A day after acquiring Marcin Gortat in a trade with the Phoenix Suns, Washington Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld and Coach Randy Wittman were more confident about their organization’s playoff aspirations. But the most exuberant response might have come from one Wizards veteran.
“We have true center. Look at my face,” Nene, grinning widely, said after Saturday’s practice at Verizon Center. The Wizards’ front office “did amazing job. They surprise me, man. He is a huge [addition] to the team. Not just for me, but for the team. Help me a lot, but for the team.”
Nene prefers to play power forward, and the prospect of playing center in the absence of the injured Emeka Okafor when the regular season begins Wednesday against the Detroit Pistons did not excite him. Saturday’s five-player deal that sent Okafor and a protected 2014 draft pick to the Phoenix Suns for Gortat and other extraneous parts should most directly benefit Nene, relieving his concerns about the more physical grind of playing center given his past injury woes.
The enthusiasm, however, was tempered by the departure of Okafor, who is sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disk in his neck and is recovering with his family in New York.
Nene, along with other teammates, understood that the Wizards had to make a business decision but hated that the team had to part with a veteran big man whose value went beyond his contributions on the floor. In his lone season in Washington, Okafor led the Wizards in rebounds per game (8.8) and games played (79) and also brought a positive attitude, a workmanlike approach and provided leadership with his actions and occasionally his words.
“It’s tough to see a guy like Mek go that was a great professional for us and what he did for our team, especially helping me in learning things,” John Wall said. “But it was kind of tough not knowing if he would play this year. At the time and situation, we needed somebody that could play right away. We wanted to be deeper at the center position. I think the organization did what they had to do to find a guy.”
Grunfeld didn’t just find a guy in Gortat, who arrived in the District on Saturday and will meet his new teammates Monday, when the Wizards will hold their next practice. The 6-foot-11 center from Poland averaged 13.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocked shots in 2½ seasons with the Suns. Nicknamed “the Polish Hammer,” Gortat is an agile big man who can run the floor, defend his position, has decent hands and excelled in the pick-and-roll when paired with former Suns point guard Steve Nash. He doesn’t rebound or defend as well as Okafor but is a much better scorer.
“I think our players have played against him and understand we’re getting a real quality NBA player who has had real success in the NBA. Fortifies our front line and gives us a lot more size,” Grunfeld said. “Obviously if Emeka didn’t have the [injury] it probably wouldn’t have been as imperative for us to get another big man in there. We were fortunate to get a player like Marcin. I think it’s a trade that works for both teams. Phoenix is in a different place right now. They are rebuilding. And we’re in a place where we want to be a playoff contender.”
The Wizards also acquired Shannon Brown, Malcolm Lee and former O’Connell star Kendall Marshall but those three players are expected to be waived by Monday, when teams have to submit their regular season rosters to the NBA.
Gortat, who is in the last year of a deal that pays him $7.7 million, was the only piece that mattered to the Wizards. With Okafor down, Wittman was forced to rely on the inconsistent trio of Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker and Jan Vesely. (The Wizards are expected to decline the fourth-year options for Vesely and Chris Singleton, who has been sidelined for a month with a broken left foot, according to people with knowledge of the situation.)
“We were a little light up front,” said Wittman, who also liked the timing of the deal. “This isn’t like we’re in February or January. This is at the start, where we can get him on board with us pretty quickly. . . . That’s the beauty about the situation. We had no idea when, or if, Emeka was going to be back. So this gives us a free body that we didn’t have.”
To Nene, Gortat was a big body that the team sorely needed if it was going to make a serious run at the postseason. Rarely one for bold declarations, Nene now believes the Wizards have the talent to make strides this season.
“We going to make noise,” Nene said. “I don’t want to talk much about how we going to do it. Because we don’t know how we going to be. We know, we believe in each other and we know we can do big things right now. About playoffs. We have potential. We have players. But we don’t win nothing yet.”