After Marcin Gortat Trade, It's Playoffs or Bust for Washington Wizards

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After Marcin Gortat Trade, It's Playoffs or Bust for Washington Wizards
(Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Washington Wizards had plenty of motivation to make a deal, but they just needed to find the right partner. Enter the rebuilding Phoenix Suns.

By acquiring Marcin Gortat, Kendall Marshall, Shannon Brown and Malcolm Lee from Phoenix in exchange for a top-12-protected 2014 first-round draft pick and Emeka Okafor, the Wizards are now firmly entrenched in the race for the last few playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

Let's look at why this deal was done now and what it might accomplish.

 

A hole to fill

When Okafor suffered a neck injury in training camp that sidelined him indefinitely, the Wizards were left with a big hole in the frontcourt. 

Although he wasn't spectacular last season, Okafor was a steadying force who started 77 games at center and helped the Wizards post a 100.6 defensive rating, good for eighth in the league last season.

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Replacing Okafor with a motley crew of power forward options like Al Harrington, Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin and Jan Vesely was problematic on its own, and that's without factoring in the shaky health of Nene, who has missed 48 games over the past two seasons.

Nene is incredibly skilled, but asking him to take a pounding at the 5 all year was probably too much.

 

Expiring asset

Luckily for the Wizards, Okafor's injury didn't preclude him from being a trade asset for one reason and one reason alone: his expiring contract. Okafor's $14.5 million salary this season provided any potential trade partner with the opportunity to dump unwanted players or salaries, which is always appealing on the trade market. 

It's telling that the Wizards shipped out Okafor instead of the expiring contract of Trevor Ariza, particularly because Ariza's deal matches up perfectly with Gortat's. That would lead you to believe the Wizards have some indication that Okafor won't be able to contribute this season.

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It speaks to the win-now mentality in Washington as well, as Ariza is a useful piece for this year. The Wizards essentially let Phoenix dump Brown, Marshall and Lee, as it's being reported they won't keep any of those players with 15 guaranteed contracts on the roster already. 

 

Not in debt

Of course, the big pull for Phoenix was Washington's top-12-protected 2014 first-round pick. Washington was in a good situation to part with that pick, however, as it currently owes no other future first- or second-round picks.

The complete lack of draft-pick debt, which is something only six other teams have in common with Washington, allowed the Wizards to be a little more flexible and comfortable with dealing a future pick and offering full top-12 protection. 

 

A GM on the hot seat

Patience from ownership with general manager Ernie Grunfeld may have been wearing thin, and this move very well could be a reflection of that.

Tying your career to the health of Nene and the production of a guy like Trevor Booker can be a little frightening, and so Grunfeld made a deal that gives his team a much better shot at the playoffs. As a result, he has a much better shot at retaining his job.

 

Where the Wizards are now

Now that we know why the Wizards made the deal, let's focus on what it should do.

Despite a stingy defense last season, the Wizards somehow had the worst offense in the NBA, ranking dead last in offensive rating last season. When the Charlotte Bobcats are ranked ahead of you, it's probably time to make some moves.

An injury to a major core piece before the season would hurt any team, but it also provided an opportunity for the Wizards to improve offensively. Gortat represents an immediate upgrade in that regard, as he possesses a higher skill level and a more versatile game.

Although Gortat has scored slightly fewer points per 36 minutes over his career than Okafor (13.9 to 14), he's been more efficient (57.2 to 53.5 true shooting percentage). He has shown the ability to be a major cog in a successful uptempo system.

John Wall isn't Steve Nash, but Gortat should find himself lots of easy points in transition thanks to Wall's blinding speed. Washington was surprisingly only 15th in pace last year, but Gortat's ability to trigger the break and trail the action effectively might allow the Wizards to play a little faster this year.

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Another important skill Gortat brings to the table is his shooting touch. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Gortat has shot over 39 percent from beyond 16 feet in each of his past two seasons. Although the bulk of his looks come around the rim, Gortat's jumper is pretty solid, especially for a man of his size (6'11'', 240 lbs).  

That shooting ability should help make Gortat and Nene mesh perfectly, as both big men can take their man down on the block in a mismatch while still providing spacing and better driving lanes for Wall and Bradley Beal.

On the other end, the Wizards were seventh in defensive rebounding percentage as a team last season, but replacing Okafor with Gortat may actually help in that area. Gortat has been the better defensive rebounder (25.4 defensive rebounding percentage to Okafor's 25.1) over his career, which is a little surprising because that's Okafor's hallmark. 

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Although Okafor and Gortat have the same blocks per 36 minutes over their careers, Okafor is more consistent with his effort and better at being in the right position. He's also a more willing help defender, although Gortat may play with a little more intensity now that the games matter again.

Still, it's not unreasonable to predict that the Wizards will take a step back defensively this season through natural regression and the loss of Okafor, but it was going to be hard to replicate last year's numbers anyhow. Aside from somehow landing Omer Asik, replacing Okafor with Gortat was probably the best match the Wizards could have found on the trade market.

Of course, it's also important to remember that only a rebuilding team would be truly interested in acquiring a hurt player. If Okafor was giving the Wizards nothing this year anyway, this trade essentially boils down to moving what should be a pick right in the middle of the first round for a legitimate 29-year-old starting center.

It's in my nature to shun teams that aren't title competitors that give up valuable future assets, but it's hard to work up too much anger over Washington's decision, despite the appeal of the 2014 draft class.

Really, the trade for Nene two seasons ago was the fork in the road that put the Wizards down a "win-now" path, and this is an extension of that decision. I don't necessarily agree with the direction the Wizards chose, but I understand it. 

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Washington Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld

While losing the draft pick could be damaging down the line, at least the Wizards haven't lost anything in the way of cap space going forward. If Gortat doesn't fit or play well, the team is out of a draft pick that can't land in the top 12. It's a little more risk-averse than the moves Grunfeld has made in the past, to say the least. 

The last few playoff spots in the Eastern Conference are wide open, and this was a power move to secure one of those spots. Gortat is a massive upgrade for a team starved for consistent sources of offense. Bottom line, this trade makes the Wizards better right now. 

Who won this trade?

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From the perspective of Grunfeld and head coach Randy Wittman, this was a no-brainer. Wins keep jobs, and the pressure was on to win this season. Mortgaging the future comes with very little risk if you're not going to be around to see it, anyway. At the very least, this trade further defines the direction of the organization, and it takes away any convenient excuses for failure. 

After this trade, it's either playoffs or bust in Washington. 

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