Facing a playoff-or-else edict from owner Ted Leonsis and uncertainty over center Emeka Okafor’s neck injury, the Washington Wizards didn’t want to enter the regular season without addressing their concerns in the paint. So on Friday, team President Ernie Grunfeld executed a trade that sacrifices part of the future to make them relevant in the present.
The Wizards shipped Okafor — and his $14.5 million expiring contract — and a protected 2014 first-round draft pick to the Phoenix Suns for veteran big man Marcin Gortat, Shannon Brown, Malcolm Lee and Kendall Marshall. The draft pick is protected through the No. 12 selection next June and has top- 10 protection from 2015 to 2019.
Gortat is the only piece that mattered to the Wizards, who plan to waive Brown, Lee and Marshall, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
A 6-foot-11 center, Gortat has averaged 8.6 points and 6.9 rebounds in seven seasons with Orlando and Phoenix. He averaged 11.1 points and 8.5 rebounds for the Suns last season. Despite missing the final 21 games of last season with a right foot injury, Gortat played for his native Poland in the European championship tournament this past summer.
“We needed size. And Gortat is not just size. He’s good size. He’s a talented guy,” Grunfeld said in a telephone interview. “We felt it would be really a good opportunity to fortify our front line. A solid offensive player at the five became available and we thought it was an opportunity we had to take advantage of.”
Gortat, 29, is in the last year of a contract that will pay him $7.7 million this season. While playing with former MVP Steve Nash two seasons ago, Gortat averaged a double-double with 15.4 points and 10 rebounds. He became expendable last June when new Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough selected former Maryland big man Alex Len with the fifth overall pick in the NBA draft.
“It’s not surprising,” Gortat’s agent, Guy Zucker, said in a telephone interview. “But if you had to choose a team, Washington would have to be in the top three because it’s an ideal situation as far as the style of play. The fact that they are such a running team and they have more size defensively. They have a point guard that’s going to push it as much as any point guard in the league. They are due to have a breakout season and make the playoffs. He’s absolutely focused on doing that, making the playoffs and having an impact. He’s very excited.”
With Okafor out indefinitely with a herniated disk in his neck, the Wizards planned to move Nene over to center to start the regular season, which for Washington begins Wednesday against the Detroit Pistons. But the Brazilian big man never hid his hesitance to play the position, given the stress that his feet and knees have already taken, and the Wizards’ young big men – Jan Vesely, Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin – hadn’t developed into dependable options alongside him.
Gortat expressed his enthusiasm on Twitter : “nene/gortat...I like that!!!!!”
The Wizards had been in discussions with the Suns about a possible deal for the past few weeks, but the conversations intensified with the Oct. 30 regular season opener approaching. Grunfeld, who is also in the last year of his contract, stressed that the deal was more about filling a need than an indictment of their shortcomings.
The trade certainly signified that the Wizards lacked confidence in Okafor’s ability to make a return anytime soon. He was an instrumental piece in helping the Wizards become one of the league’s best defensive teams last season, but has missed all of training camp with his injury. Acquired from New Orleans, along with Trevor Ariza, in June 2012 in exchange for Rashard Lewis, Okafor averaged 9.7 points and a team-best 8.8 rebounds in 79 games and also helped raise the level of professionalism within the locker room.
“We have solidified our front court by adding a player who has established himself as a very consistent and productive inside presence over the last three seasons,” Grunfeld said in a team-issued statement. “Marcin’s ability to rebound, defend and score will allow us to continue where we left off last season and pushes us further toward our goal of becoming a playoff team.”