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Celtics free agent targets: Danilo Gallinari is a solid backup plan

Gordon Hayward is the free agent prize the Celtics have their eye on, but don’t forget about Danilo Gallinari.

Boston Celtics v Denver Nuggets Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

This is shaping up to be an exciting summer for the Boston Celtics. Not only will they be adding the No. 1 overall pick in the draft next month, but Boston can also conceivably carve out enough cap space to make a splash in free agency.

The name that keeps popping up in the rumor mill is Gordon Hayward, who is coming off an All-Star season with the Utah Jazz and has obvious ties to Celtics coach Brad Stevens from their days together at Butler. Hayward would be a great fit on a Celtics team that could use his scoring, shooting and play-making abilities.

As much as the Celtics would like to be able to bring Hayward to Boston, they have to pry him out of Utah first. Hayward missing the cut for an All-NBA selection was a significant blow to Utah’s chances to retain their star forward, as it means the difference in salary they can offer is almost negligible to what Boston can offer with a max contract. Utah’s advantage comes from an option to tack on a fifth year that no other team can offer, although Hayward would be better off diving back into free agency to sign a more lucrative max deal after four seasons if he can remain productive over that span.

Perhaps Hayward values the security of an extra year, even if it comes in the form of a player option. As appealing as it may be to join this Celtics core loaded with assets, the Jazz have built their own formidable young team that made a leap this season to 51 wins, only two fewer than Boston tallied despite navigating a brutal Western Conference. He may believe in what the Jazz are building and not want to leave. We also may be overestimating the pull his former college coach has on him.

Hayward is the top realistic free agent target, and rightfully so, yet signing him as a free agent isn’t quite the slam dunk we hope it will be. Boston needs a backup plan in case they miss out on their first choice.

Enter, Danilo Gallinari.

The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports that Gallinari is expected to decline his $16.1 million player option to test the free agent waters. The Denver Nuggets forward has long been tied to Boston in trade rumors. Now they can acquire him by only using cap space.

Gallinari averaged 18.2 points last season after setting a career-high with an average of nearly 20 per game the previous season. He would provide the Celtics with a legitimate scoring option to pair with Isaiah Thomas, one who can be trusted to shoulder the scoring load when The Little Guy is on the bench getting a breather.

At 6’10”, Gallinari has no problem getting his shot off against the forwards he’s typically matched up against. He’s a 37 percent career shooter from beyond the arc and is coming off a season in which he drained 38.9 percent of his shots from three-point range—his highest rate since his abbreviated rookie season.

Pair him at the forward spots with Jae Crowder, alongside Thomas and Avery Bradley in the backcourt, and you have four starters who each shot over 37 percent from beyond the arc last season. Then add Al Horford to the mix, whose 35.5 percent from three-point range was fifth among qualified centers. Not a bad lineup in today’s NBA, which emphasizes spacing and necessitates big men that can shoot.

Another scoring element that Gallo brings is his ability to get to the free throw line. He averaged 6.1 attempts per game this season, nearly double the average of any Celtics player besides Thomas, while converting at an elite rate of over 90 percent. Boston was merely middle of the pack in free throw attempts this season, with over a third of their 23.2 attempts coming from their star point guard. Insert Gallo into the lineup and they could leap toward the top of the league in that category.

Hayward would of course bring those same traits to Boston, and he’s undoubtedly a better all-around player. This is why Gallinari is merely the backup plan. However, there are some other factors that make Gallo appealing, which may close the gap a bit between these free agent options.

One such factor is the price tag. Hayward has earned a max contract that will pay him somewhere north of $30 million in the first year of the deal, depending on where the salary cap officially lands. Carving out that much cap space won’t be easy for the Celtics, even after renouncing all of their own free agents. Assuming Hayward isn’t willing to settle for any type of discount, Boston may be forced to trade away a key rotation piece in order to fit Hayward into their budget.

The upside to signing Gallo is that he’ll cost much less. Presumably he’ll be looking for a raise from the $16.1 million option he turned down, although a multi-year deal would justify his decision either way. His checkered injury history will prevent him from earning top dollar, and he may even have to settle for fewer than four years. A three-year deal starting at around $20 million has the potential to be a good value, albeit one that comes with a fair amount of risk given that he hasn’t played more than 63 games in any of the last three seasons.

Gallo certainly isn’t Hayward's equal, even when ignoring the injury concerns. However, if going in that direction means not having to part with Smart, Bradley or Crowder then the drop off isn’t quite as steep.

Boston needs another star to take them to the next level. Hayward is a star while Gallinari is not, which makes prioritizing the Jazz forward the goal this summer. That being said, if they strike out with Hayward, then Boston can do a lot worse than settling for Gallo, keeping the rest of their core pieces together and retaining a bit more financial security down the line.

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