More likely than not, the Washington Wizards plan on attempting to retain Marcin Gortat in free agency this summer. Things don't always go according to plan, though, and there is a possibility that the unrestricted free agent Gortat splits. He could take less to go to a contender. He could take more to go to a bad team. He could be signed and traded as part of a larger deal, forcing Washington to bring in a new big man to start at center.
Replacing Gortat could be difficult. The Polish Hammer gave Washington 13.2 points and 9.5 rebounds a night while anchoring a top-10 defense. His ability to run the pick and roll, hit a 15-foot jumper, body up bangers and play smart positional defense are a rare combination. There are plenty of players who are better than Gortat at some things. Not too many can match his well-rounded skillset, though, and there lies the problem. There are plenty of less heralded players who can bring some of what Gortat does to the table, but hardly anyone could replicate everything he does for the team.
That said, retaining Gortat is far from a no-brainer. He's going to get paid this summer, that's for certain, but how much is anyone's guess. Centers, especially the kind that can play effectively on both ends of the court, make a lot and the Wizards could wind up between a rock and a hard place if the market allows it. Take a gander at this, my friends. Tiago Splitter, Javale McGee and Emeka Okafor all made more than Gortat last year. At worst, he'll probably get an offer in the $8-9 million per season range. At that rate, sure, you probably want to keep him around. But if someone pulls out a shock-the-world offer well north of $10 million a season? At that point, Gortat goes from being fairly paid to overpaid at a time when Washington needs to carefully manage payroll due to mammoth deals for John Wall and Nene as well as Bradley Beal's eventual extension.
Despite the NBA's dearth of quality centers, the team does not need to negotiate from a position of weakness with Gortat. Even if there are no realistic options to replace everything Gortat does, there are a number of cheaper alternatives in the event of Gortat bolting.
There are a few players who will inevitably be brought up as options. Unless the Wizards can get them for the veteran minimum, the team should pass on the following: Greg Oden (health), Andrew Bynum (health, poor fit), Ryan Hollins (they can do better), Greg Stiemsma (not very good) and Chris Andersen (too old).
With that out of the way, here are a few free agents who the team could take a look at if Gortat is going to bolt.
Cole Aldrich: The former lottery pick has never gotten much burn in the NBA. Aldrich has played just over one thousand minutes in his three NBA seasons, or roughly 2/3 of what Trevor Booker played this year alone. For the most part, this was due to playing on a Thunder team with half a dozen other seven footers and struggling to refine his defensive fundamentals to the point where he knows where to be on the court all of the time and doesn't commit a foul on every other possession. Big men take a while to develop, though, and Aldrich has often produced when he's seen the floor. He's an excellent rebounder and shot blocker who knows his role and can hit a free throw. He can't replace Gortat in the starting lineup, but he will come dirt cheap and could crack the rotation.
Ekpe Udoh: A restricted free agent with no role on offense, Udoh is a beast on the other end of the court. He is an excellent rim protector, with opponents only making 46 percent of their shots at the basket with Udoh in the game, per NBA.com. He's also sported some of the wildest on court/off court differentials in recent memory. Udoh's no star and may not even be a starter, but he would give the Wizards a nice rim protector in spot minutes. But as with Aldrich, Udoh would be detrimental to the team's spacing if pressed into an extended role.
Channing Frye: Frye has a player option for next year and, while he wants to stay in Phoenix, he's probably going to listen to other offers if he opts out. In Frye, Washington would have a true stretch big man who can not only hit a three, but get the shot off quick enough to fire away from deep regularly. Among big men, only Anthony Tolliver took more three pointers per 36 minutes last season, and Frye made a none-too-shabby 37 percent of those shots. Frye would dramatically improve Washington's spacing, although he's not as good a rebounder or defender as Gortat. It's also anyone's guess as to how much he'll make. Frye's 30 and a middling defender but his game should age well and stretch big men are always in demand.
Jermaine O'Neal: He's an old 35 due to coming into the league straight out of high school and his struggles with injuries are well-documented, but the former All-Star seemed to have a little bit of gas left in the tank this year while backing up Andrew Bogut in Golden State. Although he's lost a step or three, O'Neal is still a great defender who can rebound and hit the occasional jumper. The smart money is on him signing with a contender and chasing a ring next year, so Washington would have to get lucky in order to bring him in.
Spencer Hawes: Similar to Frye, Hawes is a true stretch big who made almost 42 percent of his three point attempts last year. He's also a good passer and passable rebounder who may be capable of playing better than he has recently due to all of the turmoil around him in Philadelphia and Cleveland. He's still young and might actually wind up making a decent chunk of change. That said, if Washington can get him for the mid-level exception, he could wind up being a steal.
Emeka Okafor: Coming off of a contract that paid him $14 million this season, Okafor is probably itching to get back on the court. Due to his neck injury (you know, the one that led to Washington trading for Gortat in the first place), it's likely that he signs a one year deal in order to prove to the rest of the league that he's still capable of playing at a high level, then attempt to snag one last big contract. There are other teams that are closer to contending than the Wizards, but playing time and starting role would be a lot easier to come by in Washington than in, say, Miami or Oklahoma City. If he's even 75 percent of the player he was in 2013, Washington would be getting a steal for anything less than $5 million for one year, as Okafor was one of the best rebounders and defenders at his position in the NBA when healthy.
Pau Gasol: While the soon-to-be-former Laker will likely cost as much or more than Gortat, in terms of value, he may prove to be the best possible big man on the market. Gasol was horribly miscast as a power forward in Los Angeles the last few years, especially as Gasol got older and the league got smaller and faster. While he's declined considerably, a move back to playing center full-time could do wonders for him. Gasol is an excellent passer and shooter who can also rebound, defend the rim at a passable level and who brings a championship pedigree with him. If Washington can get him for less than Gortat commands or for fewer years, it may be worth it to take a chance on him.
Gustavo Ayon: More of a power forward than a true center, Ayon is rumored to be looking at a return to Europe after a tumultuous NBA career. He's old (28) and struggled last year, particularly on the offensive end, but he can rebound and pass at a high level and picks up steals at a high rate. He also sported an excellent 3.15 defensive adjusted plus minus in Altanta last season. Replacing Gortat with Ayon would result in a step back for Washington, but if they can make up the difference in other areas, it may be worth it.