With the Washington Wizards’ season concluded, we’re reviewing the Wizards, position by position. We’ve already covered the shooting guards, small forwards, point guards and power forwards. Now, let’s look at the big men in the middle: Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi.
There’s something to be admired about a teammate who shows up to work every day. Someone who, no matter how deep the Wizards are into the doldrums of the 82-game calendar, can be trusted to play. No one in the Wizards’ locker room over the past two seasons has been more dependable in that regard than Marcin Gortat.
Over the past two seasons, Gortat, an 11-year veteran and the oldest player on the roster, has started every game in the regular season as well as the playoffs — that accounts for 183 consecutive walks to the jump circle for the opening tip. He’s been the most stable feature on a team that cherishes continuity over everything else. And yet, for another year, Gortat’s role was significantly scaled back.
A year ago, the Wizards made a point of running the opening play for Gortat, who flourished in setting screens but pined for more touches. In 2017-18, as Gortat once again excelled in creating open looks for teammates (averaging 4.5 screen assists per game, fourth most in the league), his role in the offense dwindled. Even though John Wall missed half of the season, which conceivably should have meant more touches for the rest of the starters since the team had to embrace more ball-sharing, Gortat averaged just 6.8 attempts per game (down from 8.2 the previous season).
Although Gortat remained in the starting lineup, he averaged only 25.3 minutes, the lowest of his career since the 2009-10 season, when he played 13.4 minutes per game. As the Wizards experimented further with smaller lineups — using Markieff Morris or Mike Scott at the five spot — and abandoned the relic of the traditional big, Gortat was relegated to the bench. When Gortat reviewed the season of teammate Kelly Oubre Jr., the athletic and energetic small forward, his compliments gave way to a mini-rant about the modern NBA.
“I hope he really enjoyed playing as many minutes as he played, because he took my minutes, basically,” Gortat said, smiling. “I was relaxing down there on the bench, and we run small ball, which is the worst thing that man could ever invent in this league. I hate small ball. Small-ball basketball in this league is just trash. I hate that.”
Gortat does not stretch the floor, nor can he defend opposing bigs who shoot threes. These limitations help explain the 36 games in which Gortat never saw the floor in the fourth quarter.
Gortat led the team with 7.6 rebounds per game and made up for his distaste for defending on the perimeter by taking charges within the paint (0.26 per game, the fifth most in the league among regular rotation players). Yet he is far from being the “athletic big” that Wall said he wants the team to pursue in the offseason.
With still one more year remaining on his contract and his role shrinking, Gortat recognizes that he may be on the trading block. If he does return, however, he vows to be the same dependable big man.
“I know what I can bring to the table,” Gortat said. “Physically, trust me, I’m better than a lot of 20-year-old people in this league. I have a lot left in my tank. I have one more year on my contract here, and I want to come back to be the guy that I was last year. And I’m hoping that I get this opportunity.”
Off the bench: Ian Mahinmi, Jason Smith, Chris McCullough
The only player in the Wizards’ locker room with championship experience shared honest thoughts about the team’s problems.
“When you are talking continuity, it’s for the better. You expect better, I feel like we didn’t do better than last year,” Ian Mahinmi said. “It’s hard. I love those guys, but we have our issues. Unless we work those issues out, we’re going to continue to struggle at times and we’re going to continue to not be consistent. We definitely have to have good communication this summer. Before looking elsewhere, we have to look at each other, see what we can really do, be honest and then move on.”
Mahinmi, who won an NBA title in 2011 with the Dallas Mavericks, has the ring résumé to fulfill the role of wise veteran (much like Trevor Ariza and Paul Pierce, who came to Washington as champs). However, unlike those players Mahinmi has not developed into a voice in the locker room because his game remains limited after recovering from injuries that date back to his start in Washington. While Mahinmi did not miss significant time this year and appeared in 77 games, it took him until mid-February to return to 100 percent.
“That’s when I started to really feel like myself. My lateral quickness, my jumping was back. My overall feeling, body felt right,” said Mahinmi, whose season highlights included a 17-point game against Orlando in January and a 6-for-8 shooting performance at New York in the last game before the all-star break. Also, on March 14 in Boston, Mahinmi pulled down six offensive rebounds.
Mahinmi produced one of the best defensive ratings on the team (105.0) but also fouled often, collecting 366 personal fouls compared to 312 total rebounds. Still, Mahinmi never lost his backup role in the process as Jason Smith remained on the periphery of the big-man rotation.
Smith, who developed a strong following among the Wizards’ fan base a year ago as he filled in for the injured Mahinmi, made just 33 game appearances. He never replicated the three-point touch from the 2016-17 season and missed 28 of his 32 deep shots.
While Smith remained on the bench, Chris McCullough persisted on as a project.
McCullough spent much of his third season on the inactive list and assigned to the G League. He made 19 appearances with the Wizards, but almost exclusively near the end of blowouts — 82 of his 90 total minutes came in the fourth quarter. At 6-9 and 215 pounds, McCullough fits the description of “athletic big” as he enters free agency this summer. But his limited body of work over the last three years will make it a difficult decision for the Wizards whether to extend him a contract.