What's Wrong with Marcin Gortat?

One of the Orlando Magic's biggest problems this season has been star center Dwight Howard's persistent foul trouble. Any team will suffer when its best player is off the court--unless you believe in the Ewing theory--but Howard's situation is pronounced since, without his presence in the middle drawing double teams, the Magic's three-point shooters aren't afforded as much space to get shots off.

This situation is not unique to this season, of course. With Howard suspended for Game 6 of last year's Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, the Magic ran their offense through Rashard Lewis in the post, and coasted to a 25-point victory. Marcin Gortat, starting in Howard's place, came up big: he posted 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting, 15 rebounds, 2 assists, and 4 steals. Such a performance isn't unusual for the Polish Prince. Prior to this season, he had averaged 10.2 points, 10 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks in regular-season games in which he played at least 25 minutes. In short, he proved to be a starting-quality center, provided he got playing time.

The Dallas Mavericks took note of Gortat's skills--among them athleticism, strong defensive instincts, good hands, superb rebounding--and signed him to an offer sheet worth the full mid-level exception. The Magic made the startling decision to match the offer sheet, making Gortat their fifth-highest-paid player. Indeed, only Vince Carter, Lewis, Howard, and Jameer Nelson will earn more of the Magic's money this season, and they've all earned selections to the All-Star team at least once in their careers.

Which brings me back to my first point: Howard's foul trouble is costing the Magic on both ends because Gortat is, stunningly, not playing nearly as well as he had during his first two years in the NBA. His Player Efficiency Rating after two seasons was an impressive 17.0, which ranks him slightly better than a "3rd banana" according to John Hollinger's PER scale. This year, it's just 11.6, which places Gortat in the "scrounging for minutes" camp.

 

As the table below illustrates, Gortat's efficient scoring has taken a bit of a hit, while his rebounding has dropped sharply in all categories. Note that I combined his rookie and sophomore seasons because he played just 41 minutes as a rookie, as the Magic put their trust in Adonal Foyle to relieve Howard:

Shooting and Rebounding Statistics for Marcin Gortat, 2007/08-2008/09 (Cumulative) and 2009/10 NBA Seasons
Season FG% OReb% DReb% TReb%
2007/08
2008/09
(cumulative)
55.9% 14.5% 26.1% 20.4%
2008/09 51.0% 8.9% 19.7% 14.1%
Statistics from Basketball-Reference.com

If you want me to tell you why Gortat has regressed as a rebounder, I don't know what to tell you. He hasn't taken any plays off, so it's not a question of effort. He's just straight-up getting beaten to rebounds, something that rarely happened in his first two seasons. Maybe it's an issue of technique, or of small sample size. In any case, I'm keeping my eyes peeled in the coming days and weeks to see what happened to Gortat's formerly elite rebounding ability. Whatever's causing it must be serious, since his total rebounding is down 30% from last year.

Fortunately, 82games.com can provide insight into Gortat's shooting slump. Below, I've reproduced his shot selection and efficiency from last season and this season.

Shot Selection for Marcin Gortat, 2008/09 NBA Season
Shot Att. eFG% Ast'd Blk'd Pts
Jump 24 .380 71% 7% 0.6
Close 55 .644 76% 12% 2.1
Dunk 9 .875 100% 6% 0.4
Tips 12 .409 0% 0% 0.3
Inside 76 .634 72% 9% 2.9
Chart reproduced from 82games.com
Shot Selection for Marcin Gortat, 2009/10 NBA Season
Shot Att. eFG% Ast'd Blk'd Pts
Jump 29 .400 100% 0% 0.9
Close 47 .500 67% 4% 1.8
Dunk 10 1.000 100% 0% 0.8
Tips 14 .429 0% 0% 0.5
Inside 71 .556 65% 3% 3.1
Chart reproduced from 82games.com

Gortat's offensive struggles don't have anything to do with his increased reliance on the jumper, which seems counter-intuitive. His lack of accuracy on close shots that aren't dunks or tip-ins is the culprit... and it's not like he's getting blocked inside. In fact, he's two-thirds less likely to get rejected inside than he was last year. Indeed, it appears as though Gortat has a prolonged case of the hiccups around the hoop. He made 64.4% of such shots last year, which, as the tables show, has dropped to 50% this year. Thus, it appears as though he's mired in a funk, and his shooting touch from the inside return soon. Unless, of course, there's some sort of mental issue preventing him from scoring inside with any degree of reliability. Is he hurrying to put up shots inside? Is he not focused on the task at hand? Has the pressure of signing a big-money deal worn on him? Only observation can answer the first of those questions; Gortat's the only person who can answer the next two with any certainty.

What is clear is that Marcin Gortat needs to step up his game, especially on the glass and in the offensive low-post, if Dwight Howard continues to get himself in foul trouble. At his best, Gortat's arguably the league's top backup center, although we're willing to hear arguments in favor of Joel Przybilla. What was once an embarrassment of riches for the Magic at center, with Howard and Gortat manning the pivot, has become an embarrassment, relative to expectations.

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