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Saying goodbye to Denver Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari

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Danilo Gallinari’s time in Denver was defined by one drive, but it shouldn’t be

NBA: Orlando Magic at Denver Nuggets Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Carmelo Anthony jogged back down the floor of Madison Square Garden, jawing to his opponent as the two embroiled themselves in a back and forth scoring showdown, trading bucket for bucket. Melo was a superstar in the league, his team was heading down the stretch run of the season battling to maintain their position as a two seed and yet, he couldn’t seem to shake this less heralded opponent. Every time Melo swished a jumper after his trade mark jab step, his counterpart would rise up and bury a three pointer of his own. It was quite evident early on that this player wasn’t going to back down, despite Melo’s prowess. In fact it was quite the opposite, he seemed to feed off of the match up. This gangly European kid was determined to show he was up to the task of going toe to toe with the league’s best scorer, and after putting up 28 points in a New York Knicks win, everyone in Denver was trying to figure out how this relative unknown had just bested their superstar one on one in a crucial road game. The player? Danilo Gallinari.

For most Denver Nuggets fans, this was their first exposure to Gallo and at the time it seemed very unlikely that the two combatants of the scoring duel would be wearing opposite jersey’s less than a year later, but that’s just what happened. After then Nuggets coach George Karl had to take leave from the season due to cancer treatment, Denver would sputter, fall all the way to the four seed and lose in the first round to an underwhelming Utah Jazz team. Just a few months after that Melo let it be known he wanted out of Denver and the team was thrust into a course of action to try and bring back some return to usher in the next era of Nuggets basketball. As with all superstar trades, the Nuggets wouldn’t be getting back a caliber of player on the level of Melo, but rather a cadre of young players and picks. The highlight of the package Denver would receive from the Knicks was none other than that gangly European kid. Then, just his second game in a Nuggets jersey, Gallo put up 30 points on the Blazers and everyone was hooked. The Melo era was over, and the Gallinari era was here.

Denver finished out that season still trying to figure out what they were going to be doing with this new group of players. They were again unceremoniously dumped in the first round by a division rival, this time by the Oklahoma City Thunder, and it wasn’t really clear whether Gallo or Ty Lawson was going to be the player who defined this next era of Nuggets basketball. The NBA entered the next season in a lockout and Gallo went home to Italy to keep playing. When the NBA resumed play it was once again a question of whose team was it, Gallo’s or Lawson’s? Internally, the Nuggets really never worried about it. Karl was preaching a team game and everyone seemed to be buying in. Still, there was something very special about Gallo. He had quickness and vision on the level of guard, but at 6’10” his size created a match up nightmare for everyone on the perimeter. There was a game against the Memphis Grizzlies where Gallo acted as the primary ball handler and crossed up his defender so bad the whole crowd stood back and awed. He finished the play with a sweet no look dish to Chris Andersen. It was this type of playmaking that led people to believe Gallo was the next star player to wear a Nuggets jersey.

However, that same season Denver found themselves matched up against a powerful Los Angeles Lakers team. After falling down 3-1 the Nuggets would come storming back to stretch the series out to game 7, but Gallo struggled the entire time. He cracked twenty points just once, and had one of the worst games of his career on the final game of the series, a loss which sealed Denver’s fate as a first round exit once again. That’s when the whispers started. There was a belief that the Nuggets would go as Lawson went and Gallo was just another player along for the ride. At this point in his career he was a solid scorer, versatile and a decent defender, but people wondered if Gallo, who had once again missed about a third of the season, was truly going to be the guy to lead Denver to greener pastures. They wouldn’t wonder for long.

The 2012-2013 season brought about optimism in Denver. The Nuggets had acquired Andre Iguodala via trade and his upgrade on defense, along with the Nuggets bringing back Javale McGee (funny in hindsight) had the city buzzing about what this team could do. Gallo would miss game one but was back by game two and put up 23 points. He’d hit the twenty point mark five times in the first month. While Gallo was asserting himself, Lawson was struggling with the role of being “the guy” on offense. He was hesitant with the ball and his lack of aggression would get Denver in tough situations on offense. Fans and pundits alike started to wonder if he had the IT factor. Meanwhile Gallo was balling. He dropped 24 on the Minnesota Timberwolves, 28 on the San Antonio Spurs and 39 on the Dallas Mavericks. In January of 2013 Gallo scored in double figures every single game. The Nuggets were having their best season in a long time, they were nearly unbeatable at home and riding high near the top of the Western Conference standings. They rode a 15 game winning streak into March and after Gallo hit a back breaking three against the Jazz his celebration with his teammates solidified in everyone’s mind just who was “the guy” on this team. It was Gallo. Then everything changed.

The Mavericks were fighting to stay in the playoff picture and the Nuggets were looking to secure a top three seed in the West. With just five games left in the season, when the two matched up against one another the game had a playoff atmosphere to it. After pulling out to an early lead Denver wasn’t able to put the Mavs away as they came roaring back in the third quarter. Then, on one possession Gallo got the ball at the arc and like he had so many times before he used his long strides to break towards the basket. As he stepped between two defenders into the paint he planted his left leg and it just buckled. Gallo threw the ball away in agony, hopped to the baseline and crumpled on the floor writhing in pain. When the replay went up on the jumbotron the air went completely out of the Pepsi Center. This wasn’t of of those times where people bump knees and everyone’s hoping for a bone bruise. This was a non-contact injury where a body part simply gave way. Gallo’s ACL was torn and it was obvious from the second it happened. He has never played 70+ games in a season since then.

In one moment, in one drive to the basket, multiple careers were changed forever, not the least of which was Gallo’s. The Nuggets would win five of the final six games to set a franchise record for wins in a season (57) and secure their position as the number three seed in the playoffs, earning a match up with an inexperienced Golden State Warriors team who was just getting back to relevancy. Despite losing Gallo the Nuggets were still favored to beat the Warriors and move on to the second round but the exact opposite happened. The Nuggets would survive long enough to last six games in the series (though they easily could have been swept) before bowing out...in the first round...again. Tired of early playoff exits, Denver fired George Karl despite him winning Coach of the Year honors that season. GM Masai Ujiri was given a lucrative offer with the Toronto Raptors which Denver declined to match and Iguodala spurned the Nuggets in free agency for none other than those very same Warriors. Just like that, one of the most promising young teams in Denver Nuggets history was destroyed with one knee injury. It was Laphonso Ellis all over again.

Things would get worse for Gallo before they got better. Going on some bad advice, he sought an alternative solution to his partial ACL tear by using a method called “healing response” through the Steadman Clinic in Vail. The idea was this procedure wasn’t as drastic as full reconstructive surgery and thus Gallo would be able to get back to the court quickly, perhaps even for the majority of the 2013-2014 season. However, as Christmas rolled around Gallo’s knee wasn’t getting any better and the procedure had to be deemed a failure. Less than a month later Gallo would undergo full reconstructive surgery on his knee, resetting his rehabilitation clock back to zero. Later he would say regarding the surgery:

Steadman? It is clear that if I could go back, I would not go to Steadman Clinic. I will write a book on my last year and half with some things never told. But it is better not to talk about that. I just say that one month after my surgery, Steadman said that he would not work anymore. I made a wrong choice.

He would never be the same player physically. Gallo would never regain the quickness that made him so effective driving to the basket and while he adapted his game when he finally did return, that LeBron James like threat of just overpowering everyone with speed and size on the way to the hoop wasn’t there anymore.

When he finally was ready to return in the 2014-2015 season the Nuggets brought him along slowly, not allowing him to play more than twenty minutes until Thanksgiving and he wouldn’t truly regain his starting role until late February. The Nuggets meanwhile were a mess, coach Brian Shaw was rigid in his desire to pay a slower paced, post-centric style offense which clashed directly with Lawson’s style of play. Lawson was dealing with his own demons with alcoholism and division was rife between the locker room and their coach. To make matters worse, just when Gallo was getting back into form in December he suffered a torn meniscus which would sideline him for more than a month...and yet there was still hope. On March 3rd, 2015 Vice President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly fired Shaw and put Melvin Hunt in as the interim coach. Hunt was one of the few holdovers from the Karl era and there was a belief that he would bring the Nuggets back to their old ways of playing fast paced basketball based on movement. Gallo scored in double figures in all but three of the remaining games he played in with Hunt at the helm and dropped what was at the time a career high 40 points on the Orlando Magic.

When Michael Malone came on board to coach Denver the Nuggets parted ways with Lawson and extended Gallo who was quickly re-inserted as the focal point of the offense. His game was different but he adapted well. He used his ability to draw fouls a lot more frequently and he started having the most efficient years in terms of scoring that he had ever had in Denver. He set a career high in scoring per game in Malone’s first season with the team largely fueled by an average of nearly 12 free throws per game. The highlight of the season was when Gallo defended Stephen Curry one on one in the waning moments of a game and stripped the league MVP to seal the deal and hand Golden State one of only nine losses on the season. Yet, there was still a problem. Gallo couldn’t stay healthy for the whole season. A sprained left ankle cost him six games in December and then a particularly nasty sprain of his right ankle ended his 2015-2016 campaign with twenty three games to go. The Nuggets would fall short of the playoffs for the third season in a row.

When the 2016-2017 season opened with media day, Gallo didn’t mince words. When asked if the team’s goal was the playoffs, he said absolutely. When asked what he needed to do to help the team reach that goal, he responded with “I need to stay healthy”. For the most part, at the beginning of the season Gallo did just that. He missed just four games in the first half of the season and was on his way to career highs in virtually every stat they have for scoring efficiency. Despite his solid play though, the injury bug would catch him again. A strained groin kept him out eight games in February and knee soreness would cost him another four games in March. Despite getting off to a relatively healthy start, when it was all said and done, Gallo missed over a fifth of the season due to injuries. The bad nights in big moments bug also got him again. In the final stretch of the season when Denver was playing their division rival the Portland Trail Blazers in a game with major playoff implications, Gallo went just 3 of 15 from the field and 1 of 8 from three. The Nuggets would lose that game and finish just one game behind the Blazers in the standings, earning the dubious title of “first team out of the playoffs.”

Besides the disappointment in narrowly missing their goal, something else was happening that was working against the soon to be free agent Gallo: he wasn’t the best player on the team anymore. Danilo benefited from the rise of Nikola Jokic like everyone else who played with him but he also had his spot as face of the franchise taken. He was no longer the most vital part of the offense and, with management desperate to generate buzz around a team who finished last in attendance again, it wasn’t clear if Gallo was going to be in the long term plans as the team was widely rumored to chase big free agents outside the organization. Yesterday it became clear that he wasn’t part of Denver’s future when they finalized a sign and trade deal to send Gallo to the Los Angeles Clippers.

Danilo Gallinari will go down as one of the more polarizing players in Denver Nuggets history. His upside and promise at 22 years old made him the key piece of the Carmelo Anthony trade and offered Nuggets fans hope in their new direction. He never had the scoring talent of Melo but his effectiveness was above anything else Denver had and as he grew to love Denver and proclaim his love for Denver he endeared himself to the fans. Who knows how different his career, Nuggets history and fans viewpoint on Gallo would have changed if he doesn’t hurt his knee. Does he still get the reputation as being injury prone? Do the Nuggets lose in the first round to the Warriors that season and if they don’t does Karl get fired? Do Ujiri and Iguodala stay? There’s a good argument to be made that Gallo’s knee injury had more consequences than any other in Nuggets history.

The injuries shouldn’t define his tenure though. Danilo Gallinari is the face of a Denver Nuggets era, there’s no arguing that. He forever is linked to the Melo trade and the team that came after and while their success wasn’t great, it certainly was a lot of fun to watch the Rooster in sky blue and yellow. His love for the city should also endear him to every Nuggets fan who lived through the Melodrama and knows exactly what it feels like when your best player doesn’t think the city is good enough for him. When Gallo signed his extension in 2015 he said:

I was very fast in saying yes to this extension, I’m very happy to stay in Denver. This extension came because of the people in Denver, the fact that I’ve been in Denver for awhile now and the fact that I love the city.

Ultimately, Gallo will be 29 years old when next season starts and he’s likely got two big contracts at most left in his career, he needs to cash in while he can. The Nuggets wanted to make a splash outside of the organization and did that by bringing in Paul Millsap. Without making a similar move to shed multiple forwards, it was hard to figure out how the Nuggets were going to make Gall and Millsap work in terms of minutes, let alone dollars. Gallo’s reported three year $63 million contract was likely more than Denver wanted to pay as well and so they had to let him go. They did him a solid by facilitating a sign and trade to get him to the Los Angeles Clippers and ultimately, its a move that works out in the best interests of everyone involved. There should be no bad blood from the fans either. Gallo gave Denver everything he had in seven years. He leaves Denver as 3rd all time in three point field goals, 4th in offensive rating and 10th in offensive win shares. While its unlikely the Nuggets will hoist a Gallinari jersey into the rafters, its undeniable the impact he had on this team and how he carried them past the Melo era. Danilo Gallinari is arguably a top ten Denver Nugget of all time and should be thanked and beloved for what he did for the franchise. Best of luck in LA Gallo and thanks for the memories. You’re time in Denver was, as Chris Malrowe would put it, “molto bene.”