Marcin Gortat is trade bait but key part of Suns as is

PHOENIX – Suns media day didn’t go by without some chuckle-inducing soundbites from Marcin Gortat. Most days don’t. The playful Pole goofed around Monday, only being brought down when asked about a poor showing by his national team at EuroBasket.

“My pride is probably hurt more than I’m physically hurt or mentally,” Gortat said, eyes turned to the ground. “Bad, bad experience that I’m trying to forget as soon as possible.”

Having returned from the tournament, Gortat and point guard Goran Dragic were new faces at U.S. Airways Center on Monday despite being two leaders of a revamped team. While some of the younger faces of the Suns played pickup ball over the last few weeks, the lack of continuity at media day was apparent.

Gortat seemed fine with it all and happy about the Suns’ situation, no matter how short – or long – his tenure with the team lasts.

“We all know what I am right now,” he offered, “and we all know what’s going to happen, probably. It’s business. I totally understand that, I totally understand the situation. I totally understand the management, the front office people. There’s no hard feelings. At the end of the day I’m a pro, I’m going to try to do everything necessary to win a basketball game.”

Gortat raised some eyebrows last season with his complaints through the Polish media about his role under head coach Alvin Gentry. The center’s numbers dipped without his pick-and-roll mate Steve Nash, but seemingly Gortat began to find a rhythm with Dragic just before a foot sprain ended the center’s season prematurely.

He’s remained as the biggest name in trade rumors even though general manager Ryan McDonough has tried to silence them. Head coach Jeff Hornacek has maintained that any of the quote-on-quote older players on the roster could still be valuable pieces down the road if the Suns turn their fortunes around.

Hornacek also said the Suns often times looked as if they didn’t like one another when they played last season. Personal differences might matter little for a team that’s winning, but the Suns weren’t last season. And Gortat is back at square one of finding his niche in an offense bound around Dragic and Eric Bledsoe.

Gortat said his foot is not a problem and expressed excitement about the new-look roster, even if it means starting from scratch.

“Half of the team is gone,” he said. “I think it was a necessary move for us. I believe that in two, three, four years we’ll be a really good team. Right now we have a really unexperienced team, we have a lot of young guys. Still, we can compete, we can play hard and I believe we’re going to be a good running team this year.”

How Gortat fits is an interesting question. He’ll be asked to rebound, defend and ignite fastbreaks while doing both. Anything more would be intriguing but not necessarily optimal considering how Gortat struggled in a less stable situation with a similar roster last season.

Phoenix has versatility in the frontcourt provided all those players make the opening-day roster. No. 5 overall pick Alex Len, second-year pro Miles Plumlee and former Pistons big man Slava Kravtsov could all challenge for minutes at center. At media day, there were discussions about Channing Frye playing some center, per usual, and that could be an option with Markieff and Marcus Morris developing. Considering the Suns’ three-point shooting abilities looking so poor on paper, a lineup of bigs who can shoot might be appealing to Hornacek.

However it turns out, Gortat, who is entering a contract year, will be fighting for minutes as he did with Jermaine O’Neal last year.

“Being a backup for so many years, it was a pleasure to come to practice and try to beat up on Dwight Howard,” Gortat said. “Now the situation has turned around. I have three young studs to beat me up. I know how it is.

“Listen, we’re all fighting for bread, we’re all fighting for milk,” he added. “I’m not going to let anybody take my job. I’m going to come here and I’m going to fight these guys like everybody else. I’m not going to back down from Dwight, I’m not going to back down from these guys.”

And there’s a good chance he’ll come out on top.

But can Gortat redeem himself by being the player he spoke of becoming before last season and through the questioning of his role? This summer would indicate it’s possible. For Poland, Gortat showed that he can play team ball – it’s just that him playing team ball doesn’t result in wins if his team doesn’t have talent, especially perimeter scoring talent.

Poland went 1-4 and only beat a Slovenian team that was resting up at the tail end of the first round. Gortat averaged 10.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 2.2 assists – the assists were the surprising part but it became clear he knew how to find open teammates as teams sent double-teams to the post.

Last season with Phoenix, Gortat’s numbers slipped to 11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. He shot 52 percent from the floor, the lowest since his rookie season. Much of it had to do with being without a defined role on offense under Gentry and then interim Lindsey Hunter. But for a big man with a streaky confidence within games, the lack of production as a one-on-one player made Gortat’s efficiency drop two-fold.

While Gortat’s usage percentage fell from 20.8 percent to 17.2 over the last two seasons, his assist percentages actually rose from 4.8 percent to 6.5 percent, a sign that he’s more willing to pass when he’s put in position to be a one-on-one player.

Gortat spoke in the past-tense about his Suns tenure at one point during media day, as if he’s resigned to getting traded sooner or later.

“Whatever is going to happen is going to happen,” he said. “I’m grateful for everything I had for this team, this team took my game to another level – quite honestly it was Steve (Nash).”

It was a joke but telling of the situation. While Gortat is still without Nash, his production could increase if Frye’s three-point shooting can open up in the inside as it did two years ago.

Yet, this isn’t about the past. It’s about Gortat being the second-oldest player and second most-experienced player on the roster. It’s about setting an example and playing through all the trade rumors and losses. With such an up-and-down personality, it’s about staying in a joking mood that overwhelms a locker room rather than the sulking one that came out last season — and when Gortat was asked about Poland’s national team.

At the least, Gortat seems to know he’s an important piece for the time being.

“I actually came back this year with the thought that I’m going to beat everybody with the number (of years experience) that I have: seven,” Gortat said. “Unfortunately, Channing has nine. It’s OK, because Channing is my man.”

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