For the first time since 1979 and only the eighth time in franchise history, the Washington Wizards are Southeast Division champions. After starting the season 2-8, the Wizards sat at 9-14 as recently as mid-December, and all they've done is run off a 39-18 stretch since that point—the equivalent of playing at a 56-win pace. They've been powered through that stretch by one of the best offenses in basketball, which has allowed them to overcome a defense that has been inconsistent at best and an outright disaster at worst. (For all the publicity the Cleveland Cavaliers' defensive issues have been getting, you'd barely know that Washington is practically tied with them in defensive efficiency since the All-Star break.)
The lion's share of the credit for that scorching offense has gone to John Wall and Bradley Beal, with Otto Porter getting his share of accolades as well. Wall is a star and will likely receive several fifth-place MVP votes behind the four inner-circle candidates. Beal should have made the All-Star team this season, and finally has become the player so many people envisioned when the Wizards drafted him third overall back in 2012. Porter has turned himself into a probable $100 million man, shooting 44 percent from three while swinging between both forward spots and providing quality defense and floor-spacing at each.
Wall, Beal, and Porter have been showered with praise this season, and deservedly so, but in the process the contributions of one other player have gone mostly overlooked: starting center Marcin Gortat. Honestly, it's not a surprise. While Gortat is one of just 12 players this season averaging double-digit points and rebounds per game (10.7 points and 10.4 rebounds) and one of just eight doing so while shooting at least 50 percent from the field, he's not exactly a flashy contributor.
He's not a classic, back-to-the-basket center who you throw the ball to 15 times a game in the post. He's not a new-wave, space-y center who stretches the defense to its limits by sniping from beyond the three-point line. He's not even a Tyson Chandler– or DeAndre Jordan–style pick-and-dive man who goes up top for lobs and brings the crowd to its feet with thunderous slams. He's just a good player willing to do whatever is required to help a good team be even better. And that means his contributions, oftentimes, are hidden.
Take plays like these, for example:
On the surface, that's a driving layup by John Wall and a driving dunk by John Wall. But watch those plays again, more closely, and instead of watching Wall, just watch Gortat the whole way. Look what he does while Wall is on his way to the rim. On both plays, he is screening the closest help defender between Wall and the basket (first Marshall Plumlee and then Willy Hernangomez), giving his teammate the cleanest possible path to the rim.
This is the kind of thing Gortat routinely does, and I'd say it doesn't show up in the box score, except that these days it actually does, thanks to NBA.com's SportVU hustle stats. It would come as no surprise at all to anyone who routinely watches the Wizards that Gortat ranks first in the NBA in screen assists, both overall and on a per-game basis. Screen assists are exactly what they sound like: they're awarded when an offensive player sets a screen for a teammate that directly leads to a made field goal by that teammate. Five hundred and one times this season, Gortat has set a screen that directly led to a basket by the Wizards player he set it for. Some perspective on that number: first of all, only ten players this season have more passing assists than Gortat does screen assists. Not only that, his screen assists have accounted for more than 15 percent of the Wizards' total baskets on the season, and nearly 23 percent of their baskets with Gortat on the floor.
"You have to set up on your screens and come up off your screens hard," Wizards coach Scott Brooks says. "You have to have guys that want to do that. If you don't do that, your offense is not gonna be at the level that you need it at."
It's not just on-ball screens. It's also off-ball, and it's dribble hand-offs, as well. The Wizards get a larger share of their offense via off-screen plays than all but two teams in the NBA, per the Synergy Sports data on NBA.com, and Gortat is the primary away-from-the-ball screen-setter, too. Beal is their primary threat on those plays, obviously, and he has wonderful synergy with Gortat when navigating around his picks. As Beal told me a few years ago, "I think me and Gortat are always on the same page. If a team does certain reads, we have a counter for it, every time."
Gortat's minutes have been cut down a bit over the last month or so as Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith have emerged to play valuable roles off Brooks' bench, but given how much this team depends on its starting lineup—Wall, Beal, Porter, Markieff Morris, and Gortat is the most-used five-man unit in the NBA, and it's not particularly close—it seems likely that he'll be counted on in a big way when the playoffs roll around. If the Wizards are to advance in the postseason tournament, they'll likely have to do so on the strength of their offensive exploits. The defense has just been too porous, for too long, for them to count on a sudden turnaround come April and May. Outscoring the opposition means putting Wall, Beal, and Porter in the best possible position to succeed. It's tough to envision that happening on a consistent enough basis without the hidden contributions of Gortat.
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