It's no secret that the Washington Wizards were feeling a lot of pressure to win this season. John Wall is writing "Playoffs" on his shoes. Ted Leonsis set the "playoffs or bust" expectation publicly, which has been unlike him during this rebuilding project. Ernie Grunfeld and Randy Wittman are both in the last year of their contracts.
So when Emeka Okafor suffered a debilitating neck injury right before the season and the forward flotsam of the past three failed drafts showed they couldn't cut it as replacements in the preseason, there was a lot of pressure to do something.
And thus, you get this trade, where the Wizards sent away Okafor's massive expiring contract and a top-12 protected pick in next year's loaded draft for Marcin Gortat, a 29-year-old center coming off a down year, and a trio of bit players that are not expected to remain with the club. The deal is essentially Okafor, whose neck injury appears much more serious than expected, and a first-round pick for Gortat, consummated days before the start of the regular season.
My concern is that the Wizards are trading from a position of weakness. It was no secret that Gortat was not long for Phoenix, with new general manager Ryan McDonough beginning a tear-down rebuilding project. Nevertheless, McDonough leveraged the Wizards' desperate need for frontcourt bodies to receive a first-round pick, the fourth the Suns now possess in this year's draft. First-rounders have taken on extra value since the 2011 CBA, as teams have begun to realize the cost control they bring, so even though the selection is top-12 protected, it's still a pretty big piece to give up, even if the Wizards didn't see much to keeping that draft selection after years of being in the lottery.
There is a way that this could work out well. Gortat could feel rejuvenated after escaping a dreadful Suns situation last year, where the front office undermined the old coaching staff and installed a head man that was clearly unqualified. He certainly will bang with the bigger centers in the league, freeing Nene to roam on the perimeter like he did last year and saving his body for the long haul. Gortat was really effective in the pick and roll with Nash two years ago, and he could recapture some of that skill with an improved John Wall, especially in small lineups with Al Harrington at the 4 to provide shooting. Plus, he's certainly better than trotting out Kevin Seraphin or Jan Vesely as a starter.
The Wizards also may end up saving some money under the luxury tax this year, depending on what happens with Shannon Brown, Kendall Marshall and Malcolm Lee, all of whom are expected to be let go. All have guaranteed contracts, so the Wizards will have to get creative here. Brown might have been a useful piece as a bench scorer, but Glen Rice Jr's strong preseason play has alleviated that need. It also doesn't affect the Wizards' cap space next year, as Gortat is in the last year of his deal.
But I have doubts that best-case scenario comes to fruition. It's important to note just how rough a year Gortat had last season. Losing Nash was a big deal for him, since his game relies so much on a point guard setting him up for rolls to the rim. The absence of Channing Frye hurt too, as I detailed in this breakdown as part of our preview series. With Frye on the floor, defenses had to choose between helping off the sweet-shooting big man or letting Gortat roll towards the rim unhinged. It made all three players better. Luis Scola, who lacked Frye's shooting range, couldn't give Gortat that space, and it hurt his game. Unless the Wizards play small with Al Harrington at power forward, it will be tough to replicate that dynamic.
And Gortat can be hit or miss off the floor. His season spiraled south when he mouthed off to a Polish media reporter about not receiving post touches last November, even though that wasn't what made him a successful player in 2011-12. His defense really fell off last year and he was often benched for Jermaine O'Neal at critical junctures. When things are going well, he's fine, but he's one of those players that often jumps ship in bad situations. Bright Side of the Sun's Dave King, who is as plugged in to the Suns as any writer in that market, described Gortat as follows:
While in 2012-13 Gortat proved he's no obstacle to keeping the worst record in the West, there's still the matter of chemistry and player development. Marcin Gortat is not a player development specialist. He doesn't own the locker room, or rally any troops around him. He's not an example for young kids to emulate, as he simply goes about his job and talks more about "I" than "we". [sic]
Escaping Phoenix could easily fix a lot of this, but these are at least orange flags.
Most notably, this is another band-aid move that costs the Wizards a future asset. The big concern I have is that this ends up like the Bucks' trade for J.J. Redick, which cost them a nice asset in Tobias Harris that is now one of Orlando's top players. The Bucks were desperate to make the playoffs and decided to trade a future piece in order to acquire a future free agent in order to get that low seed. Redick ended up fitting in poorly, the Bucks were swept by the Heat in the first round of the playoffs and Redick fled elsewhere as a free agent. The Bucks got nothing to show for a good asset in Harris. An asset, it should be noted, that they internally devalued, much like the Wizards are doing with next year's draft pick.
Gortat certainly fills a bigger need than Redick, who was a guard in a backcourt with two other established guards in Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. The Wizards will use him.
But it's unclear what the end game is. The Wizards are a better team than they were three hours ago, but are they good enough to jump higher than a low playoff seed? Hopefully, but I'm not convinced. And if not, what do they do with Gortat, who will be a 30-year-old free agent? Is that someone who you want to re-sign for a major chunk of cap space to play the position? It's the same dilemma the Wizards would have faced with Okafor, except now, there's no additional draft pick there to cushion the blow.
Hopefully, the best-case scenario plays out. I certainly give the Wizards a better chance to make the postseason than I did after the preseason games ended, and watching Seraphin and Vesely was getting aggravating. But this is the kind of deal that happens when you put so much pressure on yourself to make the playoffs this season. This is the kind of deal that has to happen when multiple first-round picks are squandered on below-replacement-level players.
The best-case scenario is that the Wizards are a little better next season. The worst-case scenario is that it doesn't change the calculus, and now, they're down a first-round pick for their efforts.
More from Bullets Forever:
- Marcin Gortat, others reportedly traded to Wizards for Emeka Okafor, draft pick
- Wizards Wrap: Gilbert Arenas still has more money than you
- Here's your first Kevin Durant to D.C. semi-rumor
- NBA Scout breaks down Wizards, says John Wall has 'a lot to prove'
- Wizards vs Cavaliers Final Score: Wizards rally in second half to win 101-82