LAS VEGAS – He had the world, make believe or not, off his right shoulder and sudden pressure from every direction, and Danilo Gallinari didn’t flinch Saturday at how much his life had instantly changed.
Hide from the new level of expectations? Gallinari invited it. He practically craved it. He chose the Clippers as a free agent, a deal ultimately finalized in a sign-and-trade with the Nuggets and Hawks, in part because Los Angeles needed to win big, and now.
The Clippers just lost in the first round again, Chris Paul is gone, Jamal Crawford is gone and DeAndre Jordan holds an option to become a free agent after 2017-18. If Gallinari doesn’t deliver big on his three-year, $65-million dollar contract, the only thing that will need developing is an escape plan out of L.A.
“There is a lot of pressure, for sure,” Gallinari admitted after his introductory press conference at the Thomas & Mack Center. “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.”
He said it while standing near large windows that afforded a view of The Strip and the many lands that have been planted into the famed boulevard, not far off his shoulder. New York, Venice, Paris, Monte Carlo by name if not by distinctive look. Even a giant Ferris wheel, in case there is a joke to be made at some point about stepping into a circus atmosphere.
“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.”
He has gone from emerging as a face of basketball for Italian basketball as a teenager to beginning his NBA career in the most unforgiving of markets, New York – the real one – to being the biggest name the Nuggets got in the return package for star Carmelo Anthony to the newest chapter that will play out before a different kind of large windows.
Gallo has played in the biggest of markets before, he has played with the expectation that comes with being the sixth pick in the draft transitioning to the NBA as a Knick and he has played with the pressure of needing to produce as a Nugget after being a large part of the Anthony blockbuster. But this is different. In seven full seasons on the same team — with 2010-11 split by the trade and 2011-12 chopped by the lockout — New York or Denver had one winning record. The 2012-13 Nuggets were 57-25 with Gallinari, Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, Andre Iguodala, Wilson Chandler and others. The next-best mark was 40-42 and he didn’t even break 35 victories in four of the seven seasons.
The Clippers have won at least 51 games the last five seasons.
“But remember him in New York?” said Lawrence Frank, the executive vice president for basketball operations in L.A. “New York’s a major stage. They’ll eat you alive. The fact that he had the success there. And to be an international star as a young player in Milano. I think you’re always challenging guys to become what they want to become and do things they may not want to do in order to become the players they want to become. But with Gallo, we just thought he really checked all those boxes as a competitor, character, mentally tough, high-basketball-IQ player.”
Now Gallinari joins Blake Griffin and Jordan on the front line that needs to produce to withstand the loss of guards Paul and Crawford, just as all the Clippers desperately need a playoff run after consecutive first-round eliminations. Plus Gallo is doing it on a deal that averages $21.7 million per season. That’s a lot of pressure.