Randy Wittman and Marcin Gortat find themselves in a peculiar yet familiar situation. They're not seeing eye to eye on what's going wrong with the Wizards in regards to their low-post play, but they need each other to succeed.
The Wizards (3-4) go into tonight's game vs. the Orlando Magic desperate to snap a three-game losing streak. To do so, and live up to their preseason billing, Gortat has to grab more than one defensive rebound in 27 minutes. And he has to produce better season stats than 10.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 47.3% shooting, all career lows for Gortat as a starter in the NBA.
This all began anew after a 24-point loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder earlier in the week, when Wittman referenced his "supposed big men" to call out Gortat, though not by name. Then Gortat responded after Friday's practice by calling out Wittman for allegedly violating an agreement to not air dirty laundry. It could get messier from here, especially if Nik Vucevic has his way in the paint vs. Gortat tonight, and it'll be even worse if the Wizards were to lose.
There could be light at the end of this tunnel if they can come to some sort of understanding, but this has been three seasons in the making with plenty of road bumps along the way:
- Gortat drew first blood with Wittman soon after joined the Wizards in 2013, acquired in a trade with the Phoenix Suns. He publicly questioned his role in the offense during a four-game losing streak, was chewed out by his coach during a road trip in New York and could be seen profusely apologizing that morning. Wittman contended that Gortat is consciously drifting away from the basket rather than rolling hard towards it. It's a read and react that he's responsible for, not the coaches or the teammate who feeds him the ball. And two years later, this topic still is being batted around.
- The spats have happened with teammates, too. Last season, Gortat and John Wall were on completely different pages when it came to pick-and-roll defensive responsibilities, and there were spirited discussions at practices between the two and coaches when they were mired in a losing streak. After Gortat blamed individual defense on a 38-point loss to the Cavaliers and teammates relying too much on help, Paul Pierce shot back. "That's what basketball is. I don't know what March is talking about," Pierce said. "Because when you play a team game you play help defense." For months after this, Gortat rarely made himself available for interviews and when he did he gave one- and two-word answers.
- Gortat is the only true center on the roster. Drew Gooden is 6-10 but he's a three-point shooter and undersized to go against the likes of Andre Drummond (Pistons) in the low post. Kris Humphries played at the five some before coming here from the Boston Celtics but he's a face-up player and doesn't play with his back to the basket. DeJuan Blair is undersized at 6-7 and isn't as athletic or mobile. So barring trading Gortat for another player with a comparable salary and size, the Wizards don't have many options. Nene is Gortat's backup and had 10 points and 10 rebounds off the bench when he last played, but back spasms kept him out vs. the Thunder. At 33, Nene can't be relied on to play starter's minutes. Gortat remains the best option and there's no reason why he shouldn't average 15 points and 10 rebounds a game.
- This is the final fully guaranteed year of Wittman's contract, with the 2016-17 season a partial guarantee. The Wizards are not just trying to get at least to the conference finals, which they were near reaching until Wall broke his left wrist in last season's semifinals, but must show stability and a unified front going into free agency. Yes, they want to be able to tell Kevin Durant, "Look how close we are to winning a championship. Look how good of a locker room we have, something you've grown accustomed to in Oklahoma City." This pitch isn't as believable if the Wizards have a .500 record, exit in the first round of the playoffs and having players choosing sides to deepen the turmoil. The Wizards are not getting rid of anyone at this point for the sake of doing so without a comparable replacement. Right now, that's not an option.
- If Wall can take the criticism, so can Gortat. Think back to two seasons ago. The Wizards hadn't made the playoffs in six seasons. They were struggling to get over .500 and they lay an egg against the lowly Celtics at home, losing in double overtime as Phil Pressey scored a career-high 20 points. Wittman was irate that Wall, who he believed took him for granted because he was an undrafted and unaccomplished player and only was on the court because Boston was riddled with injuries. Earlier in that same season, Wall blew off Wittman's critique when the Wizards lost to the Milwaukee Bucks at home and called into question his point guard's leadership -- after he'd signed a five-year, $80 million max contract and before Wittman was given a three-year extension. Regardless what anyone says about Wittman, he doesn't cower to star players in hopes he can keep his job and he's not about to dial it back for Gortat. Wall became an All-Star for the first time that season, and then again last season. Said Wall after he was reminded of that public spat: "You don’t want to hear it, but that’s the kind of relationship we have. Even when he was an assistant coach that’s what I’ve been dealing with of him saying, 'You ain't doing this. You ain't doing that.’ If you want to be the best player on the team, be the franchise guy, you’ve got to take that criticism in front of the team so those guys sit back and accept it." And before anyone says this isn't a common practice in the NBA, yes it is. Gregg Popovich has done it even with Tim Duncan his entire career.
- When Glen Rice Jr. was cut, it was because he was in the second year of a deal that wasn't fully guaranteed. So when he kept backtalking to Wittman at practice and showed him up on the sideline in a blowout loss to the Toronto Raptors, he never appeared in uniform for them again. Rice was well-liked in the locker room, but even teammates understood why the decision that was made. And they painted this picture about Wittman that Gortat hasn't grasped. Wittman will vent. He will yell (and this goes for media, too). But when that moment is over, it's done. He'll say "Hello" to you the next morning and even smile. The point being, Wittman doesn't carry that bad blood with him and he expects players, who are supposed to be professionals, to be able to do the same. And that's how he wants his players to deal with each other so they don't hold on to negative feelings that could hurt the team long-term. Gortat said he has no desire to sit down and talk with Wittman about this latest episode, but he might not have a choice.