggets are a solid +49 in 433 minutes with those 11 lineups on the floor, and that’s encouraging. But only two of those lineups have logged more than 40 minutes together, and the lineup Denver started against Houston on Saturday had appeared in exactly zero games before this season.
As I’ve written before, Denver’s star-less offense has actually been very good in “clutch” situations this season, and if you watch the video of all those late-game possessions, you’ll see the Lawson/Gallinari pick-and-roll has been the closest thing the Nuggets have had to a go-to late-game set. The Lawson/Chandler pick-and-roll (or pick-and-pop) has been a nice substitute, but if you remove both main players, Denver will have to look elsewhere — probably to Prof. Miller or Iguodala — for late-game offense in the half court. And we just don’t really know how that would go.
And that’s really it, as far as firm stances go. This is one of those situations where the numbers — the stats that show Denver might survive just fine without Gallinari, provided Lawson plays well — make me a bit queasy. That Nuggets team would clearly be very good, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Gallinari injury created a trickle-down effect that's hard to perceive now but could emerge against top playoff competition. My gut feeling, based on watching this team all season and crunching the numbers, is that Gallinari’s injury pushes Denver’s ceiling from legitimate potential threat to win the conference to likely second-round out.
Again, the numbers are encouraging, and Denver has a bunch of guys who should combine to approximate Gallinari’s production. Chandler is shooting a career-best 40.8 percent from deep, and his emergence as an above-average 3-point shooter means that Denver should be able to maintain its precarious spacing simply by giving Chandler more minutes, provided Chandler isn’t heading for some nasty regression to the mean. Lawson and Iguodala can take on Gallinari’s ball-handling duties, but that’s where things start to get dicey. Chandler and Brewer aren’t really ball handlers capable of running a pick-and-roll or consistently taking guys off the bounce in one-on-one situations. Both have off-the-dribble skills, but those are mostly limited to plays where they come flying off a pin-down screen or (in Chandler’s case) catch the ball on a quick-hitting pick-and-pop.
In other words, Brewer and Chandler generally need someone else to do some of the heavy lifting before they engage in their own shot creation. Karl and his staff have added more variety and complexity to Denver’s sets over the last few weeks to engineer that heavy lifting, and Chandler's gotten a lot better at quick-dribble attacks out of the pick-and-pop — often with the aid of a wily push-off:
But if these guys are running pick-and-rolls or creating on their own late in the shot clock, Denver will be in trouble. Karl admits that much of the Gallinari shot-creation responsibility will fall now to Iguodala. “He has to take the vast majority of Gallinari’s decision-making,” Karl says of Iguodala. “You’re not going to add that to Corey Brewer’s plate — that’s not his forte.”
Iguodala is a very nice player in this regard. He’s a solid off-the-dribble guy who attacks angles well, and he might be the most underrated passer in the league; he’s dished at least six assists in five straight games, including a 14-assist gem against Houston on Saturday, and he’s a dynamite passer in transition. But he’s better at getting to the rim and into the teeth of a defense after some motion stuff has set him up to do so — a pin-down screen, or one of those three-man-weave-style plays Karl spoke to Grantland about a couple of months ago. (Note: That link contains video of said plays.) Good defenses can contain Iguodala in more static situations, including a high pick-and-roll, and often force him into midrange jump shots — attempts Iguodala doesn’t hit at a profitable rate.
Denver’s system is designed to minimize those static situations and give all of its ball handlers, including Iguodala, a head start into the paint via these screening actions, or by having a teammate scramble the defense with drive-and-kick that ends with a pass to Iguodala.
But the very best defenses, playing on high alert, can disrupt some of that action and force teams into more standard NBA pick-and-roll fare as the shot clock dwindles. And that’s where Denver might miss Gallinari, and especially Gallinari’s ability to draw fouls. Gallinari has earned nearly 5.5 free throws per 36 minutes, the highest figure among all Denver players. The Nuggets are a poor 3-point shooting team that faces occasional spacing issues, and free throws are an important source of points for them, even though Denver is shooting an abysmal 69.8 percent from the line. With Gallinari on the floor, Denver gets to the line at a rate that would trail only Oklahoma City and the Lakers, per NBA.com, and the Lakers get an artificial boost from Hack-A-Howard. When Gallinari sits, Denver gets to the line at about a league-average rate.
Even though some numbers suggest the Nuggets can maintain their same level of play on both ends of the floor without Gallinari, I’m worried that won’t quite be the case, and that whatever small drop-off happens on offense will be enough to shift Denver from contender to non-contender. (I’m not calling them a “pretender”; they're far too good for that.) This is still a so-so defensive team, after all, one that probably tops out as slightly above league-average; they're not going to turn into Indiana or Memphis, especially with Karl encouraging the sorts of passing-lane gambles that lead to a lot of open 3's when they go bad.
The relevant sample size of non-Gallinari success, and especially of non-Gallinari small-ball success, is still relatively small, and hinges in part on Chandler continuing to shoot what might be an unsustainable percentage from 3-point range. And Gallinari’s injury robs Denver of what might have been its most potent player combination: the ultra-versatile Gallinari-Chandler pairing, which gave Karl all sorts of options and allowed Denver to roll out lineups that were simultaneously small (i.e., without a traditional power forward) and huge on the wings. The Nuggets outscored opponents by 14.3 points per 100 possessions in the 358 minutes those two played together, the largest positive margin for any of the 62 Denver player pairs to have logged at least 75 minutes this season, per NBA.com.
Gallinari’s injury isn’t a death sentence. If the matchups break right and a team above Denver in the standings suffers an upset loss or an injury, the Nuggets could easily find themselves in the conference finals. But they’ll probably need help to get that far now. And if Lawson is out or playing like a shell of himself, things change completely. The Nuggets, then, are the latest sad reminder of how important luck is in determining the NBA champion.