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Can the Clippers Keep Starting Marcin Gortat?

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The new Clipper has been a disappointment early on.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Over the summer, the Clippers made the decision to help clear their backcourt logjam by sending Austin Rivers to the Washington Wizards in exchange for Marcin Gortat. The Gortat pick-up was also a sign that the brass expected DeAndre Jordan to leave as a free agent, which he did. Rather than diving into the free agency pond, the Clippers felt comfortable entering the season with a center rotation of Gortat, Montrezl Harrell and Boban Marjanovic.

It’s only been about 2 weeks, but it already looks like Gortat may not be playable for much longer. In about 16 minutes per game, the Polish Hammer is contributing averages of 3.6 points and 5.5 rebounds. Things reached rock bottom on Thursday night when Gortat was out there for only 9 minutes against Joel Embiid and the 76ers. He committed 4 fouls, but didn’t do a whole lot else in said 9 minutes.

Through 8 games, the Clippers’ starting 5 of Gortat, Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Avery Bradley and Patrick Beverley has a net rating of -3.1. I obviously don’t think it’s fair to pin that completely on Gortat. The backcourt tandem of Bradley and Beverley is incredibly limited offensively, which means quite a bit. Still, Gortat has given the Clippers very little at the starting center spot so far.

Individually, the veteran big man has a net rating of -6.4, per NBA.com. It’s the first time in several years that Gortat has looked like a net negative player after a number of successful campaigns with the Wizards. Interestingly enough, the problems with Gortat have been more impactful offensively than defensively.

The Clips’ defense has actually been a bit better when he’s out there. LAC has a defensive rating of 103.9 with Gortat on the floor compared to a 106.5 mark when he’s on the bench. With Gortat nailed to the bench, the Clippers’ offense has been outstanding, as evidenced by the rating of 113.4. When he’s playing, the Clippers’ offense falls off a cliff. L.A. has an ORTG of 97.5 with Gortat in the lineup, which is the lowest mark of any player on the team.

Gortat has always been fairly skilled on the offensive end, but his range beyond 15 feet doesn’t exist. In Washington he thrived as a tremendous pick-and-roll partner for John Wall. Gortat set nasty screens and he was nimble enough to catch passes and finish as a roll man.

His offensive numbers have been on a steady decline over the last few years. 2 seasons ago, Gortat averaged 1.09 points per possession as a roll man in pick-and-roll situations, which ranked 16th in the entire league. That same season, Gortat led the league with Rudy Gobert in screen assists per game at 6.2. NBA.com defines a screen assist as a screen that leads directly to a teammate scoring a basket.

Gortat’s screen assists per game dipped to 4.5 last season, but that was still good enough to put him among the league leaders. Gortat’s screen assists have taken a nosedive to 2.3 so far this season, but some of that has to do with the fact that he’s not playing nearly as many minutes as he did while he was with the Wizards.

Gortat’s status as one of the more durable players in the league helped buoy those numbers a bit, but he was still incredibly effective in that role. The Clippers have run pick-and-roll plays about 20% of the time this season, per NBA.com, That’s one of the highest percentages in the league, but the Clips are only middle of the pack when it comes to points per possession on said plays.

I’m not going to suggest that Gortat is absolutely washed as of yet, but he’s going to turn 35 in February, so it’s certainly not out of the question. The Clippers were able to fight their way back into the game against Philly thanks in large part to Boban’s immense contributions off the bench. Prior to the season I dove into whether or not Marjanovic can actually be playable in a bigger role. It’s early, but so far he has done his part.

While the numbers may say Gortat’s defense hasn’t been abysmal, the Clippers sure have been getting killed by opposing centers so far. Embiid torched Gortat and friends to the tune of 41 points on Thursday. Clint Capela averaged 18.5 points and 10.5 boards across his two early-season meetings with L.A. In 2 games against the Clippers, Steven Adams is averaging 17.5 points and 14 rebounds. Anthony Davis had 34 points and 13 rebounds and Nikola Jokic put up 21-8-5 in the season opener. The Clippers will face another strong center in Nikola Vucevic on Friday night.

Of course, these centers all have something in common: they’re all really good. These guys are going to put up big numbers against just about everybody they face. That said, it would be nice for the Clippers to at least show some resistance inside. So far, they haven’t.

Can the Clippers keep relying on the ineffective Gortat, or do they have to make a change at some point? Harrell has improved his defense this season, but I’m still not convinced a 6’8” center can hack it on a full-time basis defensively. The numbers say Boban has helped prop up the Clipper defense, but I still think smart teams are going to try and get him into space while he’s out there.

The Clips currently rank 14th in the league in offensive rating, so it’s not like the relative ineffectiveness of Gortat is crushing the offense. It’s nice that Doc Rivers has 3 different options when it comes to manning the middle, but Gortat’s failure to establish himself as the deserving starter has been a disappointment early in the season. Some L.A.-area fans may groan at this, but maybe Doc should take a Dave Roberts style approach and just play matchups with his starting center moving forward. At least until one of them seizes the job.