Quick, who is the best player on the Denver Nuggets?

Back at the start of last season, most Nuggets fans would have said Danilo Gallinari, the sweet shooting Italian forward who dropped a 47-point game at the end of the previous season. At the start of last season, the Rooster was ready to assume his role as the first option on a rebuilding team and help bring the team back to prominence.

Fast forward to 2016 and Nuggets fans know that Gallinari as a first option was met with mixed results over the course of the year. There were highs (averaged 23.5 points per game during the month of January), and there were lows (29 games missed throughout the season and a career low 43.4% from inside the arc). Overall, a mixed bag.

In order to better understand Gallo’s role and effectiveness as a lead guy, I decided to do a five-game study on some of his best performances. This would help provide some video evidence to help understand exactly how Gallo is getting into position to score, who else it affects, and whether it can work long term.

But first, let's start with how the Rooster plays:

Danilo Gallinari play type statistics (via Synergy Stats):

Play type Frequency (%) Points per possession (PPP)
Spot Up 21.3 0.96
Isolation 18.9 0.85
Ball Handler (PnR) 12.0 0.81
Transition 9.9 1.54
Post Up 8.5 1.11
Hand Offs 6.6 1.11
Cuts 5.4 1.42
Off Screens 4.7 1.11
Roll Man (PnR) 4.0 1.26
Put Backs 3.5 1.06

Generally speaking, the higher the PPP (efficiency), the more the Nuggets should want Gallo's frequency to be higher in that category.

Gallo’s most frequent play types are spot up jump shots, isolations, and as the ball handler in the pick and roll. Unfortunately, those were the least efficient play types for him last season, as none exceed 1.00 PPP. This creates the initial impression that Gallo is being utilized in the wrong play types. This is both correct and incorrect and I will explain why down below.

In the above table, the two positive numbers that stand out immediately are Gallo's PPP in Transition and using Cuts. He comes in at the 98th and 83rd percentile in each category, so going into the next section, I'm going to look for ways to expand on that high efficiency.

The goal for the 2016-17 season should be to recreate ways to utilize the Nuggets’ best scorer as effectively as possible. A couple caveats before getting into this:

  1. Isolations will never be fully eliminated from the game of basketball, and there are advantages to having a player isolate in certain situations.
  2. Transition and Cuts will not be the only solutions to Gallo generating offense just because those two play types are his most efficient using points per possession.

Now, let’s hop into it with a breakdown of how Gallo scored over the five game stretch.

The five games I will use are as follows:

Game 1: Nuggets vs New Orleans Pelicans – 11/17/15

Gallo stat line: 32 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 TO, 12/19 FG, 5/8 3PT, 34 FT

Game 2: Nuggets vs Philadelphia 76ers – 12/05/15

Gallo stat line: 24 points, 7 rebounds, 1 assist, 0 TO, 7/14 FG, 3/9 3PT, 7/9 FT

Game 3: Nuggets vs Portland Trailblazers – 01/03/16

Gallo stat line: 29 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 0 TO, 8/13 FG, 2/4 3PT, 11/16 FT

Game 4: Nuggets vs Oklahoma City Thunder – 01/19/16

Gallo stat line: 27 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 TO, 10/21 FG, 4/9 3PT, 3/5 FT

Game 5: Nuggets vs Chicago Bulls – 02/05/16

Gallo stat line: 33 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 TO, 7/12 FG, 1/3 3PT, 18/18 FT!!!

44 total field goals made. Here’s how the total baskets break down by Synergy play type:

Play Type Spot Up Isolation Ball Handler Transition Post Up Hand Offs Cuts Off Screens Roll Man Put Backs Miscellaneous
Frequency 8/44 7/44 3/44 5/44 10/44 2/44 3/44 0/44 1/44 3/44 2/44

Gallinari also attempted 52 field goals over this five game stretch, good for over 10 per contest.

The eye popping number on this last table is Gallo’s makes from the post. 10 total baskets from the post for a small forward is a big deal, and for a player who’s largely played on the perimeter his entire career, he’s finally taking advantage of his height, especially on mismatches.

There are a few plays in this video that must be given attention, and all of them involve C.J. McCollum.

Play 1 (0:24): Jameer Nelson finds Gallo on the left block in a mismatch against McCollum. Gallo faces up, fakes a jump shot that sends McCollum flying and finds Gary Harris after the rotation to the rim who hits the three.

Play 2 (1:03): Gallo isolates against McCollum at the top of the key. McCollum crowds him to prevent the jump shot, and Gallo uses this to drive by and draw the foul for the And-1 basket.

Play 3 (1:16): Gallo isolates against McCollum at the top of the key again. This time, McCollum gives him just a few inches more of distance. Gallo hits the jump shot in his face.

Play 4 (1:38): Gallo gets McCollum on the low block. He beats him easily for a layup in the middle of the paint. If the help had come sooner, he had Nelson wide open at the top of the key.

These four plays against Portland show that Gallo can readily abuse a mismatch. C.J. McCollum isn’t a good defensive player, and players like Gallinari can take advantage of that. The Nuggets need to take advantage of that when incorporating Gallo next year.

That leads me to the age old question: is Danilo Gallinari isolating too much?

Well, going into his isolation possessions was interesting. There were a fair number of possessions that ended in free throws during this five game stretch, and there were definitely some misses.

Bottom line: Danilo Gallinari is most successful in isolation when he has a mismatch.

Of the seven baskets he scored in isolation in this sample, six were against players at a different position than small forward. Four were against guards under 6’4, including the two shown above against McCollum.

Now, it’s important to exploit mismatches, and Gallo does this very well. An isolation destroys the flow of the offense though, and the Rooster is a culprit of this just as much as any isolation player.

At 0:40, watch as Gallinari takes the ball against Derrick Rose. He holds the ball for six seconds, and the action by the rest of the players is awkward, to put it kindly.

Gallo notices Taj Gibson hanging out in the middle of the lane, so he decides after this stretch that the best thing to do is to just rise over the shorter Rose for a jump shot, which he makes.

This is a small example, but it is one of the major reasons why Gallo isolated so much. There needs to be better off-ball action while the isolation is occurring, and Gallinari is 6 freaking 10. His height allows him to see everything on the court. A simple backdoor cut, pin down screen, or similar action could free someone for a better look. Unfortunately, there’s none of that to be found.

In the end, putting the ball in the hands of the best scorer was always a great option, and it’s possible that with the youth of the roster, the younger players didn’t have the capacity to run a scheme with “dynamic” off-ball movement like that. We will see next season if this is added to the repertoire by Michael Malone and Chris Finch.

Besides more off-ball movement in isolations, here are four things I hope the Nuggets do with Gallo next season:

  1. Run more Mudiay-Gallinari (at PF) pick and rolls or pick and pops next season.
  2. Use Gallinari in off-ball action by the baseline with Jokic at the elbow.
  3. Create offense for Gallo with simple cuts to the basket.
  4. Let him isolate against mismatches, especially if he’s shooting well.

Each of these actions are designed to take the difficulty out of the job of being a first option. Spot up jump shots will always be there, but asking Gallo to create 31 percent of his offense in isolation or handling the pick and roll will create inefficiencies.

Hand Offs, Cuts, Off Screens, and Post Ups made up just 25 percent of his offense by comparison. By potentially increasing that number to in between 30-35 percent, the Nuggets ask Gallinari to create less while keeping the same number of scoring opportunities.

Take this example from Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs. Leonard receives a baseline screen from Patty Mills, freeing him up enough to catch the pass from Manu Ginobili and hit a short jumper. Easy action, easy shot. If the defense switches, Leonard would post up instead.

Speaking of post up situations, Gallo is in the 96th percentile according to Synergy. There’s no way he shouldn’t take advantage of his height in the post when he has a mismatch. I would probably give it to Gallo and tell him to shoot 9 times out of 10 if he kept getting mismatches like he did in the Portland game.

One of the best things about Danilo Gallinari is that he gets easy points every single game by getting to the free throw line, and this wouldn’t change much with the changes I suggest.

Most of the action I have with Gallo either gets him going toward the basket or started close to the basket. With a weapon like Nikola Jokic to space the floor and pass him the ball precisely, Gallo’s skills around the basket should be utilized more frequently.

I’m excited to see what the Nuggets have in store this year, and I genuinely believe Gallo will have his best year as a pro. He’s in a contract year, he’s getting back healthy, the team around him is better, and it looks like he will become more of a scorer rather than a creator with Mudiay and Jokic in the lineup.

He should be allowed to isolate though. It’s not going to hurt matters to keep him involved in that way. Getting him two and a half isolation possessions per game instead of the three and a half he averaged last year would bring his frequency rate down from 18.9 to 13.5 percent, a much more palatable number for efficient offense.

Overall, the most important thing is to get Gallo the basketball, but by getting him the ball closer to the basket more frequently, he will be the first option the Nuggets need him to be.