PHOENIX — In the guard-dominated league that is the NBA these days, the center position is a coveted one.
There are very few currently playing the position who would be considered elite in any other era, let alone this era.
Before the 2012-13 season, Phoenix Suns center Marcin Gortat wanted anyone who would listen to believe that there wasn’t a whole lot separating him from the league’s few top-line centers (Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Brook Lopez). He wanted to make it known that his success in Phoenix was not a product of the system or playing with a distributor like Steve Nash, but rather a testament to his ability and growth as a full-time starter.
But for all the talking and self-induced hype, Gortat in many ways regressed this season. In fact, he often made more noise off the court than on it.
Without a deft partner to work the pick-and-roll like he previously had in Nash, the Polish Hammer often looked lost at the offensive end. The Suns center’s skill set has always been predicated on easy buckets near the rim, post-up opportunities five to seven feet from the basket or jump shots from the free throw line extended, but those looks were few and far between in 2012-13.
According to NBAstuffer.com, when Gortat was on the floor this season his usage percentage (measure of how much control an individual has over his team’s offense) was just 17.3. Acclimating to a lack of touches, nine new players on the roster and a different starting point guard clearly affected his production, as the sixth-year veteran noticeably dropped in points per game (15.4 to 11.1), rebounds per game (10.0 to 8.5), field-goal percentage (55.5 to 52.1) and shot attempts (11.7 to 9.3).
After Lindsey Hunter took over on Jan. 20, Gortat’s numbers did picked up a bit – he scored in double digits in nine of his last 18 games – but a Lisfranc injury suffered in the Suns’ March 6 game against the Toronto Raptors ended his season six weeks early.
“It was tough,” Gortat said during the team’s exit interviews. “The final two or three weeks before the injury, I finally started figuring out what I was supposed to do and how I could help the team and then the injury happened.”
The good news for Gortat at least is that it doesn’t seem like the injury will linger well into the off-season.
“I feel great,” said Gortat. “My foot is 99 percent right now. I still need the strength in my leg, but basically I feel good. I’ve been cleared to go home and rest basically. I’m still going to work on it and try to get 100 percent flexibility in my foot and fix my range of motion. Hopefully, I’ll be ready to go.”
Even if Gortat is healthy though, one major question remains. What kind of long-term future does he have in the Valley after a 61-game season marred by inconsistency and injury?
Gortat heads into the final year of his contract next season and is set to make $7.7 million. During his now infamous November interview with a Polish reporter, the Suns center intimated that he turned down the team’s offer of a contract extension before the season began.
Make of that what you will, but consider the fact that new general manager Ryan McDonough obviously wasn’t a part of any reported extension offers.
If he does hit the open market in 2014, Gortat will do so as a 31-year-old center looking for a deal likely somewhere in the ballpark of $10 million per year.
That wouldn’t seem to benefit the Suns financially moving forward given their cap space and gluttony of picks over the next three years, but the problem is what kind of value would he warrant this summer on the trade market given his lack of progression as a starting center in 2012-13?
In Gortat’s eyes, that shouldn’t even be a question. He admitted changes need to be made by management in the off-season but hopes he’s not among them.
“I think we need some changes,” said Gortat. “We need to have certain conversations and look in the mirror. Each of us has to ask if we did everything necessary to win or if we did everything necessary to perform.
“First of all, I am going to look at myself. I’m going to correct myself, and hopefully management will do the right thing.”
As McDonough and Co. weigh Gortat’s future in Phoenix, the Polish Hammer said he too has a big decision on his hands.
Last summer, Gortat helped the Poland national team qualify for FIBA EuroBasket 2013. While his nationalistic pride is not worthy of criticism, he noted that it likely caused him to hit the proverbial wall pretty early on in the 2012-13 season.
It’s an issue Gortat revealed he’s still worried about as he attempts to rebound from his most disappointing season in Phoenix.
“I definitely feel the same way [going into next season],” Gortat said when asked if he’s afraid of hitting the wall again. “There’s a huge decision in front of me, and I’m going to decide about me playing for the basketball team in two or three months.
“I have to first of all rest and see how my foot is going to feel. I definitely don’t want the same situation I had this year, basically hitting the wall after 20 to 30 games. It’s not easy, it’s not fun at all. I feel like I’m a competitor and I want to compete every night. I wasn’t able to do that. “
The competitor in Gortat is what made him a fan favorite almost instantly after coming over from the Orlando Magic in December 2010. But it was a side of his game that rarely, if ever, showed itself during the Suns’ 25-57 campaign.
While the case can be made that he remains the organization’s best option at center going into next season — Suns went 4-18 after his injury on March 6 — Marcin Gortat is still a long ways away from being an elite player at his position.
2012-13 was a revealing season for the Polish Hammer, one that frankly was highlighted more by talk than by substance.
There’s no denying the talent is there, but when he takes a good hard look in the mirror this summer what will Marcin Gortat see looking back at him: a player solely amused by the sound of his own voice or a player driven to prove he can be part of the long-term solution rather than the short-term problem?