Questions For (and About) Marcin Gortat’s Up-and-Down Season with the Wizards (So Far)
It’s been a back-and-forth, perhaps confusing, season for Marcin Gortat in Washington. He was prepared to start the season with Phoenix, a team expected to compete for the worst record in the NBA, but with the expectation that he would be traded at some point before the February 2014 deadline. Instead, he was shipped to Washington in late-October, days before the season opener. Not necessarily good for Washington in losing Emeka Okafor for the season (the duration was essentially revealed by Ted Leonsis in a recent blog post), but good for Gortat in that it happened sooner than later, giving him time to adjust in a free agent contract year for him.
His PER stands at 15.8, the fifth-best mark in his seven-year career. His points (13.7), rebounds (9.2), and blocks (1.6) per 36 minutes are slightly below his career averages, 13.9, 10.9 and 1.8 respectively. His field goal percentage this season (.529), is also below his career rate (.545).
Gortat’s presence has been sorely needed by Washington (evidenced by their terrible preseason defensive showing without Okafor and roster depth inefficiencies otherwise), and not all has been bad. But he’s also struggled to find chemistry with John Wall, particularly on screening action (and particularly having previously played with Steve Nash in Phoenix).
After the second game of the season, Gortat had some interesting words regarding the developing pick-and-roll chemistry between he and John Wall:
“I’m learning to play with John, who’s super fast. At some point, when I’m setting a screen, by the time I open up, he’s already at the rim, so it looks like he doesn’t need me to roll to the basket. So again, I’m just learning. In the fourth quarter, Coach said ‘Go set a screen’ and [John] just told me ‘No, no, I don’t need screen now,’ so he’s pretty much good enough to do it on his own. Like I said, it’s a learning process for me.”
After an early-December home loss to the Nuggets, Randy Wittman implored his new seven-footer to operate closer to the basket, and alluded that the team went away from Gortat on offense late in the game because he was not doing just that:
“At times we take fallaways and get away from what we were doing in terms of scoring and attacking the basket. So, hey, it’s easy to sit here and be an armchair quarterback right now.”
Two games later, after a home loss to the Clippers (Washington’s fourth defeat in a row), Gortat vented a little bit about his role and gave the media some comments that would later be slightly overblown:
“I just don’t like the position I play. I’m constantly drifting more and more away from the basket. Quite honestly, that’s not my game. I’m capable of making a play or two plays like that but I feel more comfortable underneath the basket. I just got to talk to coach and clear things up. Just make sure we’re on the same page.”
John Wall would go on express confidence in his big man, imploring him not to hesitate, which Gortat had been doing, if he had the open look. The positive Wizards beat carried on with three road wins in a row over New York, Brooklyn and Boston, but Gortat still didn’t seem on his game, especially with Nene just returning from injury but still out of the starting lineup, bringing more more responsibility on Gortat’s shoulders, which came with extra attention from opposing defenses.
Randy Wittman, after a subsequent Dec. 28 home win over the Pistons (and after Gortat got destroyed by Nikola Pekovic in Minnesota the night prior), would go on to flippantly say this when asked about Gortat’s offensive role and struggles:
“If he doesn’t want to shoot 15-foot jump shots, don’t roll to 15 feet.”
Prior to that Pistons game, Wittman wished for a magic wand that would make Gortat hit eight straight shots:
“Guys are going to have ups and downs. You got to play through those, stay confident and stay aggressive. I wish I had a wand that I could tap him on the head and he’s going to go out and make eight straight shots, but I don’t have that wand.”
Spacing, rotation, diving, rolling, and popping … these are not sciences to the Wizards, clearly.
And in the midst of it all, prior to a New Year’s Day game against the Mavericks, there was Dallas coach Rick Carlisle praising Gortat for his ability to shoot:
“Gortat is a guy that we’ve always liked. We signed him to an offer sheet* five years ago and Orlando matched. One of the things we thought he could do was be an effective midrange shooter in this league, and he is … he’s become that. And one of the things tonight, which is a key, is we’ve got to take away his open 14-to-16-foot shots.”
On Sunday against the Warriors, Gortat was benched for almost the entire second half (from the 8:27 mark of the third quarter till the end), seemingly because of poor defensive possessions against Andrew Bogut sandwiching a horribly air-balled jumper from the baseline. Afterward, Wittman had an awkward exchange with the media in regard to an in-game exchange that the coach appeared to have with Gortat. Wittman did not really give an explanation as to why Gortat played so few minutes. Let’s watch:
Gortat did not make himself available to the media after the game, disappearing into the night before Wittman’s press conference was over. The next day, he told the Washington Post’s Michael Lee, “How I felt? I knew I screw up two places, one offensively, one defensively, and I guess that was it,” Gortat said. “It was a coaching decision. I was ready to play.”
Gortat concluded, “We’ve got to regroup. I think we definitely need the team bond a little bit. Go on the road, stay together in the bus, plane, hotel, maybe a dinner and just talk to each other. I don’t think there is anything going on with the team, I don’t think there is any problem. We just got to stick together. We hit really tough time right now. We lost three games and we just got to work on it.”
To Gortat’s credit, he’s been as candid as he’s been professional this season, often, perhaps more than he should, assuming responsibility for mistakes and pitfalls. Gortat need to get tougher, a lot tougher. He need to finish through contact, draw more fouls, and punish opposing defenders with his upper body physique (which draws eyes away from his lack of lower body strength). Gortat also need to get more comfortable with court spacing and his jumper—it is dire for the Wizards’ offense that he hit from range to open up the court for teammates (he’s shooting 37.9% from midrange season, comparable to the league average).
To improve his play in a contract year and get more wins for his team, the Polish Hammer needs to spit splinters; he needs to play more inside, then out. But it’s also incumbent on both Wittman and Wall to put Gortat in the right situations, to help him balance motivation, the spoils, and dirty work.
There’s plenty of time left—51 games—but the Wizards, and Gortat, might find themselves in a whole heap of trouble if they just assume they can back into the playoffs in the East.
Prior to the Warriors game, I caught up with Gortat for a few of questions. Most of them are below (an answer to another question where Gortat called Andrew Bogut “dirty” was posted before the game).
Assistant NBA coaches and their contributions to player development often go unheard of. So over your career in the NBA, who are some of the assistant coaches who have helped develop your game?
“In Orlando it was Brendan Malone, responsible for my biggest development. He’s an assistant coach right now in Sacramento. I was fortunate enough to have one of the best assistant coaches in the NBA to work with me. He has two NBA championships, he’s worked with the best. He’s worked with Rodman, Joe Dumars, so he was really knowledgable man and he could give me a lot of advice and a lot of skill.
“Also, Ralph Sampson, Corey Gaines … Joe Rogowski, he was the strength and conditioning coach in Orlando, he’s now with the Houston Rockets. Those are probably the people that have had the biggest influence on my game. Probably like I said, those three guys: Brendan Malone No. 1, Ralph Sampson No. 2, Corey Gaines No. 3—these guys had a lot of influence. Kenny Gattison and Mark West, also … the last few months.”
Who most helped you get acclimated to the NBA culture off the court, especially as a player coming from overseas?
“Definitely Hedo Turkoglu. That’s a guy who helped me out the most. He was obviously a veteran who knew what was going on and he was able to take me under his wing. And also, you know, end of the day, it was Dwight Howard. He was the guy who always took care of me, who keep my back. He would make a fool out of me, but, you know, these two guys pretty much in Orlando.”
You signed an offer sheet with the Dallas Mavericks in the summer of 2009, but Orlando matched. At the time, you expressed disappointment. Do you ever think about that alternate path?
“Of course. Probably I’d be with a championship ring today … [laughs] … probably. But you never know how the situation will go. I was just excited that I had the opportunity to go to the team where I’m going to play, but I ended up staying in Orlando, then I get traded to Phoenix, which was an excellent trade for me. I got to play with the best point guard in the game, so it was fun. But, we’ll see after this year, I’m a free agent.”
So what about that tattoo on your left shoulder … is that a goblin ripping through your skin? Can I ask about that?
How, exactly, young were you when you got it?
“Too young.” [sheepishly grins and walks out of the locker room]