Denver Nuggets do-everything forward Danilo Gallinari suffered a no-contact knee injury in last night’s win over the Dallas Mavericks. Initial reports from team doctors suggest Gallinari – who told sources he “heard a pop” – has a loose ligament in his left knee, a likely indication of a torn ACL. He’ll undergo a MRI this morning to fully determine the extent of his injury. Update: Gallinari tore his left anterior cruciate cruciate ligament and is out for the season, the Nuggets announced on Friday.
Obviously, if early prognostications are deemed correct after further testing, Gallinari will miss the remainder of the regular season and the full extent Denver’s playoff run. The Nuggets, a sterling 34-8 since January 5th, are currently third in the Western Conference, meaning that if things hold they’re Golden State’s current first round foe. Both teams are less than a game from moving down a spot in the playoff pecking order; this matchup isn’t close to set in stone, but the loss of Gallinari deems new examination necessary anyway.
The majority of Warriors followers didn’t want to see Denver in the first round. Preferring a series with the Los Angeles Clippers and Chris Paul over one with the Nuggets – devoid of an All-Star and barely .500 through the season’s first 30 games – seems foolish on the surface, but Golden State’s been excitingly successful against LAC this year, and the teams have recently begun trending in opposite directions.
Denver’s been on fire since the new year, when its home-away schedule finally balanced out in favor of the former; only Miami has a better record in 2013. The Clippers, meanwhile, have been decidedly mediocre in the same timeframe, going 25-20, falling two games behind Denver for the 3-seed and rendering memories of December’s 17-game winning streak a lifetime away. Even putting those ancillary factors aside, head-to-head matchups indicate the Warriors would much rather see the Clippers than the Nuggets. This is to say nothing of the Memphis Grizzlies, by the way; Golden State must avoid them at all costs.
Of course, all this conjecture was based on the disturbingly premature assumption these teams would be fully healthy. Without Gallinari, the question now is whether or not Denver is still the top secondary (read, not Oklahoma City or San Antonio) threat for Western supremacy. Fortunately for the Nuggets, they boast quality depth other teams only dream of; all nine players in George Karl’s regular rotation boast a PER above 14.7, a number which belongs to the awesomely defensive-oriented Andre Iguodala.
If any team could withstand such a loss as one like Gallinari’s, then, it might be Denver. But that’s looking at things too simplistically, failing to account for shortened rotations and a heavier reliance on core players in the postseason. Gallinari isn’t the Nuggets’ best player, but he’s unquestionably a key cog of what makes a sometimes stagnant offese flow so well. He not only plays multiple positions, but serves as a secondary ballhandler and late-clock creator for a team that lacks a go-to offensive talent. Wilson Chandler, who’s come on like gangbusters since March 1st, can replicate some of Gallinari’s influence, as can increased responsibility for Ty Lawson, Andre Miller and Iguodala.
But that quartet – Lawson included – is hardly consistent and some believe already burden-heavy on offense. That’s a problem, but it may not be the foremost one Gallinari’s injury presents. As is sometimes the case with the absence of major players, the drop-off from Gallinari to his replacement in the starting lineup, Chandler, isn’t the Nuggets chief concern. Rather, it’s the trickle-down effect on the roster created by Chandler’s vacated spot in the rotation. Who’s picking up the slack of the guy who’s already picking up the slack? Karl has a procession of varied options at his disposal, but none that offer the versatility, experience or shot-making talent of Chandler.
Taking that and more into account, today Denver isn’t the team it was yesterday. That’s a shame, but also an opportunity of which the Warriors can take advantage should they meet the Nuggets in round one. Denver or the Clippers, now, Golden State certainly has more than a puncher’s chance of advancing to the conference semi-finals.
*Statistical support for this piece provided by NBA.com.
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