Marcin Gortat knew that he wasn’t long for Phoenix the moment the rebuilding Suns drafted former Maryland center Alex Len fifth overall last June, but that didn’t make any less startling the news that he had been traded to the Washington Wizards.
“When you hear that word, coming out of the GM’s mouth, like, ‘Listen, we just traded you,’ your legs are getting soft, ” Gortat said on Monday, following his first practice with his new team.
The timing of the trade caught Gortat off guard, too, because he assumed that he would at least make it through the first week of the regular season. The Suns planned to have Polish heritage night for their home opener on Wednesday and Gortat had flown in 25 people from his native country – including soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, the Polish minister of sport, the Polish ambassador and children from his basketball camp -- for what was expected to be a fun week in Phoenix. But while they were arriving in Arizona, Gortat was catching a flight to start his new life in Washington.
“They all was sitting there at a dinner and chatting about everything. I was sitting by myself in a hotel” in Washington, Gortat said, shaking his head. “So the last 24 hours have been hell. It was hard for me, at the beginning, but this is life. This is a business. The NBA is a big, big business.”
Aside from the initial inconvenience, Gortat is otherwise excited about being on a team that aspires to make the playoffs rather than jockey for the NBA draft lottery. Gortat made the postseason in each of his first four seasons in the NBA with the Orlando Magic and advanced to the NBA Finals in 2009. But he has missed the playoffs the past three years in Phoenix, where the Suns won just 21 games last season.
“I want to be a winner. I want to be known as a winner. The first four years of my career, I was spoiled, by Stan Van Gundy, winning 50-plus games in the NBA and I thought, ‘This is how it is in the NBA. You’re going to be winning 50-plus game every year,’ ” Gortat said. “But unfortunately, things didn’t go well for me in the past two or three years. It’s not easy to lose 50, 60 games a year and quite honestly, you can get tired of that.”
The Wizards are also tired of losing in grand fashion, which prompted them to use the expiring contract of Emeka Okafor to acquire a 6-foot-11 center with soft hands, swift feet and sharp elbows. Gortat said he received almost 25 text messages from Wizards players and front office executives welcoming him to Washington. He showed up on Sunday, which the players had off, to work out and familiarize himself with the locker room and a few of his new teammates.
After Monday’s practice, Gortat went over offensive sets with Jan Vesely, Martell Webster, Garrett Temple and Glen Rice Jr. Gortat admitted that he was “lost” during his first practice but Webster still felt that he compensated for his ignorance of the system and “set the tone” with his infectious energy and aggressive style.
“He plays one way. He plays hard and that's another talent, whether it’s in practice or in games,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “He goes hard and all out and so yeah that helps when other guys see that, it can rub off.”
The addition of Gortat allows Nene to move over to his natural power forward position and Nene expects the duo to thrive, especially on the offensive end. Opposing defenses “need to decide. Let me score, let him score,” Nene said.
Gortat is also looking forward to playing with Nene and developing some chemistry with John Wall in the pick-and-roll. When Gortat played with Steve Nash for a full season in Phoenix, he averaged a career-high 15.4 points and 10 rebounds.
“I believe that this is going to be good for me. A huge opportunity for me and I’m looking forward to winning some games, hopefully, try to get a spot in the playoffs,” Gortat said. Wittman “just expect me to do the stuff that I’ve been doing for the past six years, just be me. Bring a lot of energy. Play good defense. Rebound the ball, block some shots and just use opportunities in the offense. Just try to help win some games. That’s it. I’m not coming here to shoot corner threes. As much as I want to, I believe I won’t do that.”
Gortat said his first big adjustment will be getting used to the weather after playing his entire career in warmer locations. He joked that his initial thoughts on Washington were, “It’s cold.”
“First thing I’m going to do is see the White House,” he added. “It’s closer to my house in Orlando. It’s closer to Europe. Direct flights from here to Warsaw. What else do you need?”
Perhaps a Polish heritage night at Verizon Center? “Hopefully,” Gortat said.