Nene had just gone down with a knee injury that would sideline him for much of the final stretch of the 2013-14 regular season. The news sent the Washington Wizards spiraling — they dropped six of nine March games, jeopardizing their playoff hopes.
It was then that Marcin Gortat knew the Wizards were the right team for him.
During Nene’s 21-game absence, the 6-foot-11 center put together his best stretch of basketball, averaging 14.7 points and 10 rebounds to spur the Wizards toward their first playoff appearance in six seasons and open the door for Gortat to earn a big payday as the top center on this summer’s free-agent market. On Thursday, the first day after the NBA’s moratorium on player signings and trades, Gortat officially cashed in, signing a five-year deal worth $60 million with the Wizards.
“The moment when I realized it might be a good place for me is when Nene get hurt, unfortunately,” Gortat said Thursday at Verizon Center. “I realized that that’s a team where I can be a leader under the basket, I can be a leader in the paint. I can definitely help this team, I can be myself and I can develop my game here, take my game to another level.”
Gortat’s spring epiphany helped expedite the summer negotiation process, one that began with Wizards Coach Randy Wittman and senior vice president Tommy Sheppard flying to Poland on June 27 and ended on the first day of free agency, when Gortat and the Wizards agreed in principle to the long-term deal on July 1.
“We negotiate for  hours, but 10 hours was just because I was in the plane and I couldn’t talk,” Gortat said. “They showed me a lot of love and I spoke with a lot of players around the league and you can’t deny that. If a team is really showing you that love, you got to be with this team.”
The swift course of action to keep Gortat with the Wizards in some ways mirrored the Polish center’s arrival to the District. Less than a week before the regular season began, the Wizards shipped a first-round draft pick and the injured Emeka Okafor to Phoenix for Gortat, who admittedly had mixed feelings about his new team before settling in as a consistent, interior force.
“When we traded for him last year, we felt like he could really fit into our situation and he ended up being a better fit than we ever thought he could be,” Wizards president and General Manager Ernie Grunfeld said. “We had some real good success in the playoffs and he was big part of that, and we’re just glad to have him back with this organization for the long haul.”
With Gortat officially signed and the league salary cap set at an all-time high of $63.065 million, the Wizards now have roughly $58 million committed to eight players while their other priority free agent, small forward Trevor Ariza, remains a hot commodity on the market as LeBron James’s future remains in limbo.
“We’ve had good conversations and doing what any free agents does. He wants to look at everything,” Wittman said of Ariza on Thursday. “You always have to look at those kind of situations as a player of why you do have success and a lot of it has to do with who you’re playing with and the people who you’re surrounded with.”
Included in that group are John Wall and Bradley Beal, two players whom Gortat said played a big role in drawing him back to the Wizards and a duo that the seven-year veteran hopes to pour more wisdom into now that his future is secure and he feels more comfortable as a vocal, locker-room presence.
“I know some of those young guys don’t want to hear this, but end of the day, we’re going to be married for the next four, five years,” a smiling Gortat said. “I believe we’re going to make this team better because John and Bradley, they are smart guys. I’m not going to try to kill them, but I’ll try to make them better. I’m going to try go as far as possible — NBA Finals, winning a championship.”