The unfortunate news came down yesterday: Wilson Chandler's hip pain turned out to be another labrum tear, this time on his other hip, ending his season before it ever really began. As Michael Malone said yesterday after the game:
"It's a Huge loss. My thoughts are with Wilson. He completely dedicated himself to the game and to the team this summer. He had so much invested in this season, and he was so excited to be here, he wanted to be here and be a part of the change. And for that to be taken away from him so early is devastating to Wilson and devastating to the entire organization because that's the kind of individual Wilson Chandler is. So first and foremost my thoughts are with Wilson just as a man, because I know how much he cares about this team and all of his teammates... He was going to be a very big part of what we were going to do this year."
While Wilson heads under the knife and toward 6 months of recovery time, it leaves the Nuggets with a huge hole in both veteran leadership and production. Chandler was expected to backup Danilo Gallinari but also log a significant chunk of minutes playing next to him, with Gallo taking over point forward duties at the 4. Wilson was also Denver's most versatile defender, able to cover wings or bigs handily and making our switching defense on screens more effective.
Malone talked up the effectiveness of the presumed Gallo-Chandler pairing even in the preseason:
"I want to get a look at how Wilson and Gallo play together at the three and four," Malone said. "Obviously we saw Will Barton and Mike Miller do it well in Boulder. We’ll give different guys a different opportunity, who plays well together, who may not play well together, but we will be a team that plays small ball almost every game."
Without Chandler's presence, how do the Nuggets fill all those holes?
First, Denver will need to secure the backup small forward position. To that end, they already covered their bases by signing Kostas Papanikolaou to a partially guaranteed contract worth $800k this year and with an option at $980k for next year. Papanikolaou is not Chandler's equal defensively, but he can rebound at a decent level, has good passing instincts and has shown at least glimpses of a nifty outside touch in very limited minutes so far. A good summer write-up of his NBA strengths and weaknesses can be found in this fanpost. He needs to work on his strength level, as most European players do, but he has promise as a backup (and could make the Ty Lawson trade look much better with a good growth year).
Since Denver is one Gallinari injury from starting 6'5, 180 pound Will Barton at the 3, however, the Nuggets need to decide if that's enough. They could package a couple of the bench veterans (Darrell Arthur, J.J. Hickson, Randy Foye) for a bench small forward and bring Erick Green back as the emergency point guard, but that's hard to do with Jusuf Nurkic and Joffrey Lauvergne suffering their own injury recovery woes. The Nuggets almost certainly don't want to move legitimate assets to fill a temporary hole, not in a growth season for all their young players. Another backup 3 would have to come cheaply, for disposable assets - and likely would have to wait for the Nuggets to get their full complement of healthy players back on the court.
Second, they will need to adjust their eventual defensive plans. It's unlikely any replacement for Chandler can do what was expected of him: cover shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards, while bodying up centers if he had to in order to apply the Nuggets defensive principles. There's a reason he was mentioned every trade deadline by writers looking to get him onto a different contender. Wilson was the screws that Malone planned to put to opposing lineups, and was the defensive key to Denver's small-ball forays as he could lock down any assignment that came his way. He's an under-the-radar player, but a key component to even our best teams. Chandler is also a good defensive rebounder and those will have to be gobbled up by another player. Emmanuel Mudiay and Will Barton are both decent defensive rebounders from the guard position, and will need to continue to help in that regard. Without one man to cover up the flaws on the defensive end, all the Nuggets will have to improve their rotations and energy.
Third, the Nuggets will need another player who can help Gallinari get better looks. From a 2013 Grantland article on Wilson:
Gallinari is typically asked to break down defenders off the bounce, creating a shot for himself or starting a drive-and-kick series that leads to a good shot for a teammate. Against opposing small forwards — who are typically quicker — the Italian forward has trouble creating separation. Put a slower frontcourt player on Gallinari and the odds of success increase dramatically... Gallinari has a PER of just 14.7 when manning the small-forward position. Move him to the 4, though, and that number explodes to an All-Star level PER of 20.7. When Chandler is in the game, Gallinari — the bigger and more powerful of the two players — is often checked by the opposition’s power forward. This is a huge boost for Denver’s offense given its style of play in the half court...
Chandler's ability to defend 4s from the small forward position let the Nuggets deploy two incredibly versatile 3s, one in Gallo who would destroy bigger men on offense, and the other, Chandler, who would do the dirty work on defense and on the boards. We haven't gotten to see much of it because both men are almost never healthy at the same time, but that was an asset that Malone was looking forward to deploying. Gallinari's struggles against Portland highlighted some of his issues against those long, quick 3s.
He still doesn't seem to have all his lateral quickness back after his knee surgery, and he isn't a good enough shooter to simply stand on the perimeter. It's a waste of Gallinari's total skillset. The bench options are more geared toward keeping him at the 3, however, as Joffrey Lauvergne and Nikola Jokic will demand front-court time as the season progresses. The benefit to those big men over Hickson and Arthur is that the Europeans can shoot. They can help Gallinari get into the paint and show off his scoring touch by displaying their range drawing their defenders out. They can also handle the larger 4s that give Gallo defensive trouble, especially as Jokic gains strength during the season.
Bottom line: the Nuggets don't have any one player who can replace every single thing Chandler did. His skillset is fairly unique, and it will take a group effort to compensate for the loss. The Golden State Warriors have Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala who bring singluar collections of skills to the table and make them an even tougher matchup. Chandler was our version of that. We'll have to uncover some other special talents in our young bench players to make up for it, and hope Wilson gets healthy for next year.
Best of luck to him - he will definitely be missed.