I have some shocking news for Denver Nuggets fans: despite being just four games out from the Western Conference's eighth playoff spot, our beloved hometown professional basketball team probably isn't making the 2016 NBA Playoffs. A sixth-straight loss on Sunday night (at home to a crummy Portland Trail Blazers squad) and the team's ninth defeat in 10 tries means that - for the second consecutive season - sooner than later the Nuggets will need to start thinking about 2017 and 2018 rather than 2016.
And with that kind of thinking - plus the phone calls sure to be coming from opposing teams - comes consideration for parting ways with the Nuggets' best player: Danilo Gallinari.
With sincere apologies to Will Barton's ascension as a top-flight NBA reserve, Gallinari is clearly the Nuggets' MVP. Forgetting about Gallinari's shoddy sub-40% field goal percentage for a moment, the 6'10", 27-year old Italian small / power combo forward is having his best overall NBA season and is the only player on the team who would start for all 30 NBA teams.
And thus, Gallinari is the Nuggets' most trade-able player.
Off the top of my head, I can think of several NBA teams, particularly in the Eastern Conference, that would love to have Gallinari on their squad as they march towards a playoff run. Because even though the Cleveland Cavaliers appear to be the undisputed leader of that once-weak conference, just over 30 games into the 2015-16 NBA Season the Cavs haven't been able to thoroughly distance themselves from seeds two through 10. Which means that a lot of Eastern Conference teams have hope for a lengthy playoff run ... which means lots of suitors for Gallinari.
Among the Eastern Conference suitors for Gallinari are the Boston Celtics, who have reportedly coveted Gallinari before, and could use him over their current crop of small and power forwards like Jae Crowder, Evan Turner and Amir Johnson (casual NBA fans just read that sentence and collectively said: "Who?!").
What about the Indiana Pacers, who have been trotting out the undersized and underweighted Paul George at power forward and the somewhat undersized C.J. Miles at small forward for much of the season? Bring in Gallinari, start him at the four-spot, and the Pacers could still go with the small ball that they've succeeded with this season while moving George to his more natural position at small forward and Miles to the two-guard spot.
Or the Washington Wizards - who are fighting for a playoff spot - who are starting Jared Dudley and Otto Porter at small and power forward, respectively? Wouldn't the Wiz love to reunite Gallinari with Nene Hilario (when he returns from his latest injury) and feature one of the Eastern Conference's bigger front lines heading into the spring?
And lest we forget about the Miami Heat, sitting just three games back of the conference-leading Cavs, who would certainly prefer to have a (now) healthy Gallinari over their inconsistent starting small forward Luol Deng and also have Gallinari as an insurance policy for Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh's always persistent health issues. Moreover, it's fair to question how much longer the Heat want to sit among the bottom of all NBA teams when it comes to points scored per game. Gallinari's 17.5 ppg sure would come in handy in South Florida.
That was the Eastern Conference. Out West, one has to believe that the scoring-starved Memphis Grizzlies would eagerly want to add Gallinari to a roster that outputs an NBA second-worst 96.2 ppg and have the mercurial Matt Barnes starting for them at small forward. Sacramento Kings' head coach George Karl would likely salivate at the opportunity to again coach his former player rather than start Omri Casspi at power forward. And the Los Angeles Clippers' head coach / general manager Doc Rivers is always a sucker for a swingman if it helps him keep up with the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.
Were the Nuggets to decide to be sellers of Gallinari - who signed a two-year contract extension through 2018 this past summer - as the trade deadline approaches on February 18th (at 3pm eastern time to be exact), they will have ample willing trade participants to choose from and will probably fetch the most in return versus a year or so from now when Gallinari has the right to exit his deal at the conclusion of the 2016-17 season by not exercising his player option for 2017-18.
Which brings us to the bigger question here: should the Nuggets be selling their best player at all?
If the Nuggets are serious about competing for a Western Conference playoff spot in 2017, then they should probably hold onto Gallinari for now. Because there's simply no way the Nuggets compete for a playoff spot in 2017 without their best player and I can't imagine them getting anything back in trade now that would get them there. Moreover, Gallinari is only 27 and it's theoretically possible for the Nuggets to steal an All-Star caliber player with a top-10 pick rather than a top-five pick in the 2016 NBA Draft and build a contender with Gallinari on the roster for the tail end of his 20s and early 30s.
However, should the Nuggets decide to play long ball, so to speak, and focus on building for 2018 and beyond with a supremely young roster that features Emmanuel Mudiay (19 years old), Jusuf Nurkic (21), Nikola Jokic (20), Barton (24) and Joffrey Lauvergne (24), perhaps the time is now to part with their best player, knowing more losses means a better lottery selection, and accumulate even more draft picks and young players for the future. If that's the case, the Celtics - the NBA's experts at hoarding draft picks - are the best trade candidate, either as a direct trade partner or as part of a three-way deal.
Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly is staring down a dilemma that all GMs face at some point in their tenure at the helm of an NBA team. Do you forgo a few extra wins today and risk alienating both your current locker room and season ticket holders in trade for (possibly) ample playoff wins somewhere down the road? Or do you keep your best player on board knowing that you've probably forgone the opportunity to undergo a full roster rebuild through the draft?
As the suitors come in fast and furious over the next six weeks, to trade or not to trade Danilo Gallinari will be one of the toughest calls of Connelly's young career.