By trading the injured Emeka Okafor and a protected first-round pick in the heralded 2014 NBA draft to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for center Marcin Gortat, the Wizards either made a desperate act that denoted a last-ditch, short-sighted effort to appease owner Ted Leonsis or they sent a bold signal to the rest of the NBA that they are serious about being a playoff contender.
No matter your vantage point, the Wizards couldn’t afford to enter the regular season without having a reliable presence inside. The uncertainty surrounding Okafor’s neck and the pressure to produce more than a modest improvement from a team with a payroll just north $70 million, forced team President Ernie Grunfeld to make a move if he has any hope of staying with the organization beyond this season.
Gortat, 29, provides the Wizards with a younger, healthier and cheaper replacement for Okafor but he also spares Nene from having to consistently grind down low against the league’s bigger, bruising centers. For most of his career, Nene has always been paired with another capable big man and the Wizards risked squandering an offseason spent on rest and recovery by putting him at a spot on the floor where he was clearly uncomfortable.
The Wizards had a gaping hole in the middle without Okafor and asking Trevor Booker, Jan Vesely or Kevin Seraphin to handle the responsibility of full-time starter would’ve been too much to ask. Not only does Gortat give the Wizards a big man who thrived in the pick-and-roll with Steve Nash and has decent touch in the low post but he is also a physical defender capable of delivering hard fouls.
Gortat might not be the best big man to pair with Nene, since both operate in the same territory on the court. Coach Randy Wittman will now have to find a scheme that will work for both players and that will likely mean several different lineup pairings. Wittman can now have a capable big man on the floor at all times or go really big at times with Al Harrington at small forward.
Okafor was a team-first player, eager to do the dirty work and sacrifice for the good of the team. With Gortat in a contract year, the Wizards can only hope that he’ll have the same motivation.
Gortat averaged 13.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocked shots in 2½ seasons with the Suns but he had no desire to stick around for the rebuilding efforts under new General Manager Ryan McDonough.
Grunfeld had spoken with McDonough about a possible deal a few weeks ago, but the actual trade came together in the past few days, with the Monday deadline to submit regular season rosters approaching. The primary holdup, according to people with knowledge of the situation, was coming to an agreement on the value of the pick.
Phoenix is stockpiling draft picks for what is shaping up to be another talent-rich class, but the Wizards were unwilling to surrender a selection without protection, especially when a top three pick could turn out to be Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Julius Randle.
The choice is protected up to 12 if the Wizards experience the same misfortune of the past five seasons and fail to reach the postseason. Only five spots appear to be set in the Eastern Conference – Miami, Chicago, Indiana, Brooklyn and New York – leaving the Wizards to contend with Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee and Toronto for the last three spots. The Western Conference is much more stout, which could mean that the Wizards could barely miss the playoffs but still secure a high pick. Under those circumstances, Grunfeld likely wouldn’t be around to make that decision anyway. Otherwise, the Wizards will hold top 10 protections on the pick from 2015 to 2019.
Leonsis has asked his fan base to be patient from the moment he took over but after a while, those pleas to paying customers grow stale. Time is running out for the team to start playing meaningful games in April. A playoff berth could go a long way toward the development of John Wall and Bradley Beal and making the franchise a more attractive destination for free agents next summer when the Wizards could potentially have more than $15 million in cap space (if they decline all options and renounce all free agents). Vesely’s future with the organization just became more tenuous with the deadline for his fourth-year option also approaching at the end of the month.
The Wizards also received Shannon Brown, Malcolm Lee and former Bishop O’Connell standout Kendall Marshall in the deal, but they are expected to be released with the team’s roster set at 15 with the addition of Gortat. Before the trade, the Wizards’ payroll was about $70.7 million or almost $1 million short of the luxury tax penalty. After waiving Brown, Lee and Marshall, the Wizards would actually save almost $300,000 which would become a factor later in the season if the Wizards need to make another trade or potentially sign a veteran in case of another unfortunate injury.
In a strange way, the trade almost brings the Gilbert Arenas trade to Orlando full circle, since the Magic dealt Gortat to Phoenix in a separate deal on the same day in December 2010. Now after dealing Arenas for Lewis and Lewis for Okafor, the Wizards landed a big man by swapping Okafor for Gortat.