One of the biggest surprises in the NBA this past postseason was the unsuspecting run that the Washington Wizards went on. Part of the reason for their success was the play of their center Marcin Gortat, known as “The Polish Hammer”. As such, Washington made sure they kept their big man by agreeing to a five-year $60 million contract that may yield for their other free agent, Trevor Ariza, to follow suit to keep the core of the Wizards together.
Gortat may not be the best center in the league. He is not a glamorous player, but what Gortat brings to the floor is heart and tenacity. He is gritty, plays excellent defense and is solid at crashing the boards. What makes him particularly more dangerous for Washington is the tandem of him and power forward Nene Hilario. Together, they make one of the top frontcourts in the NBA along with the consistent Trevor Ariza, who is the last needed piece to reassemble the stellar starting lineup the Wizards had last season that also consists of All-Star John Wall and the surging Bradley Beal.
It has been a long road for Gortat. During his first four seasons he was barely used on the Orlando Magic, as he served as Dwight Howard’s backup. He showed signs of life from time to time, but the most minutes he ever averaged was 15, which is hardly anything to showcase one’s talent. Orlando knew he was talented though as in the 2009 free agency period they matched a five-year $34-million offer sheet in Dallas simply so a competitor could not get him. As such, they paid him to essentially sit on the bench. Yet, despite all that, the Magic would trade him to the Phoenix Suns a year later.
In Phoenix, Gortat started to shine and prove to the rest of the league that he could be one of the best centers in the league. However, there was only one problem. His squad was not very good. He averaged 13 ppg, 9.2 rpg and 1.5 bpg during his three-year stint in Phoenix where his team failed to make the playoffs every year. In turn, Gortat grew frustrated. He knew he had what it took to be a force in the league, but without much of a supporting cast, there was little that he could do. Instead, he was opinionated in the media that bordered on him desiring a trade from the cellar of the Western Conference.
Fortunately for Gortat, he got his wish and was traded just prior to the start of last season to the Washington Wizards. While it seemed that Washington was determined to find themselves in the playoff mix, they were far from it early on. It appeared that Gortat had left one bad situation for another as they started the season with a 3-7 record. Midway through January they showed some promise as they teetered around the 50 percent mark and at times managed to go above that mark. That said, it was not until February 25 that the team appeared to be gelling as they brought their record to 29-28, and as a result, they would never look back at a 50 percent mark the rest of the season.
At this point in the season, Washington seemed to find their groove. While they still suffered from a lack of depth, they looked to have one of the more promising, surging starting lineups in the league. For once, it appeared the tide had been changing for Gortat. He was not only one of the leaders on the team, but the wheels were starting to be put into motion of being an integral part of a winning squad. This was never more evident in the playoffs where he showcased his gruff style when going up against defensive player of the year Joakim Noah, not to mention the second best defensive squad in the Indiana Pacers.
If there is one thing that was evident after this year’s playoffs, it is that Washington is a team on the rise. After all, they defeated the hard-nosed Chicago Bulls in five games and lasted six with the second-leading defense in the Indiana Pacers in the second round. Now that they have solidified their main big man in the paint, they have to lock in one of the most talented starting lineups in the league by re-signing their small forward Trevor Ariza, which should be easier now. Ariza is an integral part of the squad who not only can be a consistent scorer but can help Gortat and Nene with the rebounding load. This was never more evident than in the playoffs when he averaged 13.6 ppg and a career high 8.9 rpg. As such, between a growing squad and a decent amount of cap space, it appears Washington can keep the band together.
For the first time in years, the Washington Wizards appear to be headed in the right direction. They did so by creating a core of guys who have chemistry and play like a team. Marcin Gortat, who has had a history of getting raw deals on teams, finally seems to be headed in the right direction on a team that, arguably, could become one of the top teams in the East over the next few years. Now all the team needs to do is to pick up his front court sidekick Trevor Ariza to continue their ascension within the Eastern Conference.
Commentary by Simon Mounsey