PHOENIX — The perspective of ’s value and success during the 2011-12 NBA season lie in two paradigms.
On one hand, there was his career-high averages of 15.4 points, 10 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game in his first full season with the Phoenix Suns, and he ended the year as the eighth-best NBA player in total rebounds and rebounds per game. More impressively, he andbecame the most potent pick-and-roll duo in the league, and because of it Gortat finished sixth in the league with a 55.5 percent field goal accuracy.
The other perspective of Gortat’s game was one of a soft player — a guy who couldn’t finish around the hoop, struggled with confidence and sometimes just disappeared. His worst games came against one of the best center’s in Dwight Howard and then in Phoenix’s must-win game, when the Suns lost to the Utah Jazz to stomp out their playoff hopes.
“It could be a situation where it’s unfortunate it happened now,” head coach Alvin Gentry said, “but you go through some bad games during the season and it just could have been that also.
“He had a terrific year, did a good job for us. Those games are kind of magnified due to the nature of them.”
So here we are, in an offseason where critics could say the potential loss of Nash will emphasize any weakness within the Polish Machine’s game. Yet, Gortat remains aware of where he’ll have to improve regardless of what his pass-happy teammate decides to do.
“That was a crazy season,” Gortat said after his exit interview. “I’m quite sure me and Steve, we became probably the best duo in the pick and rolls in the league. I was finishing everything from the pick and rolls, left and right, but that’s fine. I’ve got to work on my weaknesses.”
Now he moves on with the biggest improvement having to do with building strength in his lower body to help multiple facets of his game. Gortat didn’t have a weight goal to put down, but adding muscle in his legs will help him finish around the rim and defend.
Another issue that comes to mind is Gortat’s endurance, which he said suffered in his first full year as an NBA starting center.
“The first 40 games I played with a lot of energy,” he said. “Then I hit the wall kind of between 40-50 games … and then I had the second gear again and I started well, I started playing better with energy.”
A preseason injury to his thumb also could have held Gortat back, adding to the soft label considering it hindered his grasp of the ball, free throw shooting (64.9 percent) and ability to finish around the rim.
“I think it really set him off at the beginning and affected him psychologically afterwards,” said president of basketball operations Lon Babby, “and by the time it healed, I think he somehow became more of a finesse player than a power player, and he never was able to recapture that.
“He knows that, and he’s got to get better.”
The lower body strength should also help hold defensive position on the block.
Gortat kept some of the better centers in the league in check for the most part — to find out just how well, I looked up Howard, Andrew Bynum, DeMarcus Cousins, Al Jefferson and Marc Gasol for no particular reason.
“I had some games where I totally vanished like the one in Utah and the one in Orlando,” he added. “I totally vanished. That’s going to be the next step hopefully, you know.”
In 14 total games, only four times did one of those centers shoot above 50 percent against Phoenix. Jefferson, a 19-per-game scorer, never reached his average.
Bynum scored 12, 16, 17 and 23 points in four games against Gortat, though he went 10-of-27 to reach his highest total. Howard went 11-for-16 to score 28 in a game that might’ve been Gortat’s worst, and Cousins went for a career-high 41 points in one of three games against the Suns.
In those 14 games, the Suns gave up an average of 11.4 rebounds to those centers.
So we see that while the numbers aren’t too shabby, there’s definitely room for improvement.
For sure, Gortat isn’t solely responsible for the above statistics considering rotations on the court and in the lineups, but as the figurehead for the Suns’ interior, we see that consistency is the next step as a one-on-one defender.
Shedding that soft label, however, could come in how Gortat protects the paint with his help defense. And that might be Gortat’s biggest flaw as a defender at this point in his career.
“Like I said to Coach, all these charges that I took, I think it was 35 or 36 this year,” Gortat said. “I had, I guess, 1.5 blocks (per game) and 30-something charges. If you take half of the charges, change to blocks then I have over two blocks a game, and I’m quite sure I can do this next year, so if I’m going to be a bigger presence in the paint, (I have to be) a better leader, more consistent.”
This is obviously where the question marks lie if Nash should decide against a return to Phoenix.
Gortat shot 71.5 percent at the rim, a number not far off of Howard’s 74.4 percent from that close range and Andrew Bynum’s 73.2 percent, according to HoopData.com.
But Gortat was assisted on 84.3 percent of those makes.
The next step in his development comes in his individual post offense. With or without Nash, Gortat expects to be able to keep those impressive finishing percentages up.
Gortat said he’s going to work on those improvements in an estimated 15 Polish national team games in July and August. If he can work on his back-to-the-basket game and continue to extend his range on his jump shot out to 18 feet, Gortat believes he’ll be in solid shape to become a more prominent offensive figure for the Suns.
“I’ve got to become a better post-up player, I’ve got to create more fouls, and I’m 100 percent sure I’m going to have to finish everything around the basket a little bit harder,” he said. “I’ve got to forget about being a finesse player, I’ve got to forgot that I was able to work out with Hakeem Olajuwon (last summer) and all the Dream Shakes and left and right hooks.
“Sometimes I’ve got to be a simple basketball player and dunk the ball.”
Gortat plans on scheduling workouts with other big names this summer — he said that he’ll announce the plans on Twitter — but perhaps it’s about Gortat finding his own game, according to Babby.
“If he wants to go, for sure,” Babby said about workouts with former players. “A week with Olajuwon is great, but it’s a week. It’s a little bit like — not to age myself — but it’s a little bit like watching Sandy Koufax pitch. It doesn’t mean you can do it, so you’ve got to find your own style and your own methods of learning, but by all accounts he found the experience to be very, very rewarding.”
As for showing up in big games, maybe Gentry was right; the lone game against Orlando and the most important one against the Jazz do stick out because Gortat went 2-for-15 and scored six total points.
But against the five above-average centers I researched above, Gortat actually had averages of 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game, which are in line with his season averages.
This offseason then becomes one of simplicity for Gortat.
With a full offseason of rest and a year as a relied-upon NBA center of experience, the Polish Machine knows what he has to do.
“Just get better and bigger,” he said. “That’s it, that’s the main thing.”