PHOENIX — Based on suggestions from the barking dogs of pessimism, the Phoenix Suns must replace a Hall-of-Fame point guard and their starting center.
Steve Nash and his more conventional haircut have left for Los Angeles. Marcin Gortat, according to Nash-as-Geppetto theory, will be returning to mediocrity.
But the 28-year-old Gortat, who produced career highs in points (15.4) and rebounds (10.0) during Nash’s final season in Phoenix, thinks there’s more to his game than converting an exquisitely timed, pick-and-roll bounce pass.
“I’m quite sure I’m going to be fine offensively,” Gortat said while hustling from one commitment to another during Monday’s Media Day. “I’m playing with Goran (Dragic), who’s a fine passer also and Luis Scola, who is a pretty good passer. They’re going to help me out a lot.”
OK, before allowing Gortat to continue making his case, let’s pause to reflect on how much Nash had been helping out The Polish Machine.
According to the harsh reality of NBA analytics, the Nash-Gortat PNR Initiative checked in at No. 1 in the league. Thanks to Nash’s pinpoint deliveries, Gortat made 71.5 percent of his shots near the rim. It also should be noted that 84.3 percent of those near-point-blank attempts were created off of passes from teammates.
So it’s rather obvious that the partnership worked like a charm. As for Gortat’s productivity relative to a highly publicized (and pricey) summer of 2011 week at the Hakeem Olajuwon School of Dream Shaking and Low-Post Baking, Marcin didn’t do much as a post-up player.
He was 118th among NBA players in points per play on the block, making just 42 percent of his shots after working in one-on-one situations. We also know that Gortat recorded a measly 13 isolation efforts, converting only 3 of 10 shots and absorbing just three fouls.
During last spring’s exit interviews, Gortat admitted a more robust approach – as opposed to the finesse-oriented maneuvers that defined Olajuwon’s remarkable work down low – might be the way to go. You know, play to contact, read the defense and react accordingly.
“Hopefully, I’m going to be a bigger threat in the post,” Gortat said Monday. “And I’m quite sure I’ve improved as a player playing 20 games with the (Polish) national team, where I had a chance to be the main guy, the go-to guy.”
Well, that certainly can’t hurt. A quick look at some numbers reminds us that in eight games during the European Championships, Gortat supplied Team Poland with 21.1 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. He made a gaudy 63 percent of his field-goal tries and 75.5 percent of his free throws.
True, he wasn’t working against Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum or even DeMarcus Cousins in the Euro Championships. But it was a reasonably high level of hoops during which Gortat at least rehearsed in the role of low-post heavy.
It’ll be interesting to see just how much the Suns will go to Gortat this season. Dragic has returned to claim Nash’s vacated floor-leader position, bringing a basket-attack approach to running ball screens from different spots on the floor. The Dragon did learn something from Nash in regard to reading defensive coverage of pick-and-roll, but his age and rim-reaching ability make him less patient than his predecessor.
We also should remind you that Nash and Gortat were able to convert PNRs at a high rate despite a drop in 3-point accuracy by teammates. This, at least schematically, would have allowed defenses to crowd the lane more frequently. This new edition of the Suns might be burdened by the same lack of floor-spacing, 3-point accuracy, too.
For clarity of how other teams view their task of defending Gortat, we consulted an assistant coach employed by a Western Conference team.
“The toughest part of dealing with Gortat is his energy,” the coach said. “He has a great motor and the speed to beat his man up and down the floor. Dragic has good speed with the ball and may push the pace more than they did the last couple of years, which makes Gortat dangerous in transition.
“In the half court, I think the Suns will continue to rely on screen-roll a lot, but they have (Michael) Beasley and (Luis) Scola now, and those guys could be used in that way just to create switches and mismatches because they can post. Both are really good finishers – or at least potentially – so Gortat’s number may not be called as often. Gortat is pretty predictable when they do iso him; it’s pretty much that lefty hook from the block. I think Scola and Beasley will get way more opportunities in the mid-post area.”
But despite the loss of Nash and the addition of two new teammates with scoring chops, Gortat believes his game should continue to evolve.
“I’m definitely looking forward to improving my productivity,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I can do better and more often, even without Steve. I’m talking about rebounding, shot blocking … that’s the stuff I’m going to try and improve – get more boards and blocks.”
And if those numbers translate to more Suns victories, the center position in Phoenix won’t need any strings attached.