DALLAS — In this upside-down NBA, Marcin Gortat is enveloped in a bizarro world after getting traded from a team undergoing a top-to-bottom rebuild to one that believes it means business.
Only the rebuilding team Gortat came from, the Phoenix Suns, have raced to a stunning 5-2 start, and show a very real pulse for being feisty enough to compete all season. Conversely, the team he came to, the Washington Wizards, brimming with young talent and a directive from above to get it done, at 2-5, seems as farcical as ever.
This is particularly distressing for the 6-foot-11 Polish center, viewed as the final piece for the franchise to get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2008. A week before the start of the season, the Wizards traded for Gortat, quickly averaging 13.3 ppg and 10.1 rpg, in the wake of Emeka Okafor‘s neck injury. The salary-slashing Suns happily sent Gortat and three other players to Washington for Okafor even knowing he might not play this season.
“Obviously it puts a lot of pressure [on me],” Gortat said of Washington’s playoff expectation. “Obviously it’s too early to say, but if we’re not going to make the playoffs, then you know, the blame is going to also be on me. I don’t want to be pictured as a guy that left Phoenix, and all of a sudden now the team plays well; and you go to Washington and you play bad. I don’t want to be pictured as a guy that lost all his games. We just got to turn this thing around. We lost the game [Tuesday], we didn’t come out ready to play, and I’m 100 percent sure we’re capable of winning a lot of games in this league. We’ve just got to bring it every night.”
Why Washington didn’t bring it in a 105-95 loss at Dallas is confounding and a question the players failed to answer adequately. They seemed far hungrier in the aftermath, scarfing down plates of barbecue brisket and sausage and fixings supplied to every visiting team by Mavs owner Mark Cuban, than they did during a game they lost control of late in the first quarter.
“We get complacent and we don’t finish our job a lot of the time,” veteran forward Trevor Ariza said.
This seemed a game that would have a serious-minded team keenly focused. The Wizards were coming off a heartbreaking overtime loss at Oklahoma City on Sunday, losing a late double-digit lead that allowed the Thunder to pull it out in the extra five minutes. Now John Wall, Bradley Beal and the rest of the Wizards stare down an 0-fer road trip against the red-hot San Antonio Spurs tonight (8:30 p.m. ET, League Pass). Dallas, with nine new players and coming off a 1-2 road trip, likely offered the best hope for a road win, let alone a winning road trip.
Coach Randy Wittman, an early hot-seat candidate who can ill-afford for his bunch to dig too deep a hole, lamented his team’s lazy defensive effort that allowed Dallas to shoot 50 percent and outrebound them through the first three quarters.
“We have to commit to playing defense. We are not playing any defense,” Wittman said. “We are last in the league in points, last in the league in field-goal percentage. We have to get the commitment of doing that. We don’t have that. I’ve got to figure out why and I have to figure out guys that are going to do it. That’s what it boils down to.”
Now listen to Gortat explain what he witnessed during training camp with the Suns, a team with zero expectations, that has led to their unexpected surge in the first two weeks:
“I’ve seen a lot of guys with a lot of energy, young guys who want to work hard, which is obviously a big thing in the NBA,” Gortat said. “But, I would say the big success on that team is actually Mike Longabardi, the assistant coach from the Boston Celtics. He’s the defensive coordinator. He’s just an incredible defensive coordinator. He gets his team ready for every game and I think the success of the team, a lot goes to him. He knows how to win the games.
“There’s a lot of young guys that want to work. You’ve got two guards [Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic] that are pushing the ball extremely hard. You’ve got hungry guys like [center] Miles Plumlee, who just walked in as a starter. You got P.J. Tucker, who is a pitbull every night. So, you know, they play well. Obviously I wish them all the best.”
If it sounds like Gortat has sudden remorse following a deplorable 25-win season with Phoenix, that’s not altogether fair. He was excited to join what still should be a rising team with enough talent to secure a playoff spot in the wishy-washy Eastern Conference. Seven games — and five losses — in, Gortat remains optimistic that the Wizards are both talented enough and steely enough to steer the franchise in a new direction.
“I definitely see potential in this team,” Gortat said. “I definitely see a group of guys with character, that can really battle when the most important moment comes. I see a lot of veterans who went through hell and now they just want to perform and get back to the playoffs. At the same time, I see a lot of young guys, a lot of rising stars on this team, and players who want to be successful in this league. Like I said before, I see a talented group of guys that want to make it to the playoffs and I’m 100 percent sure we’re capable of doing it.”