The Wizards are wise to make Marcin Gortat their top free agent priority

The Post Sports Live crew talks about the likelihood of the Wizards re-signing Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
Jason Reid
Columnist July 1

Two high-ranking Washington Wizards officials flew to Poland last week to meet with center Marcin Gortat , who became a free agent Tuesday. The trip may prove to be one of the most important in franchise history.

The Wizards and Gortat agreed Tuesday night to a five-year, $60 million deal, a move that kept the player known as “The Polish Hammer” from going elsewhere — namely the Miami Heat, which was expected to have more than just a passing interest in the big man.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Coach Randy Wittman and senior vice president Tommy Sheppard traveled to Gortat’s home turf in an effort to reaffirm the organization’s commitment to him. The gesture was the right move for the right player.

Although the Wizards hope to retain Gortat and reinvigorated forward Trevor Ariza — another important member of the Wizards’ entertaining ensemble cast — getting Gortat’s signature on a contract was their top priority in free agency. You don’t have to understand the intricacies of pick-and-roll defense to realize that Gortat was at the center of the Wizards’ revival. The rest of the NBA noticed, too.

For any club with cap space that’s in the market for an effective starting big man, Gortat would have been a good fit. Under the terms of the salary cap, the Wizards were allowed to offer Gortat more money than their competitors. That’s a nice benefit to have.

The Post Sports Live crew talks about Carmelo Anthony, the Heat's big three and other NBA free agency storylines to watch. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

Wisely, though, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and President Ernie Grunfeld did not take a we’ve-got-this-in-the-bag approach. Although players cannot officially sign contracts until July 10, Gortat seemed just as happy to complete the process Tuesday night, tweeting “I’m proud to say Washington will be my home.”

In this age of small lineups (by NBA standards) and power forwards who would rather launch three-pointers than box out, Gortat is a rarity: a back-to-the-basket big guy who enjoys applying his muscle for the good of the team. Acquired from the Phoenix Suns shortly before the start of last season for a first-round pick — the Suns used it to select former Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis in last month’s draft — Gortat made Grunfeld look good.

The seven-year veteran’s statistics were solid — he averaged 13.2 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks — but numbers alone didn’t reveal his value to a franchise that has strived for years to improve its image on and off the court. The hardworking, affable Gortat was another nice addition to Grunfeld’s successful makeover of the locker room.

Gortat meshed well with Nene, Washington’s talented-but-brittle Brazilian big man, and developed good chemistry with point guard John Wall, which was obvious as the Wizards advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons.

To persuade Gortat to help keep the good times going, the Wizards gave him a major pay bump. Gortat made a little more than $7.7 million last season; now he is due a reported $12 million per season.

That’s a lot of money for a 30-year-old player over a lengthy deal. But even before Gortat’s 31-point, 16-rebound performance in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Indiana Pacers, Grunfeld determined Gortat was a long-term keeper.

The Wizards’ trip to Poland wasn’t hastily arranged because of the Heat’s recent maneuvering to clear cap space. It had been planned for some time. But it was smart for the Wizards to be proactive with someone they clearly need to continue their momentum. Ariza would seem to be in that category as well.

While reviving his career last season, Ariza, who also made a little more than $7.7 million, did so much to help the Wizards. He was a three-point marksman, the team’s top perimeter defender and a rock during tough times. The Wizards want him back, which is why Wittman and Wizards Vice President Ed Tapscott traveled to Los Angeles the other day to meet with the 10-year veteran.

Ideally, the Wizards would soon announce their 2013-14 starting lineup will return intact in the 2014-15 season. Team officials, however, realize Ariza may be attractive to a team such as the Heat, which was several steps slow against the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. Then there’s the Wizards’ situation at wing forward behind Ariza.

Next season, the Wizards will have nearly $10 million in salary committed to Otto Porter Jr. — the third overall pick in the 2013 draft — and Martell Webster. Despite getting little playing time as a rookie, Porter often impressed during practice. Moving forward, the Wizards plan for Porter to be much more involved.

Webster is expected to be sidelined three to five months after recently having back surgery. Even if the Wizards wanted to trade Webster to shed salary and clear a path for Porter, that won’t happen now.

As distasteful as it would be for the Wizards to lose Ariza, they’re at least somewhat equipped to handle his departure. Without Gortat, the Wizards would have had a huge hole in the middle of their lineup.

For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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