The NBA’s best bench?

December 3, 2012

Ready to bring us back, again? (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

In the NBA, the start always comes with a production. The lights go dim, the music gets louder, the cheerleaders sashay, and that select five players get to make that prideful stroll through a tunnel of high-fiving teammates as their names are announced and images flash on the HD Jumbotron.

But for the Wizards, the production generally comes from the bench. Ripping off warmups at the scorer’s table and sneaking in during timeouts or dead balls has been the preferred option to all of the pregame entertainment and attention.

The last place Wizards (1-13) lead the league in bench scoring at 44.9 points per game – nearly three points more than the next closest team, Milwaukee (42.1). They are also the only team whose bench outscores its starters.

Reserves are responsible for 50.2 percent of the Wizards’ league-worst 89.4 points per game.  Charlotte’s backups account for the next highest percentage of their team’s points, at 41.3.

“I can’t tell you that,” reserve forward Chris Singleton said, when asked to explain the situation. “Just that the second unit, we’re seeing what they’re doing wrong on the floor and we go out there and do what we can, turn our mistakes into positives.”

In a season in which little has gone right, the Wizards have consistently been able to rely on their backups to dig them out of holes. They have outscored the starters in eight of the 14 games and were also responsible for leading the Wizards to their lone victory over Portland, with second unit outscoring the Trail Blazers’ bench, 46-4, in an 84-82 win.

“It’s important to have that punch off the bench,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “Our bench comes out and delivers. When you can have that one unit – and one unit being a bench – that can score points it’s a pretty solid combination.”

The numbers are somewhat skewed, since expected starting big man Nene has come off the bench for four games as he continues to regain his conditioning after missing three months of action with a nagging left foot problem. Nene is averaging 11.5 points and 4.8 rebounds in 21.5 minutes and the Wizards have outscored opponents by 22 points with him on the floor this season.

The Wizards’ top three scorers – Jordan Crawford, Nene and Kevin Seraphin – have all come off the bench for most of the season. And, a reserve has led or tied for the team lead in scoring 10 times this season.

The roster has a lot of parity, with little separation in talent beyond Nene and John Wall, and that has created confusion for Wittman and frustration for players as they jostle for playing time. Without a solid starting five, a team made up of mostly role players has made for a consistently effective second unit.

Wittman has used four starting lineups but no matter who is on the floor for the opening tip, the Wizards often get off to a slow start and the backups enter the game to make it more competitive. The Wizards have trailed by double digits in the first quarter in five games.

“I take it as a challenge, to get the team back in the game,” Crawford said. “But also, I think the other team gets confidence against us early. They get things rolling their way and we kind of waste all your energy coming back and trying to take the lead.

“It’s a good thing that the bench is coming in to help the starting unit when they start off slow,” he said. “I hope we continue it up and the whole team plays good for 48 minutes.”

Making the best bench players the starting five would seem to be an easy solution for Wittman, except the reserves don’t always play well as starters. Crawford has averaged 13.4 points and shot 45.5 percent from the field in 10 games off the bench. In four games as a starter, he has averaged 12.3 points and shot just 32.1 percent from the floor.

“It is some guys that like coming off the bench in the NBA, but I don’t know. Personally, I don’t really care,” Crawford said. “My mind-set is the same.” 

Seraphin is averaging more points as a starter (13.6-10.1), but he shot a better percentage (50-42.3) as a reserve. Emeka Okafor and Bradley Beal both averaged more points and shot a better percentage from the field in two games coming off the bench. Trevor Ariza grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds as a reserve in an overtime loss to Atlanta.

“I put the guys that are on the bench doing all the scoring in the starting lineup and then they can’t score,” Wittman said. “I’m going to tell them before the game that it’s … the middle of the first quarter when we go out there. You guys that are starting are really bench players, believe or not. I might do that.”

Wittman may also change his starting lineup as the Wizards host defending champion Miami at Verizon Center on Tuesday night, going with Singleton at power forward instead of Seraphin to match up better with the Heat, which has used Shane Battier and Rashard Lewis at starting power forward this season.

“For me, it doesn’t even bother me. I’m just out there trying to win ball games,” Singleton said. “It’s my job. I have to go out there and perform and do the best I can. If it doesn’t go my way, it doesn’t go my way.”

Based on how this season has gone, there is a good chance his backup with certainly be ready if it doesn’t.

  • Opponent-Bench points-Starters points
  • Cleveland-46-38
  • Boston-62-24
  • Boston-53-41
  • Milwaukee-20-71
  • Indiana-25-60
  • Charlotte-27-49
  • Dallas-63-38
  • Utah-19-57
  • Indiana-57-32
  • Atlanta-62-38
  • Charlotte-68-38
  • San Antonio-43-49
  • Portland-46-38
  • New York-37-50
Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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Michael Lee · December 2, 2012