There’s a situation brewing at the center of everything.
During the Washington Wizards‘ final media session, Coach Scott Brooks fielded 20 minutes of questions about the season and what’s to come. Brooks was asked if the pairing of over-30 centers, starter Marcin Gortat and backup Ian Mahinmi, can be sustainable for the 2017-18 season.
“Yeah, I think so,” Brooks began. “I think our team is good enough to continue to improve, and those two guys are a big part of our unit, our team. And they have great experience.”
Then as the coach stepped away from the blue background and Gortat took his place, any buoyant belief Brooks had tried to establish about this center rotation took a dive.
Gortat was never asked directly for his thoughts on if he and Mahinmi can be a sustainable pair. Reporters didn’t have to ask. Instead, Gortat voluntarily offered an honest assessment on his future with the Wizards.
“I’m just going to sit down in the summer and talk to my agent, talk to my people and I’m going to analyze if this is the right fit,” Gortat said.
“I know how this business works,” Gortat continued, after another line of questioning. “I’m the oldest guy on the team, they signed Ian also, he’s younger than me, he got a longer contract. I just know how the business works, so I’m prepared for everything, just in case. But again, I’m gonna talk to management, I’m going to talk to my agent, and we’ll figure it out.”
Next season, Gortat and Mahinmi will have more than $28 million tied up in salary — that’s a lot of money considering that the centers can’t play together on the court. Both bigs can operate effectively as the roll man in pick-and-roll situations but neither can space the floor as a shooter. This season when Brooks wanted to play two traditional bigs on the floor, he matched Jason Smith with either Mahinmi or Gortat — but never his top two centers together.
For most of the season, Gortat ranked just behind young stars Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns in minutes-per-game at center. This was a point of pride for the 33-year-old Gortat, who passionately defended his worth by bringing up how he participated in every practice, shoot-around and game throughout the 82-game grind and postseason.
“To be available for every game is a huge thing in the NBA,” Gortat noted.
The 30-year-old Mahinmi, who missed 51 regular season and eight playoff games because of various knee issues, was not always available. But once he recovered and worked back into the rotation in February, he cut into Gortat’s minutes. During one stretch in late March, Mahinmi played with the starters through several fourth quarters while Gortat was benched. Gortat finished the season averaging 31.2 minutes per game, which ranked 11th among centers.
A person close to Gortat and familiar with his line of thinking explained that he is simply seeing the obvious signs. Therefore, Gortat, who is under contract for two more seasons, wants to seek clarification from the Wizards’ front office in regards to his role next year, the person said.
How willing would the Wizards be to drop the Polish Hammer? Any suggestion that Washington should trade Gortat and promote Mahinmi to the starting rotation is not that simple.
As Gortat mentioned throughout his media session, he is a durable center whose contributions often go overlooked. Gortat finished in a first-place tie with Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert for most screen assists per game, at 6.2; the figure rose to 7.8 during the playoffs. Also, as the team’s leading offensive rebounder, Gortat turned volleyball tap-backs into second scoring opportunities for teammates.
While a healthy Mahinmi would be a better rim protector and defender against stretch-fives and shooting bigs in today’s NBA, questions linger about his fitness. Through the playoffs, Mahinmi never felt 100 percent after his calf strain and now goes into the offseason unsure if he requires more knee procedures.
However, as Mahinmi spoke to reporters one final time, he envisioned a harmonious future as he and Gortat grow together on the same roster.
“Going forward, me and March and all the traditional centers, we obviously have to evolve with the game,” Mahinmi said. “We have to get better at … being more mobile, you know, being able to shoot the ball, space the floor, and at the same time still protect the rim. That’s the good part about our game. Every summer you get back in the lab and try to get better as the NBA evolves into a more outside league.”