The landscape in the Western Conference was altered by this week's injury news regarding Denver's Danilo Gallinai and Chauncey Billups of the L.A. Clippers. Gallo's ankle problems are supposed to sideline him for a month; Billups may never play in the NBA again and is definitely out for the rest of this season. The Nuggets and Clippers were among a handful of teams capable of challenging West leader Oklahoma City in the postseason, so where do these injuries leave them? The situations are completely different, so rather than compare them, we'll just deal with one team at a time.
The Nuggets' calling card ever since last year's blockbuster Carmelo Anthony deal has been depth, which means Denver is likely to come out of Gallinari's absence just fine, right? Perhaps, but to assume that is to underestimate just how good Gallinari has become. He's not only increased his usage rate this season, he's done so while using his possessions as efficiently as ever. His .597 True Shooting Percentage is right on target with what he put up two years ago, when he was using three percent fewer possessions.
More importantly, Gallinari has made the crucial leap from play finisher to play maker. His assist rate (12.8 percent) is more than five percent better than his previous career high and he's done this while cutting his turnover rate by 2.4 percent over last season. As impressive as all that is, Gallinari has continued his under-the-radar improvement on the defensive end, so much so that George Karl uses him on key defensive assignments late in close games. In recent loss to the Clippers, Gallinari was guarding Chris Paul down the stretch.
Let's compare Gallinari's season to that of a random former Nuggets forward:
Player Win% WARP ORtg DRtg Usg TS%
Gallinari .611 3.36 108.7 105.2 .218 .597
Anthony .574 2.50 107.9 105.6 .330 .506
So the point is, Gallo won't be easily replaced, even by a team with a roster as deep as Denver's. Rookie Julyan Stone replaced Gallinari in the starting lineup for Wednesday's home loss to Dallas, but Stone won't be asked to fill his role. Stone is a defensive specialist who Karl placed with the first unit in order to keep the rest of his rotation intact. Ultimately, Stone played just seven minutes, while the court time for Al Harrington and Rudy Fernandez increased.
Harrington and Fernandez both have better plus/minus numbers than Gallinari this year, so you might think that would get the Nuggets by until he returns. However, Harrington doesn't really play much small forward these days, and Fernandez is more of a two-guard, so both will be logging more minutes at an unfamiliar position. Corey Brewer has been Gallinari's primary backup, but he's currently not with the team because of the death of his father. When he returns, Brewer will likely take Stone's place with the first unit and log 23-28 minutes per game. He can hold down the fort defensively, but the Nuggets will lose a lot of offense when he's on the floor.
Luckily, Wilson Chandler will probably ride to the rescue when he returns from China. The news that he plans to return to the Nuggets is timely indeed. Chandler offers basically the same skillset as Gallinari, except he's a better rebounder and not as proficient as a playmaker, at least not any more. He's coming off an overseas performance in which he averaged about 26 points and 11 boards, so his game should be sharp.
Denver should be fine muddling through with Stone and Brewer until Chandler arrives. Down the line, when Gallinari returns and hopefully gets back into game shape, Chandler offers a needed upgrade to the bench, giving Denver a legit 10-man rotation.
Depth has been an issue for the Clippers but luckily for them, that's a frontcourt problem only. L.A. had five quality guards on its roster before Billups went down, now they have four. In terms of quantity, they should be fine. Unfortunately fit is a problem and unlike Denver, the Clippers are probably going to have to outside the organization to fill out their rotation.
With Billups gone, Randy Foye steps into the starting lineup. Foye replaces Billups' size in the first unit, but leaves a pair of 6'1" guys coming off the bench in Mo Williams and Eric Bledsoe. Nobody outside of Charlotte, N.C., would be crazy enough to play a backcourt that small for very long, and one of them is going have to play alongside six-footer Chris Paul from time to time.
The Clippers have been mentioned as a possible landing spot for J.R. Smith once he finishes up his time in China. At 6'6", Smith could plug the size gap and may be a better option than Foye to play alongside Paul with the first group because he's a more consistent outside threat. That may seem like a strange statement given the streaky nature of Smith's game, but Foye has been maddeningly inconsistent during his up-and-down career, and the Clippers may not want to rely on him in a large role.
Smith is a much better defender than Foye and his gambling ways might play well alongside Paul and in front of DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin's athleticism. Not only can he provide the same floor spacing (but not playmaking) as Billups, but he can play heavy minutes and help deflect some of the defensive leak that occurs when Williams steps on the court. The Clippers are 10.4 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with Williams in the game, which is the primary reason Billups' plus/minus numbers have been so strong this season even though he's shooting worse than he has in about 11 years.
Unfortunately, the Clippers have only the veteran's minimum to offer Smith after burning their mini midlevel exception last week on Kenyon Martin. (Remember our sermon about opportunity cost?) That doesn't necessarily rule out Smith for L.A. There may be no better way for Smith to showcase his ability for another summer of free agency than to play a big-time role on a contending team--and making it work. He may be surrendering money in the short term, but if things go well in L.A., he'd be making it up down the line.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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