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With his NBA window closing, Wizards' Gortat is improving with age

With his NBA window closing, Wizards' Gortat is improving with age

Few basketball players can count themselves as fortunate as Wizards center Marcin Gortat. Now in his 11th season, he's enjoyed a long and successful NBA career, and has made tens of millions of dollars along the way. 

For some, that would be enough. For some, this time would coincide with a slow decline towards retirement. The sun would be setting, the skills they accrued over that decade-plus would be fading away.

But at age 32, Gortat has somehow taken his game to brand new heights this season. He's averaging career-highs in rebounds (11.4, 7th in NBA), field goal percentage (58.6) and minutes (34.8). 

The man whom many call 'The Polish Machine' is getting stronger and more efficient with age. He has been as reliable as anyone for the 25-20 Wizards, having played in all 45 games this season.

"He tells me all the time that he’s 'The Polish Machine,' and I’m starting to believe that," head coach Scott Brooks said earlier this month.

For Gortat, there is no well-kept secret for why he continues to ascend at his age. It's about a love for the game and a simple personality trait.

"I would just say the pride. It’s just pride. Don’t take things for granted and just go out there and play," he said. "My window is closing up really fast right now, so I’ve got maybe another three or four years in front of me. I just want to use this situation. I just want to perform and just be a very good big man in this league. Just compete. I can’t imagine going to a game and just going through the motions."

Gortat, naturally, has grown wiser over the years. He may not be as quick at 32 as he was at 22, but there are other elements of the game where he has made significant leaps.

"You become smarter and you appreciate things more, definitely. You appreciate things more. Second thing, you get more experience and have more fun. You find the little details in the game that make the game easier for you. You just get more confidence about a lot of things. You’re doing all the little stuff like rebounding and setting screens and the coach is rewarding you by giving you touches and post-ups, then the game is a lot of fun," he said.

Setting screens is an area where Gortat has truly emerged. Brooks has referred to Gortat as the "best screen-setter in basketball" this season and the numbers back that up. He leads the NBA with 6.9 screen assists per game. 

[RELATED: How Marcin Gortat sets table for Wizards' half-court offense with screens]

That is a product in part due to the fact he plays with John Wall, one of the best passers in basketball, and shooters like Bradley Beal and Otto Porter. But Gortat's role as a big, mobile body who can check someone with precision and force cannot be understated. At 6-foot-11 and 240 pounds, he is not someone you want to run into.

Gortat said the reasons why he has improved at setting screens over the years are "basketball knowledge, physical preparation, timing and experience." Add it all up and he's become very confident in his ability to get his teammates open.

"They are coming off butt-naked, so they just gotta make a shot," he said with a grin.

Setting screens is among the most physical aspects of the game of basketball, yet there is an art to it. As much as screens are pure brute force, the line between a legal screen and an illegal one can be very thin. That's where the experience comes into play.

"Well, some screens are going to be illegal. That’s obvious that some screens are going to be illegal," Gortat explained. "It’s about how I’m going to sell it to the referee, if they are going to see it or not see it, bottom-line. Number two, there are a lot of people that are just running into a screen and they think they have been illegally screened, which is B.S. I’m just trying to read the situation. I’m just trying to anticipate what path the guard is going to take to avoid the screen. That’s what we have got to read and we have been doing pretty good so far."

Every time Gortat sets up for a screen, he knows some hard contact could be coming his way. Usually it's a guard running around on defense with no idea that contact is coming. That could mean an elbow or a shoulder jabbing him in the stomach or the arm, from a player running very fast.

"I’ve been playing my whole life a physical game. I’m not afraid of the contact. I’ve just gotta continue to do it. As early as you can start it in a game, the better. It can carry over throughout the whole game later on. Setting a tone, that’s the easy part," Gortat said.

[RELATED: Marcin Gortat posterizes Gerald Henderson]

Screening can be one of the more thankless parts of the game. Screens aren't reflected in a traditional box score and rarely are they the focus of highlight reels. But that doesn't mean there aren't kickbacks for Gortat. He has come to learn over the years that those efforts can lead to points when he rolls to the basket.

"If you set a good screen, then you are going to be open too," Gortat said. "It definitely translates to me. If I set a good screen, I am going to be open. That probably works best with John because they commit to John more on the pick-and-rolls. That’s going to get me open and get me opportunities to shine offensively."

"He's realizing how important he is and he's realizing how many more shots he can get when he screens," Beal said.

When asked a simple answer for why he has improved this season, particularly when it comes to rebounding, Gortat will point to his coach. Brooks has had to rely on Gortat heavily this season with backup center Ian Mahinmi having missed 44 of the team's 45 games due to injury.

Gortat likes to play a lot, but Brooks has had little choice otherwise.

"It’s just more minutes. It’s more minutes and at the same time, coach has really given me a chance to play and given me a lot of confidence. He’s kind of just leaving me out there and leaving me alone consistently," Gortat said. "I’m going to come up with some crazy stuff. Sometimes I’m going to come up with some crazy stuff and some unnecessary stuff, but he knows that ratio of good stuff to crazy stuff is like three-to-one. So, he doesn’t have to worry about anything."

How long that will continue is unclear. Mahinmi should be back within the next several weeks and backup big man Jason Smith has emerged as a consistent option on the Wizards' bench. Ultimately, Brooks would like to scale down Gortat's minutes to keep him fresh and that process has already taken place in recent games.

"It's a long season and March is playing more minutes [than ever]. I don't think he's ever played this many minutes in his career," Brooks explained. "I think he's averaging like 35 or 36 and he's played many games in the high 30s, low 40s. I don't want to do that. Like every player, they want to play. They want to play 40 minutes and they think they can. But we see the production when you play guys 40 minutes every night and it's not as high."

A lot is being asked of Gortat, to the point where his coach has publicly said they may need to reduce his workload. Yet, 'The Polish Machine' has shown no signs of slowing down.

[RELATED: Gortat comes up big for Wizards in tough matchup vs. Towns, Wolves]

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The longterm case for the Wizards to not trade Bradley Beal is more compelling than you might think

The longterm case for the Wizards to not trade Bradley Beal is more compelling than you might think

We know teams remain interested in snagging Bradley Beal.

There’s no explanation required why true contenders or wannabes would covet a 25-year-old two-time All-Star coming off a near All-NBA season. With Anthony Davis dealt to the Lakers, Beal becomes arguably the top prize in the trade market.

Before shipping the Wizards’ leading scorer out of the DMV for long-term assets that would signal a rebuild, consider the alternative. No talking points are needed for the concept of keeping Beal, but doing so brings up the larger picture.

Assuming the Wizards remained fiscally disciplined this off-season, the team can enter the summer of 2020 with a relatively clean balance sheet and actual roster optimism.

At that point the Wizards would have Beal possibly coming off a third All-Star appearance along with 2018 first-round pick Troy Brown, a player selected with the ninth overall pick in Thursday’s Draft and a 2020 lottery pick.

Add to that the return of John Wall. It’s conceivable the five-time All-Star rejoins the team late next season, but it likely would take additional time to gauge his physical status following the devastating Achilles injury that required surgery in February. If Wall appears close to his prior form, the Wizards have an interesting starting point with those pieces.

In addition, the expiring contracts for Ian Mahinmi ($15.4 million) and Dwight Howard ($5.6) come off the books. Beal, Wall and Brown are the only current players under contract beyond next season.

This season also provides the next front office leader a chance to establish a cultural baseline for a team that dealt with locker room squabbles last season. The Wizards remain without a general manager after firing President of Basketball Operations on April 2.

Tommy Sheppard has run the front office on an interim basis since. While logically the Wizards would hold off making any splashy moves like dealing Beal until a permanent GM is named, owner Ted Leonsis is the one needing convincing regardless.

Leonsis famously told reporters last season the team “will never, ever tank.” Rebuilding doesn’t have the same negative connotation as that four-letter T-word, but dealing Beal would offer the perception of a team focused on the long haul above all.

That’s not necessarily the wrong approach. The Wizards can always head into that direction ahead of the 2020-21 season. Beal’s value would remain high. Holding him now also allows Washington to wait on Wall, clean up their salary cap and restart the contention process. The organization can also explore signing Beal to an extension this season (3-year, $111.8 million) or next.

None of this means anything to other NBA teams hoping to pry Beal away.

The New Orleans Pelicans dialed up the Wizards. The San Antonio Spurs are interested.

Logically so are the Celtics, Nets and several other teams looking to make a bold move now that the Warriors suffered two crushing injuries and the Lakers already went all in. The Knicks could enter the trade talks should Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant bypass the Big Apple.

Regardless, the Wizards appear cool with keeping their best player and with good reasons.

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With John Wall's injury in mind, defense should be big priority for Wizards in 2019 draft

With John Wall's injury in mind, defense should be big priority for Wizards in 2019 draft

The Wizards will not truly know what they have in John Wall following his Achilles surgery until he returns to game action, and that may not be until the 2020-21 season. He is expected to be out at least 11 months, but there is a chance he misses a full year and owner Ted Leonsis has already endorsed the idea, if it is the best course for his recovery.

The Wizards, though, can start taking measures for Wall's return as soon as this week with Thursday's NBA Draft. Using the draft, trades and free agency, they can begin to build a roster around Wall to increase the odds he comes back an effective player.

Much of the analysis of how Wall will be affected by the injury has focused on the offensive end and whether he will lose some of his trademark speed. But there is an argument to be made that the defensive end will be a larger concern and the best area to find Wall some help.

Offensively, Wall will still have strengths to play to even if he is no longer the fastest, quickest player on the court. He is one of the league's best passers. When committed, he rebounds well for his position. And he could expand his game to the post with a size advantage over most of his opponents.

Would a more consistent three-point shot help? Sure, but he can still be effective.

Defensively, it might be a struggle and especially early on. He will be tasked with staying in front of cat-quick point guards like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker. Wall already had his defensive issues before the surgery and matters will only be more difficult now after an injury known for affecting lateral quickness.

What the Wizards can do is try to build a defensive foundation around Wall to mitigate those potential problems. They can surround him with physical perimeter defenders and install rim protection behind him. Then, Wall would be asked to do less. He could focus on playing sound team defense and directing his opponents into traffic created by his teammates.

The problem is that the Wizards will essentially have to build their defense from scratch. Though they have some capable defenders like Bradley Beal and Troy Brown Jr., and though Dwight Howard's rebounding will help, the Wizards are coming off a year in which they had one of the worst defensive units in the league. 

The Wizards were 27th in defensive rating and 29th in points allowed. They gave up the fifth-most three-pointers and at the fourth-highest percentage. And they surrendered more field goals within five feet of the rim than any other team.

Defense has been highlighted as a major long-term need by the Wizards' current staff, though they still hold the 'interim' label until further notice. Under head coach Scott Brooks, the team has made strides on offense but has lost their way defending the ball. They want more balance moving forward.

Several of Brooks' assistants are not under contract for next season and the team has explored hiring a defensive specialist, according to a person with knowledge of their plans. One assistant who could be replaced is Maz Trakh. He is in contract limbo and has not been present at the team's pre-draft workouts.

NBA coaches, though, can only do so much. A defensive renaissance will have to come from the players.

The Wizards will have some options that could help when they are on the board with the ninth overall pick in Thursday's NBA Draft. It could be a shot-blocker like Bol Bol, Brandon Clarke or Jaxson Hayes. Nassir Little would add toughness to the perimeter. Sekou Doumbouya would give them versatility.

Revamping their defense probably wouldn't include re-signing Bobby Portis or Jabari Parker, the latter of which has a team option the Wizards are likely to decline later this month. Thomas Bryant and Tomas Satoransky aren't lockdown defenders, either, but do offer some upside on that end.

With limited money to spend, free agency won't offer any quick fixes for the Wizards. The best they could likely do is find cheap players to help begin an overall culture change. 

When it comes to the draft, the Wizards do not have the luxury to draft solely for need. They have to get the best player available, no matter the position. That could even be a point guard, despite Wall being due $170 million over the next four years.

But it might be smart to favor defense over offense and the same applies to free agency and beyond. That approach could come in handy once Wall is ready to go.

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