PHOENIX — If the Phoenix Suns had forced him to start the regular season in a place where he was no longer wanted, constantly pondering his next destination and answering questions about the latest trade rumor, Marcin Gortat doesn’t believe that he would be nearly as productive as he has been thus far for the Washington Wizards.
“I would’ve had a terrible season. I would be miserable,” Gortat said recently.
But to Gortat, the Suns did right by him and always have — from plucking him out of Orlando, where he backed up Dwight Howard until that was no longer satisfactory, to pairing him with spoon-feeding point guard Steve Nash, to letting him become an NBA starter. And finally, by ending any suspense about his future whereabouts by dealing him to the Wizards a few days before the regular season began and allowing him to join a team that had playoff aspirations.
Even as Gortat makes his return to US Airways Center on Friday, the Suns continue to appease the scruffy-bearded, 6-foot-11 big man from Poland. The Suns had scheduled a Polish heritage night for their first home game, but Gortat was already elsewhere for the festivities. Phoenix will honor the tickets of fans who paid to see Gortat play by allowing them to use those tickets to see the Wizards.
Gortat is certainly grateful for the kindness but he is also a competitor, so he has no plans of going over to the weight room to hang out with his old teammates, coaches and trainers. He expects to sit in that visitors’ locker room with his Wizards teammates, focusing on what he most wants during his reunion.
“I just want to beat them. Quite honestly, I just want to beat them bad,” Gortat said with a laugh, before explaining himself. “No hard feelings. I was never mad at these guys when I was leaving. It’s part of the game.”
The Wizards (20-21) are having their best regular season in more than six years, largely because of the improvements of John Wall and Bradley Beal, the relative health of Nene, a career year by Trevor Ariza and especially the arrival of Gortat. Before dealing Emeka Okafor’s expiring contract and a top-12 protected 2014 draft pick to the Suns for Gortat, the Wizards were staring at the prospect of going through a playoff-or-bust campaign with a glaring hole in the middle.
Okafor remains sidelined with a herniated disk in his neck and might not play this season while Gortat has provided Washington with identical rebounding numbers (8.8), slightly more blocked shots (1.6, compared with 1.0) and points (12.0 to 9.7) than Okafor last season. Gortat and Wall are also the only two players to appear in all 41 games this season for the Wizards.
“It’s been valuable,” Coach Randy Wittman said of Gortat’s presence. “When Emeka went down, we didn’t have a body of size anymore, so for us to be able to go out and get him was big for us. He gives us legitimate size inside that can defend and bang. I think he fits in well with John’s ability to run. He’s got good hands rolling to the basket, finishing. He’s conducive with how we want to play.”
Gortat has also helped motivate and inspire some big nights from Nene, who has jokingly called Gortat his “soul mate, on the floor.” Though he still struggles to pronounce Nene’s full given name, Gortat is usually the first one to high-five Nene or howl after a big play from the Brazilian forward whom he calls “mad man.” He is learning to adjust to sharing the floor with another big man who occupies similar spots on the court while dealing with fewer touches inside than he was accustomed to receiving in Phoenix.
“It’s clear that I’m not the first or second option on this team. I'm pretty much four or fifth option sometimes with Nene, or Brad or John, touching the ball a lot,” Gortat said. “I'm here to make sure the team is going to win. Take care of the dirty stuff. Rebounds. Blocks. Play some good defense. Try to bring some pick and roll presence.
“Playing in Phoenix was a totally different story,” he said. “I had more space under the basket. I knew that [I] was going to get the ball inside and I was the guy who was going to work. Here, it’s a different story. But I can say, I don’t mind doing that. As long as we’re winning, I don’t mind at all.”
The Wizards are winning more often than they have in previous seasons, and currently have the sixth-best record in a mostly mediocre Eastern Conference. But oddly enough, Gortat finds himself looking up in the standings to Phoenix (24-17), which entered the season looking as if it were planning to rebuild but remains in the hunt for a playoff spot in the highly competitive Western Conference. Despite losing point guard Eric Bledsoe to a knee injury last month, the Suns thrashed Indiana by 24 points on Wednesday.
After spending a few months working with new Coach Jeff Hornacek and observing first-year General Manager Ryan McDonough, Gortat said he isn’t completely shocked by the Suns’ run.
“I’m not. They have a very good coaching staff, a very good GM, they have a few young players, rising stars,” he said. “They have a great system. They have a great defensive coordinator. They’re young, they just enjoy playing.”
Gortat, who turns 30 next month, realized that his time in Phoenix was nearing its end when he arrived for training camp and the team had three young big men in fifth overall pick Alex Len of Maryland, Miles Plumlee and Slava Kravtsov. Though he never reached the playoffs in parts of three seasons in Phoenix, Gortat was still stung by the trade.
“There will be some emotions, for sure. I will have some emotions. I've been there for three years and I ain’t going to lie,” Gortat said. “Obviously, playing against your ex-team, it's always exciting and people are pumped up for that. But I don't have a particular reason to prepare for this game, like I really, really want to win, like I really want to show them who I am or what can I do. I don’t think it's about that. You just want to win the game, basically. Prove that you’re a good player. That’s it.”