When the Washington Wizards' season ended in May, Marcin Gortat walked away seething. He hated suffering another abrupt playoff exit. He hated that another long year of sacrifice had gone stale. Most of all, he hated that, after 10 years of consistent effort and personal evolution to compete in the current perimeter-driven NBA, he was left questioning his worth.
"Nobody respects centers anymore," Gortat said that day, part of an epic rant that made many speculate he wanted to be traded. "Nobody looks at them as a valuable piece."
Almost five months later, he sat in the stands after a training camp practice with one leg crossed and a fresh mohawk decorating his dome. He laughed often. He was ready to talk more deeply about what had enraged him in the spring: the underappreciated burden of the conventional big man in today's game.
The center position isn't extinct, but its traditional job description — focal point of offense and defense, strong post game, space-eating controller of the paint — has evolved. So where does Gortat fit now? What about his backup, Ian Mahinmi? The Wizards have two true centers manning the position, which is becoming rare. NBA rotations typically now have an old-school big man and a three-point-shooting tall dude substituting for each other.
The elite centers play more like forwards, handling the basketball, scoring from all over and even directing the half-court offense. Or they're athletic marvels like DeAndre Jordan, anchoring the defense and mostly catching lobs on offense. But what about the rest?
Gortat, 33, is quietly a good model for how a center can survive. Mahinmi, 30, has played smaller roles throughout his career, but when healthy, he has been a good example, too. Neither shoots three-pointers nor plays high above the rim. But both centers have the quickness and foot speed to defend adequately on the perimeter, which is the top requirement of any modern NBA big man seeking to be more than a situational player. And both have come to understand the importance of how the little things — setting screens, running to the rim, rebounding, playing good team defense and recognizing what they mean to floor spacing even without shooting long jumpers — can add value to their roles.
"This is just how it is," said the 6-foot-11 Gortat, who averaged 10.8 points and 10.4 rebounds last season, making him one of 12 players to post a double-double in points and rebounds. "I became that legit five-man who sets screens, rolls to the basket. In 11 years of my career, I try to embrace that every freakin' night, every freakin' year."
The perception of the center is about to change. It's a misguided notion that the position doesn't matter anymore, and there is a collection of young big men capable of proving that. If Joel Embiid can remain healthy, he could redefine the position. Or maybe Karl-Anthony Towns beats him to it. There are plenty of others: Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis. Veterans such as DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol and Hassan Whiteside still have plenty of good years left, too. And the 2018 NBA draft class is expected to include some impact post players, including potential top-five picks Marvin Bagley III, DeAndre Ayton and Mohamed Bamba. Not every tall player wants to be the next Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokounmpo.
There are fewer centers like Gortat, however. For all the criticism he has received, he's a productive big man who accepts his role. He likes to bang inside, but he has adapted to the small ball era. And when called upon, he is capable of scoring 20 points.
Gortat and Mahinmi came into the league at the same time. They're both entering their 11th seasons. In 2007, they walked into an NBA in which Dwight Howard was the next big thing, and the game still featured plenty of teams that preferred to play inside-out. Within five seasons, that had changed dramatically.
"All the stuff that changed, I saw it happening right in front of me," the 6-11 Mahinmi said. "I'm living it because the change happened right in the middle of my career."
When Mahinmi arrived in San Antonio, he remembers Coach Gregg Popovich using the defensive term "center field." It was meant to tell the big man where to be during middle pick-and-roll situations. If he heard "center field," Mahinmi knew to wait at the free throw line. If the Spurs called "center field" now, they would give up 20 three-pointers.
"Now it's impossible to do that because guys are too good of shooters and guards are too good," Mahinmi said. "The game is played so fast, if you just run and sag back, you're going to get drilled."
There are a variety of offensive styles that centers can play right now. But there are two absolute skills they must all possess to compete: defensive versatility and a knack for setting screens. Gortat, who tied for the league lead in screen assists last season (6.2) with Utah's Rudy Gobert, can make you tired just describing the energy required to do those things.
"Your endurance has to be to run around, playing pick-and-roll defense, making sure the point guard stays in front of you, hedging, recovering and then battling for rebounds," Gortat said. "Then you have to sprint down the court and make the court shrink so that your shooters will be open. If they don't shoot the ball, then you've got to come out of the paint, go set a screen and roll down again, all with maximum effort. Do this three times up and down the court in a game, and, whew, your lungs are burning. And that's when the pass comes your way on the roll, and you have to catch the ball on the move and finish in one fluid motion, with either hand."
No wonder Gortat gets upset when he feels he is slighted because he doesn't shoot three-pointers. The traditional center is kind of like a left tackle in football these days. When he does his job, you don't notice him.
"It's disrespectful to me when I keep hearing about those guys that, just because they can shoot threes, they are better centers," Gortat said. "It's complete [expletive]. Because if you put me and him straight up in the post or in a game of one-on-one, he ain't going to win. I'm telling you right now: He's not going to win."
The Wizards make sure their centers are appreciated. After Gortat led the league in screen assists last season, the team acknowledged him, and point guard John Wall spoke about the meaning of Gortat's contributions.
Gortat grins at the memory. As a new season begins, his frustration has subsided. He has had his value verified.
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