The phone call that confirmed Marcin Gortat’s status with the Washington Wizards didn’t change his perspective. After expressing concerns in his exit interview at the end of last season that his time with the team may be coming to an end, Gortat was assured by the Wizards front office during the summer that he would be on the team when training camp opened in the fall. However, as a 33-year-old true center in a league that has become lighter and more mobile, Gortat’s plan to exit the NBA in two or three years remained intact.
His teammate and fellow center, Ian Mahinmi, arrived in camp with three seasons remaining on his contract. Though entering his 10th season, Mahinmi is the younger man with the longer contract. He lost weight in the offseason, but will never be able to change the fact he is 6 feet 11 with stretched-out limbs and a life spent in the paint.
The duo puts the Wizards in an odd spot. They have two true centers. Neither are equipped to stretch or space out the floor with jump-shooting ability. One, Gortat, is probably the better offensive player. Mahinmi is probably the better defender, particularly in this spaced-out version of the NBA. Both are owed a lot of money and can’t be on the floor at the same time. So, what will their jobs look like this season and beyond?
First, Gortat. His mohawk is back and he is threatening to change its color. Gortat promised the streak of spiked hair will last throughout the season, even if the shade changes. He is also preparing for his future. Gortat has this season and next remaining on his contract. After this season, the odds of him being traded will spike since he becomes an expiring contract that a rebuilding team could wipe from its books in a year. He will also turn 34 years old next February.
“There are no plans,” Gortat said. “I’ve got two, three more years in me, [and] I’m gone. I’m glad I’m at the end of my career right now. I’m not going to shoot threes; I’m not going to develop threes. I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to try to bring back real centers. I’m just going to try to survive. For the next three years, I’m going to play my best. I’m going to try to spend all my six fouls as best as I can, get as many rebounds as I can, get some blocks, get some charges, hopefully we’re going to win some games then I’m gone. Straight up. I tell you, I’m gone.”
One of the challenges for the Gortats and Mahinmis in the age of modern information is quantifying their contribution. The NBA embraced advanced metrics swiftly and early. One of those new metrics has helped show their value: picks that lead to points. Gortat was viewed as one of the best screeners in the league last season. That helped the Wizards finish third in total points off screens.
“You got to understand your job and you’ve got to be comfortable with what you do,” Mahinmi said. “I know exactly what I can do, I know exactly what I can bring. But then, at the same time, you’ve got to evolve with the game. Now, the game is not so much big-man league. It’s very much perimeter. You have to be able to make plays. You don’t have shoot the 3, but in my case, I like to be a facilitator, I like to dribble handoff, I like to take guys off the dribble. All that little stuff I like to do. You’ve got to somehow understand that you can space the floor and still be efficient.”
Mahinmi altered his diet in the summer to lose weight. Wherever he went, his personal chef came along and the heavy French cuisine of home was cut out. Just two years after trying to gain weight, Mahinmi has reversed course to lose weight. A season repeatedly interrupted by knee injuries last year — which included a minor knee surgery after the season ended — also prompted Mahinmi to change his diet and frame. He’s still huge. Just a more slender version of huge.
He wants to be swifter in his lateral movement. Mahinmi also wants to counter the different kind of physical strains his body encounters now that the league has moved to more balletic than bruising. When he entered the league in 2007, Mahinmi relied on force near the rim. He would load his base and be struck in the sternum throughout the season. Now, he has to shift, shuffle and sprint more.
“It’s different wear and tear on your body,” Mahinmi said. “Ten years ago, when I first got in the league, oh! It was a different type of soreness. So much more running, so much more jumping, lateral movement [now]. The stress you put on your body has shifted. It’s not more pounding — it’s more like having fresh legs. That’s why eating healthy, you have to be able to be fresh because guys are really running, more explosive and sharper.”
The Wizards still owe Gortat and Mahinmi $74.4 million. Mahinmi has three years remaining on his contract, Gortat two. Their cost — and whatever level they can adapt at — will have a thorough influence on the Wizards’ prospects in the next few years, when they have positioned themselves to rely on their core of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter. Washington made a heavy investment in that trio to compete in the modern NBA. They also have a large sum tied up in two centers whom, in style and age, represent a time gone by.