There’s a lot of talk about the youth that dominates the Denver Nuggets roster and for good reason. Currently Denver has seven guaranteed contracts on players age 22 or younger, six of those are first round draft picks...and the other is Nikola Jokic. Yet, despite the fountain of youth, Danilo Gallinari made it clear on media day when he said the quote above that this is still his team. Nevermind the emergence of Jokic, or the acquisition of shapr shooters like Jamal Murray and Malik Beasley, forget the sudden rise of Will Barton or the raw talent of Emmanuel Mudiay, when it comes to the discussion of whose the best player on the roster it unequivocally starts and ends with Gallo. He’s not alone when it comes to veteran talent either. As Denver Stiffs gets into the top five players in our #NuggetsRank series Gallo and the other two hold overs from the Masai Ujiri era, Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried, are going to dominate the top of the list. However, the only way the Nuggets can ride that talent to the playoffs is if all three players manage to get on the court together.
For Gallinari the reason why he still is viewed as the best player on the team is simple: production. With no Ty Lawson in the picture and finally a clean bill of health (untuiul a sprained ankle cost him the last month of the season), Gallo put up his best stats in points, rebounds and minutes (his assists numbers were close to his best as well), though his increased usage came with a corresponding drop in efficiency. Nonetheless, Gallo’s ability to carry the scoring burden for the Nuggets last season made him the focal point of the offense. As he heads into his ninth year in the NBA there’s also no secret about the most important stat he needs to achieve: games played. Gallinari has topped seventy games in a season just once in a Nuggets uniform, and that was the season that ended with a torn ACL. He was vocal on media day about his need to stay healthy, he understands he has to be on the court to lead this team. He also knows he needs his top running mate healthy too.
Wilson Chandler spent the entire season in street clothes last year, an exercise he said was “super painful..but made me stronger.” No doubt when he was given the news that he once again would require hip surgery it was devastating. Chandler had spent the 2015 offseason as a gym rat and his hard work looked like it was paying off with an impressive showing in the preseason where he nearly averaged a double-double in just twenty-six minutes a game while flashing an ever improving range that had him shooting above league average from the three point line.
Indeed, Chandler and Gallo offer versatility on offense and defense with their combination of athleticism, length, range and strength that makes them ideal complements to each other. Unfortunately they also seem to rarely play together. In fact, the last time they played more than 75% of a season on the court together was 2009-2010 (79%, the most ever). This season however both players enter fully healthy and ready to take the bulk of the small forward minutes and some power forward minutes too. The two will be called upon to lead the team in scoring and in veteran leadership What is still unclear though is will they have their long tenured teammate in the front-court with them.
Kenneth Faried has provided a unique skillset to the Nuggets for the past five seasons as a hyper energetic, athletic finisher with elite offensive rebounding skills. Faried gobbles up rebounds and put backs/alley oops at such an impressive rate that if he were ever to get more than his average twenty-five minutes a game he would almost assuredly average a double double. Therein lies the rub with the Manimal though, his defensive deficiencies and limited offensive skill set make it difficult to keep him on the court for extended periods of time, so much so that he’s now embroiled in a position battle that may or may not have a pre-determined starter that may or may not be Faried. Meanwhile, ever persistent trade rumors swirl around his name. With the status of Darrall Arthur’s knee looking murky though the Nuggets may have no choice but to lean on Faried just as much as they will Gallinari and Chandler.
While all eyes are sure to be locked on Jokic, Mudiay and Murray when the season opens, it’ll be Gallo, Ill Will and the Manimal who determine if the team has a chance to contend for the meaningful basketball in late April. While the youngsters will no doubt provide some much needed talent, shooting and athleticism, the playoffs, something Chandler and Gallinari explicitly mentioned as the goal for this season, require production and veteran presence. The Nuggets have enough of it to get the job done, but they don’t have enough of it to overcome a rash of injuries like they’ve experienced of the past several season.