The Wizards’ transition into a pace-and-space team hasn’t been seamless. They are playing faster but not better in the aggregate, as their offense has perked up, but their defense has suffered. Their scoring margin suggests they should be even worse than their very mediocre 6-4 record.
That’s not a big problem, really. This was always supposed to be a transitional year for Washington, a time to embrace modern principles and adapt to fit the strengths of John Wall and Bradley Beal. The Wizards are seemingly looking at the future for the first time in a while.
Yet, a transaction in the recent past could come back to haunt a franchise ready to move on.
Marcin Gortat signed a five-year, $60 million extension on 2014 that runs through the 2018-19 season. He is, for all intents and purposes, a part of the Wizards’ core. The commitment the front office made was significant but deemed necessary at the time. The contract was only supposed to look bad on the back end and even then the soaring salary cap was supposed to ease the blow.
If the version of both Gortat and the Wizards we have seen this season so far is representative of things to come, however, Washington might regret making the move sooner rather than later.
At a glance, things don’t look that bad. The Polish Hammer is averaging the same amount of points per 36 minutes as last season, albeit less efficiently. He’s not rebounding as well as he was last year, but the Wizards are doing better on that area with him on the floor than off. He’s also seemingly having a big impact on interior defense, as the team goes from mediocre to atrocious in field-goal percentage allowed within five feet depending on whether he’s playing or resting.
A closer look, however, reveals some serious problems.
The Wizards are allowing one more three-pointer per 48 minutes with Gortat on the court and opponents are shooting a scorching-hot 40 percent on those looks. The fastbreak points allowed almost double when the 32-year-old center is playing, going from a modest nine per 48 minutes to 17. So why is that happening?
Traditionally opponents have actually scored at a higher rate inside with Gortat playing, which suggests he’s never actually been close to an elite rim protector. His blocks are down, and he’s allowing opponents to finish at a very high 52 percent on shots he contests inside. The good interior defense at a team level has less to do with Gortat finding another gear than with the Wizards simply helping deep in the paint after every scramble, leaving opponents open from outside.
In transition, Gortat doesn’t show great awareness and looks very uncomfortable in the perimeter. He’s just not mobile enough to switch or step outside. He prefers to stay close to the paint even if it means leaving shooters open. It happened twice in one game against the Magic.
The Wizards rank 19th in defensive rating, a huge step down from their fifth place last season. It’s not all Gortat’s fault, but he’s clearly struggling with being the sole rim protector on a fast-paced team. That’s puts the front office in a bit of a bind.
Gortat is still a solid starting center, and that’s all this iteration of the Wizards needs to make the playoffs, which is the immediate goal.
The problem is the Wizards’ upside with him as a core piece is incredibly limited. We are seeing how good a team with John Wall, Bradley Beal and Gortat as its three best players can be, and it’s not encouraging. Without a huge step forward in Beal’s or Otto Porter’s game or the unlikely signing of Kevin Durant, it’s hard to see that triumvirate as the backbone of a contender. And that’s before taking into account that one of them is in the tail end of his prime.
Changing courses next summer is not impossible but won’t be easy either. Washington will have enough cap space to bring in a replacement but spending big on another center after making such a huge investment in Gortat would be admitting to a mistake.
Unlike what’s going on in Golden State and Cleveland, there’s no Festus Ezeli or Tristan Thompson waiting in the wings to take over the starting center spot from a slower behemoth. The Wizards will likely pick in the middle of the first round, where NBA-ready bigs are scarce.
The NBA is so unpredictable that completely ruling out a jump to contender status for the Wizards would be unwise. Yet, outside from Wall and Beal, there are not a lot of pieces there that suggest that will happen. If the already declining Gortat is part of the core, then the foundation is clearly flawed, and building on it won’t do the franchise any good in the long haul.
Washington did what it had to do to escape the league’s basement and that’s commendable. Unfortunately, in order to do so, the front office likely limited the team’s potential by locking themselves into a long contract with a veteran player who doesn’t seem to fit their preferred style. Whether they can fix it or not will determine if Washington finally reaches the upper echelon or tops out as a pretender.