Veteran players toiling on horrible teams often exhibit a very specific lament. Their play is still professional in most cases, but knowingly empty; even if the production persists, it lacks the heat of legitimate competition. Try as they might to mask it or compensate, that sad quality so often bleeds through.
Such was the case last season with Phoenix's Marcin Gortat, a talented and useful 29-year-old center who was among the best players on a 25-win team. He has seen the team's core turned upside-down since being acquired in 2010 to play off of Steve Nash. The two-time MVP point guard signed with the Lakers last summer, leaving Gortat to work with point guard Goran Dragic. Grant Hill signed elsewhere and then retired, while Vince Carter was cut loose for salary savings. Jared Dudley and Robin Lopez were traded, a cast of role players came and went, and Phoenix committed to the future in obtaining guards Eric Bledsoe and Archie Goodwin and center Alex Len.
The drafting of Len, above all, sent a message regarding Gortat's place within the team. He is a remnant of an old plan, useful only in that he's a basketball asset for a team that has few. The writing is on the wall, as it were; a frank Gortat spoke of his tenuous status with the Suns on Media Day, per Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic:
Gortat endorsed the summer makeover, swore to not relinquish his job and predicted that the Suns would be “a good running team.” But without prompting, the Suns’ highest-paid player at $7.7million made a thinly veiled reference to his contract status and a scenario that likely will linger until the February trade deadline.
“This is a business,” Gortat said. “We all know where I am right now, 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 and front-office people. There are no hard feelings. At the end of the day, I’m a pro. I’m going to try to do everything that’s necessary to win the basketball game."
That's a pretty cold perspective, but there's really no other way to characterize Gortat's predicament. While he'll fill minutes for the Suns as Len recovers from an ankle injury, he's a placeholder. Phoenix will have little use for a big man entering his 30s with its best players still years away from their respective primes, and a hefty amount of roster work still left to do. Trading Gortat would at the least seem sensible, if not altogether likely.
But finding the right home for Gortat is anything but straightforward. While it might seem as though a number of teams might be interested in a player of Gortat's caliber (and even more importantly, his talent at a scarce position), few suitors check all the necessary boxes. Some have that specific need to fill, some the kinds of assets that might intrigue the Suns, and select teams are in a position to make a deal to acquire such a player in the final year of his contract. But how many can really be said to fit all those criteria?
The Clippers are easily the best fit based on need, but they simply don't have any young, enticing players or picks to offer in return. The Pelicans, too, could make sense, but a potential deal would hit a similar snag. Unless the Suns would be interested in a package built around Austin Rivers and Al-Farouq Aminu, there's likely not enough there. Dallas could put an offer together with Brandan Wright and various rookies, but the flighty young big man might not pique the Suns' interest. Chicago could hypothetically make use of Gortat as a sub but would have problems constructing a workable deal (Carlos Boozer's contract is too big and the Bulls' other trade chips are either essential or of marginal value). A Portland offer would likely bank on the appeal of a castoff prospect (Thomas Robinson) or a redundant guard (C.J. McCollum). A team like Oklahoma City likely won't offer Phoenix much of anything it doesn't already have.
GOLLIVER: Position battles in training camp This isn't to say that Gortat can't or won't be traded, merely that finding a home for his $7.7 million expiring contract will take some finessing. Still, he's right to prepare for the possibility; Gortat will be leaving Phoenix soon enough, one way or another. The Suns aren't exactly in a position to leave assets on the table, and thus might be resigned to accept a lesser offer at the risk of otherwise seeing Gortat walk as a free agent. That could open up a wider range of possibilities as the season progresses, all the while dragging out what remains of Gortat's tenure in displacement.