Let’s Talk About Marcin Gortat’s Bunnies
Marcin Gortat misses a close shot at the rim. Wizards fans (mostly via Twitter) freak out about how he’s the worst finishing big man in the history of pixels. The ESPN Trade Machine sees a flux of “Wizards” activity. Gortat is proverbially cast out to a Viking funeral in Polish waters. It’s tough for fan insight to get over itself sometimes, especially when it’s wrong.
But, such opinions of Gortat are nothing new. And in several senses, they are warranted. Gortat seems to miss a lot of perceived “gimmes” in the paint—“bunnies” we now call them. He’s either trying to maneuver his athletic limbs around defenders and missing in the process; or his momentum is going to the rim so fast that he’s out of control; or, perhaps the most familiar sight, Gortat simply isn’t punishing defenders by trying to finish through the contact, as you would expect from a man with large, Polish shoulders. To make matters more hypothetically imposing, one of those shoulders is donned with a tattoo of a goblin ripping through skin that would make the Iron Curtain blush a tiny blush.
What young Kevin Zimmerman, Phoenix Suns blogger, wrote about Gortat to TAI in late-January has stuck with me:
On the court, I can’t say I miss him a whole lot. I always thought he was sort of soft. [Miles] Plumlee is already producing about as well as Gortat is and I honestly have wondered if the Suns would be worse off this season if they hadn’t made that trade. It should be noted that I’m someone who thinks there’s more value in a center threatening to foul someone driving to the hoop (Kendrick Perkins) rather than one who wants to score 15 points per game. Just me, though.
Hard to wholly argue. If Gortat was ‘less soft’ and ‘finished more’ he would be an All-Star (at least when the center position still counted). Now he is a Wizard. And now, on a good team (good amongst the ‘average/.500’ set), Gortat’s efforts go underestimated, distracted by bouncing bunnies on the hardwood.
In the 1,637 minutes Gortat has been on the court over Washington’s 50 games to date, the Wizards are plus-4.5 in plus/minus. That leads the team. John Wall is next with plus-3.3, Trevor Ariza is plus-3.2, Nene is plus-3.0, and Kevin Seraphin is plus-0.2. (Glen Rice is plus-5.7 but has played too few minutes for that to be significant.)
Gortat is not an amazing shot blocker nor does he boast a heavy-statured defensive and rebounding presence, although the Wizards do allow 100.5 points per 100 possessions when Gortat is on the court and allow 4.7 points more when he sits the bench. Gortat’s rebounds per 36 minutes are a career-low 9.7 (1.2 below his career average), and the percentage of rebounds he grabs while on the floor is also a career-low 15.4 percent (his career average is 17.2 percent). But, Gortat is in the NBA’s top 10 in blocks per game (1.56). Per SportVU tracking technology, he allows opponents to shoot 50.6 percent at the rim, which is no where near as good as Roy Hibbert (41.9%) or Serge Ibaka (44.1%), but closely compares to DeAndre Jordan (52.2%), LaMarcus Aldridge (50.5%), and Jonas Valanciunas (50%).
The fact is that while Gortat is no Emeka Okafor, he has the footwork and the ability to be a decent rim protector—he’s certainly proven that with major rejections of Josh Smith and Carlos Boozer at points this season.
Gortat’s greatest influence comes on the offensive end, and this comes as no surprise. That’s his game, offense; the Wizards knew that when they spent the money and bet the pick. But Gortat is not just a big man who can knock down midrange jumpers and score on an occasional sweeping hook shot. His ability to set hard and wide screens and to subsequently be a threat to dive to the basket or pop for a jumper has seemingly done wonders for Washington’s offense and spacing.
On the season the Wizards average 101.3 points per 100 possessions (OffRtg). But when Gortat is on the court, that jumps to 104.3, which leads the team (John Wall’s on-court OffRtg is 104.0). We know that when Wall is on the bench, Washington’s offense really suffers (via the much-discussed backup point guard situation), averaging 92.1 points per 100 possessions—a vast 11.9 point difference when Wall plays versus when he doesn’t. When Gortat isn’t on the floor, the team offense suffers, too, averaging 95 points per 100 possessions (second lowest off-court number after Wall), which is a 9.3 point difference. It goes without saying that Wall has statistically been the most important Wizard this season. By similar measures, Gortat has been the second-most important Wizard.
But the offensive fun does not stop there.
- The Wizards average 17.5 assists per 100 possessions. With Wall on the court that jumps to 17.6. With Gortat on the court, that jumps to a team-high 18.3 assists.
- The Wizards average an eFG% of 49.5. With Wall on the court that jumps to 50.7 percent. With Gortat on the court, that jumps to a team-high 51.4 percent.
- The Wizards average 16.1 fastbreak points per game. With Wall on the court that jumps to 17.9. With Gortat on the court, that jumps to yet another team-high of 18.0 fastbreak points.
Gortat’s mere presence creates spacing for better passing, which leads to more efficient shooting and more transition buckets. He’s not just a center looking for his, Gortat is an offensive staple for Washington. This will only be enhanced as Wall learns how to better use him.
Back to those bunnies.
Yes, Gortat misses too many from close range for comfort. But who, exactly, should he be better than? LeBron James and Kevin Durant? Probably not.
Basketball-Reference.com defines field goal attempts “at the rim” as shots within two feet of the basket. Amongst the 66 NBA players who have attempted at least 150 shot at the rim this season, Durant ranks first in field goal percentage (.799) and LeBron James ranks second (.786).
After that, no one in the NBA is better than Gortat. He has made 130 of his 167 shots at the rim, giving him a shooting percentage of .778 that’s better than Dwight Howard (.768), Serge Ibaka (.765), Blake Griffin (.737), Derrick Favors (.729), Andrew Bogut (.722), Miles Plumlee (.718), DeAndre Jordan (.712), and many, many more. (If you extend the range to within four feet of the basket, Gortat’s FG% still ranks seventh best amongst those with 200 or more attempts.)
What does it all mean? It means the well-roundedness of Gortat’s game is misunderstood, distracted by missed shots presumed by viewers to be representative of a trend that simply does not exist. The reality is that these misses are not drops in the proverbial bucket for any NBA player. (Also worth noting, per NBA.com/stats, Gortat is shooting a career-high 71.2 percent in the restricted area this season and has never before broken the 70 percent mark.)
But maybe it’s not so much about the shots Gortat doesn’t make but the shots that he doesn’t get a chance to make via bobbled passes like butter. Counter argument: Gortat has one of the lowest turnover percentages on the team (12%)—not odd for a big man, but better than Nene (13.7%) and definitely better than Kevin Seraphin (16.5%). Also, Gortat sure seems to be decent at catching deceptive zip or bounce passes from Wall, such as this one, this one, and this one.
So the next time you see Gortat miss a bunny or flub a pass, sure, go ahead and be frustrated. As many a young adult’s illustrated book on sex will tell you: it’s perfectly normal. But don’t do it without circumspection. Gortat’s impact on the Wizards this season, like most things, is best viewed in its entirety.