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Morning tip: Understanding history of Gortat's dust up with Wittman


Morning tip: Understanding history of Gortat's dust up with Wittman

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. 

MORE: Michael Jenkins gets exclusive interview with "Boogie Cousins" 

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John Wall says Wizards will do less talking this year, but could be best team he's played on

John Wall says Wizards will do less talking this year, but could be best team he's played on

The Wizards in recent years have made a habit of trying to speak things into existence and then not having them actually exist. They have talked the talk and then sometimes haven't walked the walk.

A few instances come to mind, including Bradley Beal saying of the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers that "they didn't want to see us" in the playoffs. Beal also said in November that the Washington was the best team in the East, just hours before James scored 57 points in the Wizards' building.

John Wall has made similar proclomations in the past, usually about himself, including how he is the best point guard in the Eastern Conference. Now, these statements were all relatively normal for professional athletes who pride themselves in always feeling like they are the best player on the floor or the field. It's part of the mindset that makes them who they are.

But when those statements are made and then not backed up, they can be tough to defend, and especially for a Wizards team which last season seemed to overlook the lesser teams and suffered a down year because of it.

Wall insists all that is about to change. In his 1-on-1 interview with Chris Miller on our Wizards Tipoff podcast, Wall said the message this year will be much different, much more muted than it has been in the past.

"We want to go out with a different mindset and a different focus. We're not trying to go in and think we're a team that has already established something and got respect from people. We have to earn that respect and that means going out and competing every night against the good teams or the bad teams," he said.

That doesn't mean Wall isn't confident. His belief in himself hasn't wavered and, in fact, he may believe in his team more now than ever. That's because he is happy with the offseason the front office has produced.

They signed Dwight Howard and Jeff Green in free agency, traded for Austin Rivers and drafted Troy Brown, Jr. in the first round. All should help the Wizards improve between Howard representing an upgrade at starting center and the others providing much-needed depth.

When Wall was asked by Chris if this is the most complete team he has played with in Washington, Wall left no doubts.

"Yeah, for sure. I definitely think so," he said. "I think it gives us the opportunity where we don't have to play as many minutes. That's the key. At the end of the year, you kind of fall short because you're fatigued. Nobody uses that as an excuse. You play and try to get into the best shape possible. But if you're playing 24 minutes, the whole half, and then 24 minutes and the whole half, you kind of get tired at some point. I think those guys can take a little of the burden and pressure off of us at times."

Listen to Wall's full 1-on-1 interview on the Wizards Tipoff podcast:

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Austin Rivers believes he can help the Wizards on defense as much as anything

Austin Rivers believes he can help the Wizards on defense as much as anything

When asked at his introductory press conference for how he will fit on the Wizards' roster from a basketball perspective, guard Austin Rivers didn't first cite his three-point shooting, his ability to affect games scoring off the bench or his speed to run the floor with John Wall and Bradley Beal. The first thing he point to was his defense.

That may have surprised some people out there as Rivers has long been known for his scoring ability and not so much his skills on the other end. It's not that he can't play defense, it's just that most of the highlights he's produced over the years have been due to his high-flying finishes at the rim and wicked pull-up jumper from three-point range.

Defense, though, is something Rivers takes pride in and he hopes to continue developing as a defender in Washington.

"With how much Brad and John have to do every night, for them to not have to always guard the best guard on the other team, that's something I can come in here and do. Try to bring that competitive spirit and be one of the defenders on the team," Rivers said.

Rivers' defensive ability has produced some controversy among Wizards fans and media members on social media. Some insist he does not bring value on that end of the floor, while some numbers suggest he does have some defensive potential.

Last season, Rivers averaged a career-high 1.2 steals per game. He was tied for fifth on the Clippers in defensive win shares.

However, his 113 defensive rating was his worst since 2013-14. It was an outlier on the Clippers and not in the good way. He also ranked nowhere near the top of the league in deflections or contested three-point shots, two hustle stats that guys like Wall and Beal fair well in.

Rivers points to two attributes that he believes make him a strong perimeter defender. One is his versatility and the other you could call scrappiness.

"On defense [the Wizards] can switch one through three or one through four. I think that gives us a lot of dangerous options," he said.

As for his scrappiness, Rivers says it comes from the early days of his career.

"I had to figure out ways to be effective without [a jumpshot] and that's how I became a defender. I guess everything happens for a reason, right? I'm happy I did have those early career struggles because it made me find a side of me that I didn't do [early on]. Because I promise you I didn't play any defense at Duke," he said.

The last line drew laughter from those gathered at his introductory press conference. Rivers insists that he now takes that end of the floor very seriously. The Wizards certainly hope he can back up his words.

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