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NBA PM: Will Deal For Gallinari Pay Off For Clippers?

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A review of the “Lob City” era in Los Angeles reveals that the Clippers were seemingly missing some key components of a championship contender each season. Over the last few seasons, the team suffered from a rotating combination of inadequate depth, unreliable defense, shaky chemistry, a consistent lack of what we generally call “luck” and a constant stream of injuries at inopportune times, among other things. Winning an NBA championship is extremely difficult and often requires a combination of these attributes and more. The Clippers, depending on the season, seemed to always be missing some component of the championship formula. The one constant was the need for an upgrade at small forward.

Under Head Coach Doc Rivers, who relinquished most of his front office duties earlier today, the Clippers have made some questionable deals over the last few years that deprived the franchise of the flexibility and tradeable assets to acquire an adequate small forward. The result was a rotating door of players like Matt Barnes, Danny Granger, Jared Dudley, Hedo Turkoglu, Chris Douglas Roberts, Stephen Jackson, Jordan Hamilton, Dahntay Jones, Austin Rivers, Lance Stephenson, Jeff Green, Wesley Johnson, Paul Pierce and Luc Mbah a Moute. In a league saturated with good-to-great small forwards, the Clippers simply could not acquire one that wasn’t limited in overall talent or limited by age. To be fair, Barnes was more effective than many give him credit for and Mbah a Moute was a defensive wizard last season and shot a career-high 39.1 percent from three-point range. However, neither Barnes nor Mbah a Moute had the kind of talent that is generally needed at the starting small forward position to have a truly legitimate chance at winning a championship.

It was not until Chris Paul decided he would take his talents to Houston this offseason that the Clippers were in a position to acquire the type of small forward they so deeply needed over the last few seasons. In early July, the Clippers, Denver Nuggets and Atlanta Hawks agreed to a sign-and-trade that would send Danilo Gallinari to the Clippers on a new three-year, $65 million deal, Jamal Crawford, Diamond Stone and a 2018 first-round pick to the Hawks and a 2019 second-round pick from Atlanta to Denver.

The question now is, does Gallinari, whom the Clippers have coveted for years, fit the team’s new roster and bring the kind of production that warrants such a lucrative contract? Like most things in life, the answer is, it depends.

If Gallinari were joining the Clippers’ core roster from the last few seasons, this acquisition would be a homerun. However, at this stage of his career, after suffering a torn ACL in 2013 and going through multiple procedures to fully address the injury, Gallinari doesn’t quite have the athleticism he used to. He is a combo forward that needs to play at power forward, at least intermittently, to utilize his full arsenal of skills. Depending on how Coach Rivers manages his frontcourt talent, this could either be a really good or really bad thing. For example, if Coach Rivers leans on, to some extent, a small-ball lineup with Griffin at center and Gallinari at power forward, he will have the chance to unleash a potent offensive attack. The Clippers will likely hemorrhage points on the other end of the court, but it’s a good option when DeAndre Jordan is in foul trouble, being hacked, or is caught in a bad matchup. It also opens up the small forward position for newly acquired Sam Dekker, who has the skillset and athletic profile of the sort of player the Clippers have been searching for at small forward for years. Dekker has his own injury concerns, but if he can squeeze into the small forward position in this sort of lineup effectively, the results could be significant for Los Angeles.

Additionally, Gallinari brings the kind of playmaking and scoring that the Clippers will desperately need with both Chris Paul and J.J. Redick out of the picture. Gallinari’s advanced numbers in terms of playmaking, offensive efficiency in the pick-and-roll and isolation are impressive and his ability to get to the foul line and knock them down (90.2 percent last season) will be very important to the Clippers’ offensive attack next season. With Paul’s departure, the offense will certainly flow through Griffin in large part, but Gallinari is a consistent three-point threat who has the ability to attack the basket against scrambling defenses that may throw help defenders at Griffin. While Gallinari can effectively play off the ball, he does need to initiate the offense to take advantage of his full range of offensive skills. How exactly Gallinari is to be utilized remains to be seen, but the skill and fit is there. However, how well things come together will largely depend on Coach Rivers’ ability to tailor the system to his new talent and manage his rotations appropriately. For his part, Gallinari seems prepared for the challenge.

“There is a lot of pressure, for sure,” Gallinari told Scott Howard-Cooper of NBA.com after his introductory press conference. “First of all, it is L.A., so there is pressure no matter what. But that’s what I like. If you don’t like the pressure you shouldn’t play basketball. I like it, I like the way that we can fit together, I like to play with veteran players. The last years I’ve been playing with a lot of young guys. The fact that I can play with a lot of veterans is very good for me, a big motivation for me.”

Gallinari will need that motivation to help the Clippers maintain at least a league-average level defense next season. While the Clippers did well to add in players like Patrick Beverley, they still lost defenders like Paul and Mbah a Moute. The Clippers weren’t exactly an elite defensive team after their explosive start to last season, so losing top-level defenders will be costly. Beverley will do his part and Jordan seems to improve defensively each season. But players like Lou Williams, Dekker, Gallinari, Willie Reed, Montrezl Harrell and, in particular, Gallinari and Griffin will need to improve their respective defensive intensity and overall effectiveness for this Clippers team to do more than make it to the second round of the playoffs. That’s a lot to ask and probably unrealistic over the course of the entire regular season and playoffs. However, if a player like Gallinari is able to effectively guard opposing small forwards on most nights, it will be a major boost for a Clippers team that, outside of last season with Mbah a Moute, has struggled to slow down opposing small forwards. That’s a lot of pressure to put on Gallinari, especially at this stage of his career, but he doesn’t seem intimidated by the challenges he will face in Los Angeles.

“I want it because I love it,” Gallinari said. “I loved it my whole career. I’ve always played with a lot of pressure, since I was a little kid. That’s what I need. That’s what I need to perform at a high level and that’s what I need to bring the best out of me.”

The other factor to consider with Gallinari is his health. Gallinari hasn’t played in more than 70 regular season games in a single season since 2012-13. Gallinari did manage to play in 63 games last season but he’ll need to exceed that number to make his annual salary worthwhile for Los Angeles. Gallinari is off to a poor start in this department after injuring his thumb in an on-court confrontation last month. It is believed that Gallinari will be ready for training camp.

This Clippers team will almost certainly take a step back after the loss of Paul, Redick and other contributors from last season. But Coach Rivers, Jerry West, Lawrence Frank and the rest of the Clippers’ front office has done well to bring in a collection of talent that, at the very least, should be competitive on most nights and perhaps a bit more entertaining to watch than this team has been in previous seasons. There’s a lot to like about what Gallinari brings to the table for the Clippers, but it’s not clear his production will justify the heft price tag on his deal. Regardless, the Clippers got the player they’ve coveted for years and presumably are excited to see what kind of impact he can have alongside Griffin.

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About Jesse Blancarte

Jesse Blancarte

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.