PHOENIX — Enough scorers have enjoyed career seasons next to Steve Nash to question whether Marcin Gortat will be the same offensive player without him around.
Every Sun figures to take some kind of efficiency hit without Two Time, but no Phoenix player relied on him more to create easy buckets than Gortat last season, although the flip side of that is that Nash needed an excellent roll man like Gortat more than any other Sun to be successful himself.
According to HoopData, Gortat was assisted on 78.6 percent of his buckets in 2010-11 with the Suns and 79.6 percent last year, more than any of the other 98 players to attempt at least 250 shots in 2011-12. A third of his plays last season came as the roll man (more than any other play type), per mySynergySports, a play on which he scored 1.23 points per play (10th in the league). Thus some wonder whether he can repeat his superb 15.4 ppg season on 55.5 percent shooting (56.8 percent with Nash, 47.0 percent without him, per the NBA’s stats tool) with Nash no longer around to set him up.
“Basically, I am going to try and prove that I can play without him,” Gortat said. “There was a lot of talk in the offseason about how I’m going to play and how I’m going to handle the whole situation without him.
“I believe I’m an experienced player already. I’ve been in the league a few years by now, and I have other point guards. I have Goran Dragic and Kendall Marshall. I have great passers. I’m quite sure I’ll be fine.”
It’s a question, however, because Nash has made more money than any player in the history of the NBA if you count all the dollars he has earned for teammates when they put up career years by his side.
Gortat was an ideal pick-and-roll partner for Nash with his combination of athleticism, agility and quickness in a 6-foot-11 package. The Polish Hammer gushed about Nash pretty much since the second he arrived in the Valley, even joking after the 2010-11 season that he would give Nash his salary, BMW, apartment, pants and a salad every day if he were to stay.
Gortat so badly wanted an opportunity to prove himself upon landing in Phoenix, and he found himself in a perfect situation with the unselfish Nash. Yet now without him he bristled at a question during Media Day about whether his game would change without the Lakers’ new point guard.
“I’m not going to change my game at all,” Gortat said defiantly. “I’m going to try to use my athleticism, I’m going to use my energy. Obviously if there’s going to be an opportunity to set a screen I’m going to do that, but I’m pretty comfortable also with getting the ball down low and obviously I’m going to try to prove I’m a better post-up player this year than I was last year. I believe that 20 games in the offseason with the national team helped me, and I’m definitely energetic.”
Gortat led Poland to a first-place finish in Group E with a 6-2 record that qualified the squad for EuroBasket 2013 play. The Suns’ center led the way for a Poland squad lacking NBA-level talent beyond him.
Gortat dominated the field on his way to averaging 21.1 points (fourth in the qualifying tourney), 11.6 rebounds (second) and 2.3 blocks (second). He also shot 62.9 percent on twos (10th), recorded six double-doubles (first) and made 4.6 free throws a contest (eighth). In short, Gortat did everything one would expect an NBA stud to do in a tournament like this lacking the elite European squads playing in the Olympics.
Most importantly, he did all this without Steve Nash or any other NBA-caliber point guard spoon feeding him buckets.
“What I learn?” Gortat asked, repeating a question about his summer with the national team. “Well, that you’ve got to make a basket. If you don’t make a basket then your team isn’t going to win. Being that guy in Poland I was able to take  shots a game and you had to perform. I’ve got to say, it wasn’t easy. Back in Europe I was doubled, tripled, and it wasn’t easy, but it was a great experience for me. I learned a lot, and hopefully I’m going to be able to do the same thing in the NBA.”
Obviously Gortat will not hold down those same responsibilities in Phoenix with a lineup of versatile scorers around him, and although nobody is Nash it’s not like Goran Dragic won’t be able to find Marcin for easy opportunities.
After Friday’s preseason home opener in which the Suns did not run many pick-and-rolls as they were putting in new pieces of offense, I asked Dragic what he can do to ensure Gortat stays the same player without Nash.
“Same,” Dragic said. “It’s the same key. He has to run fast to the transition and set a screen and then when I come off the screen just roll fast. If the weakside is going to be inside than the shooters are open. If not, then Marsh is going to be open. We have so many shooters like JD, Wes, Shannon Brown that probably they’re not going to help so much and we have that easy bucket pass.
“I think he can be great for us. He’s a very important piece for our team.”
The question is how important, particularly on the offensive side of the ball because we know Gortat will be his usual solid self on the backboards and the defensive end.
On a Suns team with a host of quality scorers but no dominant ones, will he once again be that lead guy? Did he develop his post-up game with Poland so the Suns can go to him for easy buckets in the post for once? Will Dragic find him for as many easy buckets as Nash used to?
Gortat is sick of hearing those questions, yet more than any other Sun he figures to miss Nash the most.
Yet just like leaving Howard’s shadow, Nash’s departure opens up another opportunity for Gortat to prove himself as a legitimate borderline All-Star rather than just another Nash-inflated creation.
“This is a new team with a lot of new faces,” Gortat said. “Obviously, one of the most important faces is gone — Steve Nash. So it will be a new team. But I’m definitely looking forward to playing without him. I think we have a big chance to make the playoffs, and that’s going to be our main focus.”
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