With a 14-10 record gained by winning and losing games in many different fashions, the Denver Nuggets are perhaps the most inconsistent team in the NBA. Would Danilo Gallinari's return help stabilize the franchise and make true progress toward being a Western Conference contender?
The Nuggets have demolished weaker opponents on the road like the Utah Jazz, Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets. They're 4-0 versus the Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves, while defeating the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls with Derrick Rose.
According to Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post, for the first time since suffering his ACL injury in April, Gallinari started running in practice last week. However, there's still no timetable for the man who posted 16.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 32.5 minutes last season.
Fortunately for the Nuggets, they're only two-and-a-half games back of the No. 4 spot in the West and have played the ninth-toughest schedule so far, according to ESPN.com.
While Gallinari should take his time and make sure he's 100 percent before returning, Denver has an excellent chance to get back to the playoffs for the 11th-straight year with Gallo's contributions.
What Gallinari Brings to the Table
We all know that Gallinari is a respectable scoring threat on a nightly basis, but what exactly separates him from the other solid small forwards? His versatility.
As someone who can shoot from three, attack the basket and use his 6'10" length in the post, Gallinari is a difficult player to deal with.
Furthermore, he led the Nuggets with 4.9 free-throw attempts last season and shot 82.2 percent. Considering that Denver is 26th in free-throw percentage this year at 71.1 percent, Gallinari's easy points are certainly needed.
As the shot chart from NBA.com demonstrates, Gallinari requires attention at all times.
Because of this, this puts more stress on the opponent when it comes to help defense. Whether it's Gallinari posting up a smaller forward and Randy Foye waiting for the three-pointer, or Ty Lawson penetrating off the pick-and-roll and Gallo serving as the third option from the corner, he's effective.
George Karl was more into emphasizing the transition game and the dribble-drive motion offense, but there is a stronger value on ball movement with multiple looks in Shaw's sets. There's more of an inside-out approach in his half-court offense while still allowing players to attack off the dribble in the pick-and-roll and isolation.
Sure, there is still work to be done and there's inconsistency, but not only does this fit Gallinari, it will help the Nuggets in the postseason.
Should Gallinari Start?
Does Gallinari go right back into his starting role when he's healthy? Or is there an argument to be made that Chandler should remain the starter and have Gallo come off the bench?
As far as their career averages go, there's little difference between the two.
Despite the similar numbers and that Gallinari probably should come off the bench for the first couple games to get back into the flow, he should be starting once he's at full strength.
Gallinari has the more diverse attack and greater length to contest shots from players like Kevin Durant. Furthermore, with a 6'9" J.J. Hickson being the tallest player in the current starting five and opponents crushing the Nuggets inside, Denver needs that height and wingspan.
Chandler plays more into that sixth-man role: He has the edge in terms of athleticism and breaking the defender down off the dribble.
With JaVale McGee still sidelined with his leg injury, it's a difficult task to develop consistency with two of your starters out. Shaw is still considering shuffling his rotation with the available players to find the answer, as Dempsey reported last week.
This report came shortly after Denver's embarrassing 103-93 loss at home to the Utah Jazz. To Utah's credit, the Jazz have been playing significantly better, having won three of their last five. But losing by double digits to what was a 5-19 club is inexcusable with Denver's home-court altitude advantage.
Denver has trailed after the first quarter in each game of December. Even though the Nuggets are 5-4 during this stretch, the starting lineup clearly needs help.
Gallo's presence in the starting five and having Chandler's boost with Robinson off the bench is the combination Denver needs to be successful moving forward.
How Denver Stacks Up Against the Other Teams in the West
The Nuggets will have solid potential when Gallinari returns. McGee will also help.
But even if both players come back with enough time to get into a rhythm and the Nuggets play their best basketball at the end of the season, they still don't have what it takes to win the Western Conference.
There simply isn't enough defense on this team, particularly around the basket.
The Nuggets are allowing a 25th-ranked 44.3 points in the paint and are giving up too many easy buckets.
Whether it's soft play in the pick-and-roll, getting manhandled inside or not getting back in transition, Denver only has the personnel to be average defensively.
How big of a threat will the Nuggets be when Gallinari returns?
This doesn't translate well to playoff basketball. Gallinari may help contest some more shots and McGee could spark his team with a blocked shot here and there, but they won't make the ultimate difference in getting to the NBA Finals.
Having said that, should Denver continue to get better in its half-court offense, improve its free-throw shooting and develop chemistry in a solidified rotation, I can buy Gallinari's return getting the Nuggets to the second round of the playoffs. They're capable of grabbing the No. 5 seed and taking out a more perimeter-oriented team, like the Los Angeles Clippers.
While the Nuggets are far from playing their best basketball, so are teams like the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. The most probable outcome for Denver is to land the No. 7 seed and make another first-round exit.
(All statistics are updated through Dec. 18)