Paige: Nuggets using offseason to focus on moving forward

Are the Nuggets moving forward?

Or backward?

It’s all about the forwards for the Nugs in the off-season.

Danilo Gallinari, as anticipated, has opted out of the final year of his contract, giving up a sure thing $16 million, to seek a long-term deal that could guarantee the veteran forward more than $80 million.

Gallinari has expressed his love for the Nuggets and the city of Denver, saying he’d like to play here for a long time and live here after his basketball career ends. Strong compliments from the 28-year-old Gallinari, who was born, grew up (to 6-foot-1) and started playing basketball in Italy.

He also must like the Fettuccine Alfredo in Colorado restaurants.

And the Nuggets certainly adore "Gallo" ("Rooster" in Italian), who was given a $37 million extension two years ago. Stan and Josh Kroenke obtained Gallinari as the centerpiece (forward piece?) of the Carmelo Anthony trade in 2011.

It was hoped, and assumed, that Gallinari would replace Melo as the Nuggets’ starting small forward, top scorer, All-Star, face of the franchise and the leader on an annual playoff team.

It hasn’t worked out the way the Kroenkes, former general manager Masai Ujiri and his successor Tim Connelly, and a succession of coaches had planned.

Injuries have been a significant reason for Gallinari’s underachievement. In six seasons he has played in only 303 games and started an average of barely 45 games a year.

And Gallo has participated in the postseason only twice (12 games), and not at all lately.

He is not an all-star.

He has appeared in 70-plus games (71) only once – 2012-2013 – and was in 63 the past season.

He is the Nuggets’ premier scorer – reaching 19.5 per two seasons ago and 18.2 in 2016-17. But the belief (at least mine) was Gallo should have been averaging 23-25 points in a fast-paced offense, especially given his supposed outside shooting prowess and his accuracy at the free throw line.

He has not fulfilled Great Expectations.

However, Gallinari is considered among the best four potential free-agent forwards when the negotiation stage begins next month. He can start talking on July 1 and sign with someone on July 6.

Does Gallinari really want to come back? Do the Nuggets actually want to sign him? He won’t get a max contract in the $30 million per year range, but Gallinari will receive $20-million-plus for four years from some team drooling for wing scoring help.

Both Gallinari and the Nuggets have critical decisions. Sure, this is an up-and-coming franchise, supposedly, but the Nuggets are not close to a championship, and couldn’t even sneak into the playoffs as an eighth seed a couple of months ago. The team continues to be young and inexperienced and rather common, to be honest. Can the Nuggets get over the hump with Gallinari, or do they just keep running into a bump with him?

What’s the alternative for the player? Gallinari can try to sign with a contending team (Oklahoma City?) or just accept the highest offer. (Would the Knicks wish to lure him back to New York?) Or he can agree to a "hometown" discount with the Nuggets or give them the chance to match a proposal from other teams.

But, even though Connelly thinks of Gallinari as the Italian son he never had (and we know how much the Nuggets appreciate European players), will the GM, and president Josh, be willing to spend the big bucks and risk further injury to Gallinari and the same kind of sub-superstar production?

The alternatives for the Nuggets are: (1) Slide Wilson Chandler (also acquired in the Melo deal) into the small forward starting slot, where he has been utilized when Danilo is not available, (2) Draft a small forward or (3) Use the Gallinari money on another free-agent forward.

Chandler, the Nuggets’ third-highest paid player at $11.2 million, never has felt very strongly about playing in Denver; he has been oft-injured and inconsistent, and, at 30, he is two years older than Gallinari. Neither is much of a rebounder nor assist creator, although Chandler is better suited to defense.

There are constant rumors surrounding Chandler – the latest silly poop popped up Friday – and the Nuggets certainly would be interested despite Connelly’s public show of affection for Chandler.

In fact, the Nuggets probably would trade Chandler and Kenneth Faried (who will have a salary of $13 million in 2017-2018) if another team would approach the Nuggets with an idea about a prominent power forward. There aren’t many, if any, on the block.

So, the Nuggets could go all-in on Paul Millsap, who just opted out of his own deal with the Hawks, or Blake Griffin, who has a player option with the Clippers, or Gordon Hayward of the Jazz. The rest of the free agent forwards aren’t worthy of a debate.

Problems are prevalent. Millsap, who the Nuggets have coveted for more than year, claims he wants to return to Atlanta. But the Hawks, who hired a new general manager, may not want to sign him to a four- or five-year contract because Millsap is 32.

Are the Nuggets up for providing one of the best two-way forwards in the NBA with more than $100 million over four years?

Griffin likely will resign with the Clippers or perhaps switch to the Thunder or the Mavericks.

And Hayward is not moving from Salt Lake City to Denver after the Jazz made an impressive playoff surge.

Truth is, stars aren’t beating down the Denver door to play for the Nuggets.

In the draft the Nuggets probably will have to pick a power forward who they think is league-ready. At No. 13 they might be able to select Zach Collins, the impressive freshman for Gonzaga. But he’s raw, and the Nuggets will have more rawness. Connelly keeps promising playoffs, and fails. And the Nuggets keep being one of the worst home attendance draws in the NBA.

Progression or regression?

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