While several Denver Nuggets players have gone down with injuries in the last couple of seasons, none were as lengthy as those suffered by Danilo Gallinari or JaVale McGee. Both of their returns in 2014-15 are crucial to Denver's chances at returning to the playoffs in a ridiculously deep Western Conference.
Gallinari suffered an ACL injury on April 4 during the 2012-13 season. His absence influenced the Nuggets' first-round postseason exit against the Golden State Warriors.
McGee started the first five games last year, but was then diagnosed with a fractured left tibia. He was sidelined for the season, which strongly played into the Nuggets' 36-46 record.
While it's unclear if either player will start for head coach Brian Shaw in 2014-15, they are both certainly capable of being in the first unit. Whose return will help the Nuggets more?
Case for Gallinari
Gallinari hasn't seen any competitive action in quite some time, and most people remember him being a solid scorer with his 16.2 points per game for the 2012-13 season.
But what makes the talented Italian so unique is that he scores in just about every facet of the game. He can drive, shoot the three, get to the foul line and find ways to create mismatches in the post.
None of the career shooting percentages jump off the page—41.9 percent from the floor, 36.9 percent from three and 84.4 percent from the free-throw line. However, they aren't too shabby either, especially the free-throw percentage since the Nuggets shot a 27th-best 72.6 percent in that department last year.
On the other side of the ball, Gallinari has some diversity, too.
He's not the fastest, nor does he force a ton of turnovers with his one steal and 0.6 blocks per contest. But he's 6'10", can guard on the perimeter and defend inside against some of the smaller power forwards.
Again, he's not overly dominant in one area, but he's effective and very good at contributing on every possession. This is what Shaw wanted from his players last season.
This is also where Wilson Chandler was supposed to step up last season—the guy who connects the dots and does a lot of underrated things to go with his scoring. But whether it's his constant issues with injuries, an inability to consistently play 30-plus minutes or he simply isn't dynamic enough, Chandler couldn't get the job done.
Getting Gallo back in the starting five and putting Chandler in the sixth-man role will help this team's overall production.
Shaw told Aaron Lopez of Nuggets.com that, “As a coaching staff, it’s a matter of trying to get everybody to buy in to getting more done while maybe playing less.”
Granted, we don't know exactly what style Shaw wants to run next year, but Gallinari should benefit since he can play both half-court and full-court basketball. If his health cooperates next year, expect his usual respectable numbers across the board with improved efficiency.
Case for McGee
Speaking of efficiency, if you exclude his brief appearance last season, that's exactly what McGee's specialty was in 2012-13. He led the Nuggets with a 20.7 player efficiency rating.
McGee's motor and athleticism on both sides of the ball make for quite the show. You get posterizing dunks on offense, and then he rejects shots at the rim as if he's spiking a volleyball on defense.
Look no further than his block party in the first quarter of a significant showdown with the San Antonio Spurs toward the end of the 2012-13 campaign:
The Nuggets came out flat, were trailing 16-6 and nothing was going right for them. Keep in mind Denver was trying to tie a franchise-record 54 regular-season wins, going for the team record of 21 straight home victories and pushing for the No. 1 seed in the West.
McGee comes into the game, swats away back-to-back shots and sparks a 32-21 Nuggets run to close the half. Denver wins 96-86.
Even though he doesn't distribute, McGee's energy makes others around him better. Adding him to the acrobatic mix of Kenneth Faried and Nate Robinson will constantly bring the fans at the Pepsi Center to their feet.
To be fair, though, there's still a lot of developing to do with McGee. He still wound up on Shaqtin' A Fool during last year's preseason (I've seen this at least 20 times, and I still can't stop laughing).
But after the remarkable strides "The Manimal" made toward the end of last season, there's no reason why Shaw and his staff can't get the same out of McGee.
Yes, McGee is probably a bigger project than Faried, but if McGee is able to grasp some defensive fundamentals and utilize his mid-range jumper, his upside is legitimately dangerous.
Furthermore, Shaw doesn't need big minutes out of McGee. Heading into 2013-14, the center spot was a huge question mark because Timofey Mozgov was still a borderline bench warmer and J.J. Hickson was slated to be a power forward.
Now there's no pressure for McGee to play 30 minutes. Whether he starts or not, Shaw only needs 20-25 minutes out of him.
Gallinari Will Make a More Immediate Difference
There are two primary reasons why Gallinari will instantly make a stronger impact—depth by position and simply being the better overall player.
If you evaluate the Nuggets by position last year, small forward was arguably the weakest, although shooting guard was right there as well. Here's a look at Chandler's numbers from the 2012-13 season compared to 2013-14:
|Wilson Chandler's Statistics Per-100 Possessions|
Factoring in that Chandler played 10 more minutes per game in 2013-14 and Quincy Miller is still working on his game, small forward is a weak area without Gallinari.
Granted, Arron Afflalo could slide up to the 3 this year, but he's ideally a 2 at 6'5" and needs to be more out on the perimeter.
The center position is a different story.
Mozgov's improvement was incredibly important to the Nuggets not completely self-destructing last year. They could have packed it in after losing 11 of 12 games by the beginning of March, but they fought back to win 11 of their last 23—the schedule was brutal here—and Mozgov played his role.
With he and 2014 first-round pick Jusuf Nurkic—7'0" and 6'11", respectively—joining McGee in the middle, the Nuggets are in fine shape.
When you combine that with Gallinari being the more consistent and polished player than McGee, Gallo will keep the Nuggets from the roller-coaster ride from last season.
That's not to say McGee won't have his moments, get better and perhaps win a few games for Denver. He just needs some time under Shaw before he is an actual impact player.
Therefore, Gallinari gets the nod. Still, watch out for McGee's progression.
All statistics are from Basketball-Reference.com.
Nick Juskewycz covers the Denver Nuggets for Bleacher Report. Follow @NickJuskewycz.