Marcin Gortat hasn’t stepped on an NBA floor this year, but his legacy has become more prevalent than ever in the public discourse surrounding the league. Gortat carved out a career carving out space for others; he was often cited among the league’s best screen setters throughout his peak years in Washington, where he played fullback to John Wall’s tailback. In his last two years with the Wizards, he ranked fourth and second in screen assists per 36 minutes (minimum 1,000 minutes).
Gortat was a masterful screener in every area of the floor and rarely got the credit he deserved for his basketball IQ — he knew exactly how far to push the illegal screening rules to create gaps in the defense for Wall to exploit and had such synergy with his point guard that he would often flip the screen to the other side of the defender before Wall made his move.
He also made famous a move that’s taken the NBA by storm: screening his own man. As Jared Dubin pointed out in Vice nearly three years ago, Gortat would get out ahead of Wall in pick-and-roll situation and behave almost exactly like an offensive lineman does in football — hands up, moving his feet, and making sure his man can’t get anywhere near the ball.
With Gortat retired from basketball, it was up to the league’s current crop of big men to pick up where he left off. A few have employed Gortat’s tricks over the years, but no team gets as much use out of it as the Boston Celtics, who seem to have instructed their big men to screen their own man at nearly every opportunity in order to open lanes to the rim. In particular, Daniel Theis has taken the torch as the league’s premier Gortat Screener.
This tactic works best against drop coverage, the preferred pick-and-roll defensive strategy for the majority of teams in the league. When Theis sets his screen, his defender drops deep into the paint, waiting for the ball to come to him at the rim and ceding the pull-up jumper. The Celtics have a number of very strong pull-up shooters, including both Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum, but those shots are still preferable to layups and dunks, and drop coverage is designed specifically to take away those high-value shots at the basket. However, the Celtics have found a way around that — the ball handler will pause after using the screen and let Theis get ahead of him, then use the big German as a bulldozer, clearing out the rim protector and creating an easy layup.
Milwaukee’s league-best defense has had some trouble against this tactic and the best coaching staffs are starting to take notice. The Lakers got LeBron James no fewer than three buckets in this exact action in Friday night’s win over the Bucks.
In each of the above clips, James took the screen, then put his man “in jail” by slowing up and keeping the recovering on-ball defender on his hip. As strong as James is, it’s a tough ask for his man to get back around and in front of the ball, particularly if JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard set a strong screen at the point of attack. From there, James and the big man are playing two-on-one, but Milwaukee is still built to stop this, with long, active help defenders crashing into the paint and Brook Lopez looming at the basket. The Lakers answer by letting the big man roll out ahead and clearing Lopez out of the way altogether.
As two of the NBA’s best teams continue to use the Gortat Screen to their advantage, the league will have to look into creating a rule to make it illegal. Each time the Lakers cleared out Lopez at the rim for another James layup, Jeff Van Gundy pointed out how they were doing it, and if we see more of those moments on national television in the playoffs, the league will have to consider stepping in before the start of next season. It’s too much of an advantage for the offense in a league that’s already dominated by offensive basketball.
For now, though, the smartest teams are bending the rules to their every advantage and, somewhere, Gortat assuredly smiles whenever he sees his move create yet another layup for a ball handler.