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.
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.
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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.