With Gallo out for the season, hopes for a Nuggets playoff run dwindle

Jennifer Stewart-US PRESSWIRE

With the devastating news that Danilo Gallinari will now miss the rest of this season, JaVale McGee still sidelined indefinitely, and the Nuggets barely treading water, where do they go from here?

The toughest part of losing Gallo for the season is the confirmation of the gut feeling many of us have had for a while.

With all the positive news regarding Gallo's admirable rehab efforts, there was a glimmer of hope that he was going to make his triumphant return to the court at some point in December (perhaps December 15th), 8 months or so after his gruesome ACL injury back on April 4th, 2013. Yet as December dragged on and the Nuggets embarked upon an eight-game losing streak on December 17th with no Gallo in sight, that gnawing, bottom-dropping-out feeling grew stronger. After being 5 games over .500 at 14-9 on December 15th, the Nuggets would find themselves 3 games under .500 by the end of the year.

The Nuggets snapped their losing streak on January 3rd, defeating the Memphis Grizzlies, then reeled off four more consecutive victories. The team appeared to finally be getting on a roll, with a blowup by Andre Miller giving Brian Shaw a good reason to tighten the rotation. The team was playing solid defense while scoring with ease, attributed by Ty Lawson to Shaw's relenting on running plays every time down the floor. However, despite their improved play in the last 10 games, the Nuggets are still maddeningly inconsistent: after 8 straight losses, the Nuggets won 5 straight, then followed that up with a loss at the lowly 14-29 Utah Jazz, then somehow won on the road at Oracle against the Warriors. On TNT during last night's loss to the Portland Trailblazers, there was a neat little graphic incorporating the mountains of the Nuggets logo against a chart of their ups and downs: it pointed out that the Nuggets lost 4-5 to start, won 10 of next 12, lost 11 of next 14, won 5 straight, and have now lost 4 of their last 5. So far, it's nearly impossible to know how this team will play against any given opponent, on the road or at home. Inconsistency is the hallmark of this team.

It's easy to see: the Nuggets desperately miss the consistent 16.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game that Danilo was providing night in and night out in the 2012-2013 season. He was the team's best all-around outside shooter, and perhaps its best wing defender aside from Wilson Chandler. He provided a punch on both ends of the floor, and would definitely help shore up a Nuggets frontcourt that has been defensively atrocious this season. Gallo's unquestionably solid playmaking would also be welcomed on a squad without many shot creators, helping to get better, open looks for a team which has at times looked lost offensively.

There have been a few rays of hope to glimmer through the ongoing dark cloud of Gallo's absence. Plagued by injuries to JaVale McGee (still out indefinitely), Darrell Arthur and without a troubled Andre Miller, Brian Shaw has been forced into giving significant minutes to Timofey Mozgov and Evan Fournier. Both Mozgov and Fournier have excelled in the time allotted them by Shaw, in many ways outplaying their starting counterparts in J.J. Hickson and Randy Foye. Mozgov especially has impressed as the team's most fundamentally sound big man, becoming the defensive anchor for the team. He posted an incredible 17 point and career-high 20 rebound line against the Nets, and continues to develop as a reliable post presence on a team almost entirely lacking one. Quincy Miller and Jordan Hamilton have also seen a good deal of additional floor time they may otherwise not have seen with a healthy squad, giving the Nuggets perhaps their first real look at their potential futures as long, athletic wings.

While this certainly is not a "lost season" the way entitled Patriots or Lakers fans look at a trip to a conference championship, it in many ways still feels like one for this team. The core of Lawson, Gallinari and Chandler will all now be a year older - and closer to the end of their contracts - without real hope of making a significant deep run in the playoffs. With the offseason acquisitions of Randy Foye, Nate Robinson and J.J. Hickson, the Nuggets appear to be headed towards the Charybdis' whirlpool of mediocrity so dangerous to NBA franchises: too good for a high draft pick (despite also owning New York's this season) and too bad to have any real hope of competing in the postseason. I will continue to wonder why these acquisitions were made if the Nuggets had any inclination as to the high risk factor associated with Gallo's preferred "Healing Response" treatment and the potential to keep him out for the entire season. On TNT's broadcast last night, Craig Sager asserted that Gallo went ahead with the healing response therapy "against the wishes of the Nuggets medical staff". If they knew there was a high probability Gallo wouldn't come back due to his chosen therapy, that makes Josh Kroenke and Tim Connelly's offseason moves even more questionable.

At 3 1/2 full games behind the Dallas Mavericks for the 8th playoff spot (though they do own the tiebreaker over the Mavs) and with the toughest remaining schedule in the league, it would take an incredible run in the second half of the season for this team to even appear in the Western conference playoff picture, much less secure home court advantage. Of course, anything is possible, and the Nuggets could somehow surge enough to steal the 6th or 7th seed - it just isn't likely. Further salt in the wound is that the Nuggets must give the least favorable of theirs and New York's draft picks to Orlando as a part of the trade sending out Arron Afflalo, meaning that they run the risk of not having a single lottery selection in a loaded 2014 draft if they and the Knicks somehow manage to both squeak into the playoffs. For the good of the franchise, I believe that the Nuggets have to consider potential trades that would net them high draft picks to help build the team into the future. If that means "tanking" - at least for this season - so be it. There is simply too much stacked against this season's Nuggets team to be a true contender, and I think everyone knows it.

The Nuggets are approaching a critical juncture in which Tim Connelly and Josh Kroenke must decide how this team is to move forward. Does the organization truly believe that with a healthy return by Danilo Gallinari - no sure thing - and continued improvement by Lawson, Fournier and Mozgov, that the core is capable of competing for a championship in the next 2-3 years?

Do we?

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