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Is Danilo Gallinari a star?

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Gallinari had the 7th best plus-minus in second half of last year. Are you surprised?

USA Today/Peter Rogers Illustrations

In my post on October 6th of this year, I asked the following question:

You know who had the 7th best plus-minus in the second half of last year? Danilo Gallinari. That is totally weird. Don’t you think that’s just buh-zarre?

A reader responded in the comments section:

No. Not if you watched Danilo Gallinari play or took a brief look at his advanced stats. Which I would hope you would do if you want to have even a remotely informed opinion on the NBA[.]

Now, this reader, who we shall refer to as Grandma Tuberculosis in order to shield their identity, did not actually end their third sentence with a period, nor any other punctuation, so it remains possible that Grandma had more to say. But, we’re going to take Grandmama’s advice. Let’s do a deep dive and form a remotely informed opinion!

So, to repeat: Danilo Gallinari, an 8 year veteran, had the 7th best plus-minus in the second half of the NBA season last year.

Plus-minus, for those who don’t know, is a stat that tries to account for all the contributions, both positive and negative, that a player makes over the course of a game: points, assists, turnovers, fouls, etc. It’s definitely NOT a perfect way to think about a player, and there are other, more advanced stats, like ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, that are more specific, and then, of course, there are a ton of other advanced stats that can give you perhaps better ideas of just how good a player really is. However, since basic plus-minus is still widely used and generally understood, and since it’s what I used in my reference to Danilo, we’re going to stay with traditional plus-minus as the basis of our investigation.

But, let’s try to be as specific as possible.

Gallinari, post-All Star break in the 2016-17 season, played 19 games. He averaged 20 points, 6 rebounds, and two assists over those 19 games. Out of all the players who played in at least 19 games, post-All Star game, Gallinari had the 8th best plus-minus at 6.9 (Blake was 7th at 7.5; Steph Curry was 1st at 12.5; both of them played in at least 5 more games than Gallinari did post-All Star game).

Now, ask yourself this: is that weird? Is that, to quote a handsome devil, “buh-zarre?”

Gallinari’s plus-minus for the entire 2016-17 season was 2.5, 58th best in the league, in between Victor Oladipo and Dewayne Dedmon (Gallinari also only played in 63 out of 82 games in the season). The player who had the same plus-minus on the season as Gallinari had in the 19 games after the All Star break (6.9) is Andre Igoudala. Iggy played in 76 games and had the 7th best plus-minus on the entire season.

Gallinari was drafted in the first round in 2008 with the 6th overall pick. Since then, his best plus-minus for an entire season is 5.1 in 2011-12. But, he only played in 43 games that year. His next year, however, 2012-13, he played in 71 games and had a plus-minus of 4.7. So, let’s take this back to last year: the player who had a 5.1 plus-minus last season was Patty Mills (who played in 80 games), who was in between George Hill and Jae Crowder; and the player who had a 4.7 plus-minus last year was No One (because nobody ended up with 4.7 exactly), but Gordon Hayward had a 4.8 and Kyrie Irving had a 4.6. Pretty good!

So, for at least one season, Danilo Gallinari had been very, very good. And, so far this season, he’s been excellent.

ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus had Gallinari as the 31st best player last season, right after Zaza Pachulia (...good? Kemba Walker was rated behind both, for what it’s worth.).

Cleaning the Glass (an excellent website) had Danilo’s points per shot attempt in the 89th percentile last season. And, Gallinari was in the best two-man Denver lineup last season, along with Nikola Jokic (at 4.5) and also second best with Gary Harris at 3.9. (However, his usage percentage was only 20%, same as Aaron Gordon and Clint Capela. Gallinari’s never topped 23% usage in any season.)

Gallinari’s net rating (via NBA.com/stats) in 2016-17 was 2.7, the same as Malcolm Brogdon and Dion Waiters (2.8 for Waiters). Gallinari’s best net rating for an entire season is 7.9, but that’s the 43 game season, so let’s use his 7.2 net rating from 2012-13 (the season he played 71 games), which happens to be his second best net rating. The player in 2016-17 who had a 7.2 net rating was Kevin Love. Pretty good again!

Let’s look at PER, another “advanced” stat. Basketball-reference.com lists Gallinari’s best PER at 19 (15 is the replacement level value), and his PER last season was 17.4. The top 20 last year in PER were Westbrook with 30.6 down to Mike Conley at 23.2.

But, Danilo was top 20 in free throws, free throw percentage (4th overall), true shooting percentage (12th overall), and offensive rating (6th overall, in between Chris Paul and Nikola Jokic, Gallinari’s teammate on Denver).

Despite those wonderful offensive stats, though, Gallinari was not in the top 20 in points, nor top 30. He was the 40th at 18.2 points per game last season, and 51st in total points scored. Post-All Star game he scored 20.4 points per game, but that still wasn’t in the top 25.

The fantasy basketball owners know this. They tend to see the world through the eyes of counting statistics, like points, assists, and turnovers, more than the ratios. Danilo Gallinari is NOT owned in at least 90% of teams. His ADP is 73rd according to ESPN, which means he’s either going in the 6th or 7th round of most leagues, along with Julius Randle, Avery Bradley, and Steven Adams. Last year, he was the 66th best fantasy player according to ESPN’s Player Rater.

I think the disconnect here, if there is one, between myself and Grandma Tuberculosis is that I was surprised by Danilo Gallinari’s elite performance post-All Star game last season, and Grandma thinks I shouldn’t be.

To be fair to Grandma: Gallinari has shown stretches of offensive brilliance and his underlying stats certainly suggest that his usage should increase since his true shooting is (or, seems to be) elite; he’s usually on the best combination of lineups for his team; and he’s proven that he is at least solid and capable (in the offense), so he has a high floor. With more opportunities, more success could follow.

To be fair to me: no one, in their whole life, not even Danilo Gallinari’s mama, has considered him to be a top 10 player. 8th best player in the league in the second half? Get real, no he wasn’t. If he was so good, then why did the Nuggets have a 3 game losing streak in the second half? Why’d they lose to the Rockets THREE TIMES in the second half? I forget, did Denver make the playoffs?

To be fair to history: Basketball-Reference.com has a cool section for every player called “similarity scores.” These tables compare the player to similar players over their best stretch of years, and over their entire careers. Gallinari’s two most similar players are Dave Greenwood (the only reason I know who Dave Greenwood is because he played on the Pistons’ 1989-90 championship team, he’s not in the Hall or anything) and Cincinnatus Powell, who is indeed a real person; he played in the ABA in the late 1960s and early 70s. Cincinnatus clearly has one of the coolest first names of all time, so he’s already a good person to be compared to. He played in two All Star games (Danilo has not played in an ASG). In his best season Cincinnatus averaged 20 points, 9 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game. Last year, the season in which Grandma Tuberculosis says Danilo was awesome and I’m as dumb as I look, Gallinari averaged 18 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 assists. And, remember, he averaged 20 points, 6 rebounds, and two assists over those 19 games after the All Star game last year. So, those last 19 games were fairly similar to Cincinnatus’s best year (he was an All Star that year). Pretty good again again!

Also, Cincinnatus, the ancient Roman dictator, returned to his ploughshares when he retired (considered good by, ugh!, History and Legend). Will Gallinari do the same? Or, will power corrupt? Il Gallo, which is one of Gallinari’s nicknames, is Italian; so was Cincinnatus. Just sayin’.

Out of curiosity, I looked up whether Il Gallo (this nickname is seriously reminiscent of a dictator, too) had another occupation aside from NBA-ing. He does. He is also a model. Life is fair.

Here’s the thing: I think Danilo Gallinari is a good player who combines very good attributes from other very good players, but they haven’t yet coalesced. The optimistic view of Gallinari is that he can score as efficiently as superstars but he hasn’t had the touches to show that yet; give him more opportunities with better shots and he’ll become one of the 5 most efficient (offensive) wings in the NBA. The pessimistic view of Gallinari is that he doesn’t create those opportunities, so why believe he could get better? Do you have to force feed him to unlock his scoring potential? Is he just a (worse) version of Carmelo, all shot, no shield? Superstars, the elites, don’t need help creating offense for themselves; they force the issue.

I think that’s what separates Gallinari from the elites, as opposed to Grandma Tuberculosis who thinks that he’s one of the best players in the league and I’m stupid for being surprised at his post-ASG numbers. Danilo seems like he needs other players more than they need him; he plays well with others but doesn’t create for himself.

If Gallinari wants the respect from the fantasy owners, and by stupid fantasy writers like myself, he’ll have to prove us wrong and start scoring in the mid-20s on a consistent basis, especially if he isn’t going to get 3+ assists per game or defensive stats.

And, if Gallinari wants the respect from NBA viewers, then he’ll have to do that while also playing in LA with Blake, DeAndre, and GOAT Austin Rivers. All of those guys (lol, even Austin) need their touches. Danilo’s shooting a ton of threes, basically replacing JJ Redick. Is that his ceiling, or can he take over games when Blake sits? Regardless, he’s in LA now, he will be noticed.

But, if Gallinari wants the respect from his NBA peers and front offices, I think he’s already got it. The Clippers needed a player to help them reach new heights, perhaps even the Finals. They lost Redick and they lost Chris Paul; they replaced them with Danilo Gallinari and the Clippers are off to an excellent start. Maybe LA’s front office knew what Grandma Tuberculosis knew: Danilo’s already damn good. Don’t call it a comeback; he never left.

(But, again: HE IS NOT A TOP 10 PLAYER. LEBRON, GIANNIS, KAWHI, DURANT, CURRY, HARDEN, WESTBROOK, BOOGIE COUSINS, DR. JOHN WALL, ANTHONY DAVIS, KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS, BLAKE GRIFFIN, KYRIE, MARC GASOL, ME!, MIKE CONLEY, MAESTRO LILLARD, DECHOZAN, PAUL GEORGE; that’s more than 10 players who are better than Danilo Gallinari, just off the top of my head. But, that doesn’t mean that he’s not good! And, here’s hoping he gets even better! The only thing better than being right about a good player is being wrong about a bad one: watching unheralded, underrated, ignored, even pitied players come into themselves and become legend is one of the coolest things that can happen in sports. Remember how awesome it was watching Isaiah Thomas turn into one of the best scorers we’ve seen in recent memory? Let’s have that, but with Danilo this time. Then, maybe Grandma will start answering my calls again.)