At times this season, Washington Wizards Coach Randy Wittman would show up to the arena not knowing who would be available. Injuries and inconsistency kept Wittman in constant shuffle, forcing him to trust his instincts to see what worked until he eventually had to go with whatever he had left — be it an established veteran or a player on a 10-day contract.
But the Wizards’ return to relative good health and stability has created a different dilemma for Wittman. Uncertainty has taken a new form as Wittman tries to spread minutes among players who had grown accustomed to more expanded roles.
“It’s tough, but I think, coming into the season, if you had looked into our roster, you could’ve known people were going to be battling and things could fluctuate,” said forward Chris Singleton, who started 57 games at small forward last season and another eight games at power forward this season, was buried at the end of the bench for six weeks and recently returned to the rotation.
Trevor Ariza is now coming off the bench after starting 13 of the first 15 games of the season and missing the next 17 with a strained left calf. Trevor Booker doesn’t know if he’ll play or sit completely after starting the first seven games at power forward.
Jan Vesely is used as a situational backup, occasionally getting spot duty. Jordan Crawford, the leading scorer for most of the season, went from part-time starter to full-time backup and is struggling to score now that Garrett Temple is filling in for the injured Bradley Beal at starting shooting guard.
Ariza has had to make the most dramatic adjustment as he had more career starts before the season (240) than the other nine regular reserves, including Temple, combined (215), but has stayed in the second unit behind Martell Webster since returning last month.
“I look at myself as a starter so I guess we have six starters,” Ariza said after Tuesday’s practice. “I have been coming off the bench, but it’s part of the game. When I get out there, all I do is play as hard as I can and do what I can to try and make a difference.”
Webster has played well since replacing Ariza as the starter in early December, averaging 11.2 points and connecting on 43 percent of his three-pointers as a starter. Ariza’s production and minutes have been almost identical whether he starts or comes off the bench, and Wittman has consistently relied on the eight-year veteran to defend tough perimeter scorers in the fourth quarter.
“Martell’s played well,” Wittman said, “and you don’t want to disrupt the flow of the good things that we’re doing. I think he realizes that and has accepted that.”
Wittman has also used the 6-foot-8 Ariza at power forward when opposing teams go small, giving the Wizards the chance to spread the floor on offense. In the fourth quarter of their 98-90 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, Ariza hit a crucial three-pointer down the stretch and later stole a pass from Jamal Crawford to set up another score.
“He gives us a lot of versatility. I think he’s fallen into a role. He’s accepted it, and that’s why he’s playing at a high level,” Wittman said of Ariza. “He’s given us such a spark from a defensive standpoint, and the luxury of that being you can play him on so many different guys. He’s really been a spark for us there off the bench because of that.”
Ariza’s versatility, Emeka Okafor’s improved rebounding and scoring and Nene’s increased minutes have also made it tougher for Booker to regain his place as the Wizards’ high-energy big man since returning from a sprained knee. Booker has recently been dealing with a sore left wrist since tearing a tendon while shooting jumpers, an injury he said he said would hound him for the rest of the season. He was healthy and available but didn’t see the floor against the Clippers.
“I think everybody is trying to get used to his rotation because it changes from game to game,” said Booker, who has missed two of the past five games for non-injury-related purposes. “You’ve just got to stay ready because you never know who is going to get put in.”
The Wizards (12-35) went 3-1 when Crawford missed four games with a bone bruise in his left foot and the third-year shooting guard has had a difficult time finding his place within the rotation. Wittman wants to keep him in the role of sixth man but has become flustered by his shot selection, benching Crawford for the final 31 minutes against the Clippers after he passed on an open three-pointer to dribble about five feet back to miss a shot from an outlandish distance.
“He’s in a funk or whatever. He’s got to stay with it,” Wittman said of Crawford, who is averaging just 5.2 points and shooting 32.4 percent from the floor over the past six games. “You go through ups and downs in the season. It’s a long season. It’s working through the tough times. That’s what it is. It doesn’t matter who it is. Every player is going to go through it and you can’t feel sorry for yourself.”
Singleton recently pulled himself up after a lengthy stretch of inactivity. “Got to be professional,” he said. “Just do all the things I can to go out there and contribute the way I can. I was just fortunate to play as many games as I did last year and then it comes with the territory. I’m a young guy.”