A recent stretch where they lost six out of seven games took a bit of the early season shine off the LA Clippers, but at 19-14 heading into their Wednesday night battle with the Sacramento Kings, they’re still one of the most pleasant surprises of the first portion of the year. Pegged as a fringe playoff contender at best (the Clippers’ preseason over/under closed at 37.5 wins), the Clips have instead emerged as one of the deepest, toughest, hardest-playing, and —this is the most incredible part, considering their reputation during the Lob City era — likable teams in the NBA.
A bunch of different factors have been pinpointed as catalysts for their better-than-expected play. There’s Doc Rivers, who is doing a fantastic coaching job again. There’s Tobias Harris, who’s getting All-Star buzz while having his best, most complete season. There’s Montrezl Harrell, who is a candidate for both Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year and may or may not have grabbed a few more rebounds while I wrote this sentence. There’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is making positive two-way contributions and already looks like one of the biggest steals of what appears to be an incredibly deep and talented 2018 draft class. There’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, who is playing fewer minutes this season than he did a year ago but is also still doing Lou Williams things.
And then there’s Danilo Gallinari. After an injury-ravaged debut season in LA after which he appeared to be dead weight with an untradeable contract, Gallo has come back in full force this season. Gallo played only 21 games last season and looked awful when he was on the floor, posting career-worst shooting numbers and sporting all sorts of indicators that he’d fallen off athletically. But he’s played in 32 of the Clippers’ 33 games so far this year; and he looks better than he did at any point during his prior stops in either New York or Denver, finally tapping into the full breadth of the two-way potential that made him the No. 6 overall pick in the draft all the way back in 2008.
He’s averaging career-highs in points and rebounds per game, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, and true shooting percentage, total rebound rate and turnover rate, player efficiency rating, value over replacement player, and win shares per 48 minutes. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus pegs him as the NBA’s fifth-best small forward so far this season, and the seventh-best forward overall.
At age 30, he’s getting to the basket more often than he has since his age-24 season back in 2012-13, and he’s doing it largely by creating looks for himself. A career-low 39 percent of his 2-point baskets so far this season have been assisted, per Basketball-Reference. Previously, he’d hovered in the high-40s to low-50s. Playing next to Harris has done wonders for him, and that combination has been a bedrock for the Clippers. Among the 26 two-man units that have spent at least 250 minutes on the floor, Gallo-Harris ranks fifth in pace-adjusted scoring margin.
Working as a second-side creator has always been Gallo’s best skill, and getting to feast on the weaker forward matchup almost every night has afforded him the opportunity to slice through seams that weren’t always available to him earlier in his career. It helps that he (knock on wood) appears fully healthy for the first time in years, regaining the herky-jerky bounce and off-kilter rhythm that allows him to blow past defenders that he doesn’t seem to have the pure foot speed to get by at first glance, and to create and finish through contact on his way to the rim. Among 104 players averaging at least 5 drives per game, per Second Spectrum data on NBA.com, Gallinari has created points better than all but 19 of them, fueled by the second-best on-the-drive foul rate among that same group, behind only Blake Griffin. (He’s drawn a foul on more than 12 percent of his drives to the rim, which is pretty ridiculous when you consider James Harden is only at 10 percent.)
The ability to drive is, of course, set up by the fact that defenders have to close hard on Gallinari, and they have to close harder than ever this season because he’s shooting better than he ever has before. He came over from Italy with a reputation as an elite shooter (Mike D’Antoni once said Gallinari was the best shooter he’s ever seen), but after a strong rookie and sophomore season from behind the 3-point line, plateaued as a mostly average shooter for the next seven years of his career, knocking down 36 percent of his attempts from behind the line.
Gallinari is shooting an on-its-face-unsustainable 47 percent from deep this year, but he’s also feasting on open looks. More than 55 percent of his shot attempts have been classified by NBA.com as open or wide-open, meaning the closest defender was four-plus feet away at the time of release. That’s helped him connect at an insane rate on catch-and-shoot attempts — only six players are shooting better than Gallinari on catch-and-shoot 3s. He’s posting the 12th-best effective field goal percentage on catch-and-shoots out of 184 players attempting at least 2 of them per game.
More than just the quality of Gallinari’s production, though, it’s been the consistency with which he has produced that has been most important to the Clippers. Consider Game Score, a metric which was created to roughly measure a player’s performance within a single game. It’s scaled so that 10 is the average score. Anything better than that and you played pretty well. Better than 20, you played really well. Get into the 30s or 40s and you really got cooking.
Gallinari has posted a Game Score of 10 or better in 25 of his 32 games, a rate of 78.1 percent. That’s essentially the same rate as Tobias Harris, and Gallo’s rate of 20-plus Game Score nights is better than Harris’ as well as everybody else’s on the team. He and Harris are the only Clippers to get into the 30s at any point this season, while Gallo is the team’s only rotation player who has yet to post a single Game Score below zero.
Every one of those numbers represents a new career-best for Gallinari — the 15.4 average game score, the 78 percent rate of above-average games, and the 28 percent rate of really good games.
The worry with Gallinari is always that a stretch of play even remotely like this just never seems to last all that long. He’s played only 513 of a possible 886 games on his career, just 58 percent. He’s played more than 70 games just twice in 11 years, and more than 60 just twice more. Every time it looks like he’s getting going, he goes down instead. Hopefully, for his sake and the Clippers’, that doesn’t happen this time around. Because this version of Gallinari is too fun and too important to lose.