50-Win Dreams and 5-Year Terms: One-Fifth of a Season with Marcin Gortat
When it was time for Marcin Gortat to speak to the media after the Wizards cruised to their first easy win of the season, and their first .500 record in years, he strode to the epicenter of the locker room, squeezing in between bloggers, beat writers, and Monumental Networkers alike. Unlike John Wall, who almost always stays near his own locker and perhaps wisely, but somewhat disappointingly, never seems to break from routine in his responses, Gortat seems to embrace the administrative portion of his job as Washington’s center.
It was a special night for the Polish native, as Ryszard Schnepf, the newly appointed ambassador of Poland to the United States, had attended the game, and greeted Marcin after the game in the locker room. Standing near his locker in the moments before he addressed the press, Gortat smiled widely and acted as an intermediary as other members of the organization, and even Steve Buckhantz, made their way to be introduced to the ambassador. The Wizards, under Ted Leonsis, have made a special effort to make international players like Jan Vesely feel welcome, or as Leonsis describes it, to allow for a less Borg-like cultural assimilation.
This has included, at times, accommodating foreign dignitaries at games, and granting reciprocal access between ambassadors and international players. Leonsis, careful to point out that these actions are more than simple marketing goodwill, was eager to discuss (in the above-linked 2011 interview with TAI) the attendant social benefits: travel arrangements for family members, connections with other expatriates living in the area, and access to community events.
Although both Nene and Gortat were commendable in keeping the oftentimes Godzilla-esque Nikola Vucevic away from the many available rebounds provided by a cornucopia of missed jump shots taken by John Wall and Victor Oladipo, it was clear early in the game that Vucevic’s harassing style of play was bothering Gortat, who didn’t make his first field goal of the game until there was 5:28 remaining in the third quarter. Up to that point, Gortat’s only points had come on free throw attempts. Gortat’s improving defense had largely held Vucevic in check, but when the Magic center started to break the stalemate, the Polish Hammer’s shoulder-chip began to sound the indignity alarm:
“I would like to go at everybody like that. But you know, he decided to, they decided to give him some touches under the basket. He scored twice easy, and I just tried to get him back. I said ‘Hold on, he’s scoring, I want to score, too.’ I asked John to give me the ball a few times, and I was able to make a good move and finish around the rim.”
And as he did against the Knicks just over a week beforehand, Gortat made the third quarter his, scoring 10 points and putting the game so out of reach that even Eric Maynor and the plus/minus vampire crew couldn’t delete the lead. Dependability and scoring at the center position, long the Atlantis of D.C. basketball, has surfaced.
“If you’re winning, nobody talks about small problems.”
Early in the season, the Wizards missed departed center Emeka Okafor’s defense dearly. They still do. The Wizards allowed paint point totals of 56, 74, 36, 42, and 40 in their first five games, which fed the notion that the Wizards had swapped defense for offense, both in their most pure forms, when they traded for Marcin Gortat. Of course, that’s not really true. Okafor has yet to block a shot or call out a rotation for Phoenix this season, and the Wizards have increased their defensive efficiency remarkably during their 7-2 run. Once near the bottom of the NBA in defensive efficiency, the Wizards are now ranked 11th (compared to 8th overall last season). Some of that apparent improvement is due to the quality of the teams they have faced in the last two weeks (the average winning percentage of the last ten teams Washington has faced is a less-than-stellar .416), but some may also be attributable to Gortat, acquired just before the commencement of the season, learning to locate himself alongside Nene.
Still, there is room for improvement on the defensive end. Despite Gortat’s chippiness when talking about opponents in post-game interviews (he recently referred to the Knicks front line as “puppies”), opposing centers are averaging 20.6 points per 48 minutes, with a PER (18.2) superior to Gortat’s own (17.1). But among fans of the team, the rumblings, grumblings, and Okafor sonnets have temporarily ceased. The Polish center has fit in well on the offensive end, putting John Wall’s pick-and-roll potential on display after publicly urging Wall early in the season to utilize the play more often, and opening up Nene’s game by pulling a defender wherever he goes. Plus, the team is winning, which scatters negative pixels like a gunshot among a raft of ducks.
Gortat talked about the cumulative effect of wins on the team after the cathartic game against the Magic, which saw the Wizards, who haven’t won 30 games during John Wall’s tenure, reach .500 at 9-9:
“Feels good, and trust me… I know how it is to lose 60 games in a season. These guys lost a lot of games last year. In the past 48 hours, the thing I heard is everybody’s excited that we’re finally winning, and even simple stuff like walking past the board where we have the standings, and people watching saying ‘Damn, we’re four in the standings—that’s crazy.’ So I just see the emotion and the happiness that we have in this organization and obviously it’s big. If you’re winning, nobody talks about small problems or little screw-ups and obviously it’s a great feeling, and we want to continue to do this, but we can’t get excited. There’s still a lot of work in front of us.”
Mocked by many on the local and national level after claiming that the then-lousy Wizards could still win forty or fifty games, Gortat smirked with cautious self-righteousness and a raised eyebrow as he spoke about the potential depth the already-rolling Wizards would be gaining with the return of Bradley Beal and Al Harrington, and the possible debut of Otto Porter.
“And if we’re going to be 100 percent ready with everybody on the team, then we should be a very good team. And then maybe at the end, maybe at the end, I’m going to be the guy who’s going to laugh from some of the people here that we won 50 games.”
“…ask the gentlemen on the third or fourth floor…”
As the questions began to die down, Gortat, who had just claimed that the rest he got in the fourth quarter of the ninth game his team had played in fourteen days was unnecessary, didn’t look finished. When the media began to disperse, I asked the Wizards center what it was like to play in front of his distinguished visitor, the Polish ambassador.
“Yes. I was waiting for that question. We had the Polish ambassador, and I was obviously proud that he showed up for the game. It was the first time, actually, that I was able to play in front of the ambassador here in D.C. He just started his term. The next five years he’s going to be here. I’m looking forward to building a relationship with him, and with the embassy, obviously. And you know, I’m looking forward to a great time. For the first time, he’s my lucky charm. He brought me a win, so now, he has to be here at the games every single time.”
With Gortat, you expect candor. But his endearingly earnest reply to a softball question about recognition from his home country’s representative to his adopted, if temporary, city exceeded expectations about his willingness to be open with the media. More importantly, it provided an unsubtle hint at a hope: that long-term relationships could be built within D.C. Expecting deflection, especially on a night when Gortat may have absorbed some diplomacy via osmosis, I asked about Gortat’s own D.C. timeline, and whether it matched up with the five-year term of the new Polish ambassador. His response will earn him a pass with some when next he shies away from an opposing player attacking the rim like he did against Orlando as Victor Oladipo launched into a monster dunk:
“What about me? I’m going to be here for the next seven months. I mean, I wish. I mean, you gotta ask the gentlemen on the third or fourth floor up there sitting in the office, I mean, that’s not my decision. I wish to play here, is a fun organization, is a great city. Definitely different than most of the places I’ve played, than Orlando and Phoenix, but it’s fun, it’s fun. I’d like to be here.”
It’s not something the Wizards are accustomed to hearing, nor is it something that fans should assume will happen just because of Gortat’s enthusiasm. In the NBA, centers are few and expensive. The team’s current investment in Nene (Washington’s highest-paid player), their future investment in John Wall, and their commitment to eventually paying Bradley Beal handsomely could be prohibitive as they attempt to compete with more lucrative offers from other teams. Leonsis once mentioned that he has “no intentions” of flirting with the NBA’s luxury tax, and at some point, a player the team could or should have retained will escape them.
But the “gentlemen” in Washington’s front office would do well to take note of a player willing to express his unilateral desire to remain with a historically underachieving team even as he excels. Like Martell Webster before him, Marcin Gortat has been the anthropological antithesis of previous Washington culture-makers. He has the ear (and love) of Nene, the team’s most experienced, and at times most effete, veteran. He has quickly earned the trust of Wall, who is already willing to kowtow to mid-game requests from his new center. Wall, even in praise of Nene, has made special effort to recognize the importance of having not one, but two big men capable of scoring and distributing alike. Wall’s blandishments are more than mere adulation. Washington’s franchise man knows that Gortat will have much to teach him in the coming months. After all, Gortat worked with Steve Nash, an undersized player lacking Wall’s athleticism who took advantage of many an opposing point guard through possession of an uncanny sense for space and timing.
With only one-fifth of the season expired, it’s not quite time to lick the tip of the pen and pull out the checkbook. The landscape of the NBA will change as the season rounds from prologue to exodos. And when the season ends, the Wizards, assumedly building a bridge to somewhere, will change as well. For “the next seven months,” the Wizards have a center capable of pacing a paint offense and improving on defense, even if he’s only guaranteed as a rental. Beyond that, hope the gentlemen on the fourth floor have a plan, and that mutual enthusiasm generates mutual benefit.