Mired in a franchise-worst 0-10 start, Washington Wizards Coach Randy Wittman has fiddled with his starting lineup routinely since the season opener, with about the only certainty being that as soon as a member of the first team is made a reserve, he’ll inevitably produce at a higher level.
Take point guard A.J. Price, who came off the bench in Wednesday’s agonizing 101-100 loss to the Atlanta Hawks to finish with 14 points on 6-for-11 shooting with seven assists and one turnover. Those numbers were some of his most efficient this season and came in his first game as a reserve.
Price’s assist total was more than in his previous three games combined, and his shooting percentage was his bestin game where he attempted double-figure field goals.
“I have the utmost confidence that [Wittman] will make the best decision on who he feels should start or come off the bench,” said Price, who is in his first season with the Wizards since signing as a free agent on July 23. “Either way, it doesn’t make much of a difference to me personally. As long as I play, I’m fine with that, get a chance to help the team win.”
Trevor Ariza is another newcomer to the Wizards who thrived after losing his starting job. Against the Hawks in his first game off the bench, Ariza collected a season-best 15 rebounds with 12 points and three steals, tied for his second most this season, in a season-high 40 minutes.
Ariza had 17 rebounds combined in his three games before Wednesday and reached double-figure scoring once during that span.
“Very frustrating. I can’t, and I’m trying to,” Wittman said of his efforts to sort out which lineups are best suited for the team. “Now I guess I’ve got to figure out where their best games are coming from. Is it as a bench player or as a starter? But it’s fluctuated up and down with that even.”
Rookie Bradley Beal, for instance, scored 18 points, his second-highest output of this season, as a backup in a 96-89 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Monday. As a starter two nights later, the No. 3 overall pick had six points, missed all three of his three-point tries and did not get to the foul line.
Then there’s the confounding case of Jan Vesely, who’s in his second season after the Wizards made the forward from the Czech Republic the sixth overall selection in 2011. Vesely started against the Hawks but played only eight minutes and tallied zero points with one field goal attempt.
In each of the previous two games, Vesely played 22 minutes, matching his high for this season.
“Guys just have to embrace it either way it comes to them,” Price said. “We need to do the same job regardless if we start or come off the bench.”
Sweeping inconsistencies among almost the entire roster have contributed to the Wizards’ dreadful opening to the season, in which the pattern has been to fall behind early before the reserves help the club get back within reach.
Against the Pacers, Washington trailed by 19 points at the end of the first quarter only to rally behind bench players such as Beal, center Kevin Seraphin, forward Chris Singleton and guard Shaun Livingston to cut the deficit to 86-85 with 3 minutes 30 seconds left in regulation.
Then against the Hawks, Washington erased a five-point deficit at the start of the fourth quarter to force overtime, where reserves scored all but two of the Wizards’ 10 points. The only starter to score in extra time was Seraphin, who has been starting at center in place of nine-year NBA veteran Emeka Okafor since the opening of the second half of the Pacers game.
It was Seraphin’s jumper that gave the Wizards a 100-98 lead with seven seconds to play in overtime. Five seconds later, Hawks guard Kyle Korver swished a three-pointer from well behind the arc for the decisive basket.
“You can’t belabor the point,” Wittman said. “You can make the point. I mean they all know in terms of what we have to do better in that situation. Continue to learn. We’ve got to learn to win games down the stretch.”