This is our third Summer Checklist piece where we break down an area of weakness each player on the roster can improve. Previously: Bradley Beal | John Wall.
Marcin Gortat was tremendous last season to the point where it's scary to imagine a world with him injured. Nobody -- not John Wall, not Nene, not Trevor Ariza, not Bradley Beal -- had a higher adjusted plus minus on the Wizards (+5.3 on, -6.6 off) last season.
Without him, the Wizards don't make the postseason. That's a point that's hard to dispute whether you use traditional numbers, more advanced metrics or whatever you want to call the concept lazily referred to as the "eye test."
That means that it's realistically hard to find significant areas of growth for the now 31-year-old big man. If he duplicates his contract-year production in the first season of his big new deal, it's a win. Nevertheless, we're going to note a couple areas where we may see better results next year.
But first: let's actually spell out what makes Gortat so valuable. Gortat is a Moneyball player, excelling in areas that can be hard to track with mainstream metrics. He's one of the league's best screen setters, constantly freeing his guards for open shots and driving lanes. As Doug Eberhardt noted last May, screen-setting is an art that goes far beyond laying wood on defenders. Gortat can do that when merited, but he's also adept at switching the side of a screen by tap-dancing to get in position before the defender can react.
There's other stuff too. For the third time in four years, Gortat shot over 69 percent around the basket. Only 10 players in the league were more proficient in the restricted area. We tend to notice Gortat's misses because he uses finesse rather than strength, but all in all, he's one of the league's best at catching and finishing. He also has the court sense to kick out to shooters when needed, preventing charges. He's decent enough as a post player, though he's not quite good enough to justify all the touches he gets, and he runs the floor extremely well.
And he got a slightly undeserved rep defensively last year. No, he's not Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah or Roy Hibbert, but he's good enough. Players shot 49.9 percent at the rim against him last year, which wasn't elite, but was better than players like Gasol, Derrick Favors and Tyson Chandler. Once Randy Wittman realized Gortat wasn't built to defend in space, his positioning and communication improved. Physical players sometimes gave him trouble, but those matchups aren't so common anymore and the Wizards have more bulk behind Gortat to handle unique situations like that.
It must be stated again: the Wizards had the ninth-best defense last year and were 7.7 points better defensively per 100 possessions with Gortat in the game. Some of that is due to the poor backups behind Gortat. Some of that is due to Gortat sharing heavy minutes with the starters and Nene in particular. But a total slouch defensively doesn't make such a positive impact on the bottom line.
So where can Gortat improve? I'd start with his post-up play.
As a post player, Gortat was OK, but not necessarily good enough to justify all the touches he got. Post-ups accounted for 27.3 percent of Gortat's ended possessions, more than the percentage he had in the pick and roll, per Synergy Sports Technology. Realistically, those numbers can't be flipped; bigs just aren't going to generate that many finishing opportunities as a roller because the play is often a vehicle for the guard to score or to initiate ball movement elsewhere. It's also true that Gortat sets a ton of screens as is.
Still, the 27.3 percent number is very high, especially when Gortat rarely uses these opportunities to attack the basket. Only 4.8 percent of Gortat's finished post-up possessions ended in shooting fouls, per Synergy Sports Technology. By comparison, Nene drew a foul on 10.1 percent of his finished post-up possessions.
In watching these plays, two obvious problems emerge: leverage and predetermination. Gortat's center of gravity is often too high, so he gets pushed off his spot as he does here against Al Jefferson.
It's a shame. Gortat navigated deep post position on a nice set play to begin an important second half, but he comes up in his stance when he receives the pass. Thus, Jefferson is able to move him three feet further from the hoop in one motion and force a difficult fadeaway when it should have been a much easier shot.
The other problem is Gortat often seems to decide his pet move before reading the defense. Any post player needs at least one go-to move and countermove, and Gortat has that. His jump hook is the go-to move, and countermoves include a spin into a jump hook with the other hand or, on occasion, a nifty quick spin to get a layup. But too often, he chooses the second of these moves when he should be drop-stepping into a defender rather than away from him.
This is a situation where Gortat has space to duck underneath Timofey Mozgov and get closer to the hoop for an easier shot and/or a foul. Instead, his footwork places what should be his inside foot away from Mozgov's body, allowing Mozgov to close the gap and contest a turnaround jumper. Improving in these two areas means drawing more fouls.
At the same time, expecting big changes in Gortat's approach may be expecting too much at this stage of his career. Thus, if we're looking for simpler fixes, making a higher percentage of those in-between shots is a start. Gortat hit 41.4 percent of his shots from 5-9 feet last year, the lowest mark of his career. A slight uptick there will make him more efficient. That means less of this, please.
If Gortat is going to keep relying touch instead of power around the rim, he needs to have elite percentages in the in-between area. His mark of 41.4 percent from 5-9 feet was good, but still ranked 55th among players with at least 75 attempts in that area. In my mind, Gortat needs to leap into at least the top 25 to become a more efficient player and justify his approach. High expectations perhaps, but now's the time of year for those.
A leap there combined with the same ol' same ol' elsewhere, and the Wizards should be thrilled.