When the Washington Wizards started the season with 12 straight losses and had just four victories after the first 32 games, Coach Randy Wittman didn’t want to alienate the veterans who had earned their minutes or force them to surrender on a season that still had some faint promise once John Wall returned from a left knee injury.
Instead of developing the four first-round picks the team has selected in the two of the past three NBA drafts, Wittman provided them carrots to keep them motivated: leapfrogging from the bottom, chasing down ninth place, establishing home-court dominance. The result has been a dramatic finish in which the Wizards are25-22 since that abysmal start.
But in the process, Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton, Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker got left behind. With three games remaining on another 50-loss, back-in-the-lottery season, Wittman is now focused on leading the team to 30 or more wins while getting minutes for players who have often been lost, forgotten or marginalized for various stretches this season.
“Hard,” Wittman said when asked about the balancing act that he has had to play with his four young big men and the team’s goals. “Once we got to playing well, it was a situation where they weren’t part of the rotation, or one of them was, but it’s tough.”
With the Wizards playing their final home game Friday against the Philadelphia 76ers, the foursome is expected to receive more playing time with forwards Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza “probably not” available, according to Wittman. Webster signed as a free agent last summer, and Ariza was acquired, along with Emeka Okafor, in a trade from New Orleans. Those three, along with Nene, have provided quality, consistent production while helping the Wizards become one of the league’s best defensive teams.
The Wizards are also 22-18 at home this season, a record that is slightly better than the playoff-bound Milwaukee Bucks. They trail the 76ers by 21 / 2 games for the ninth spot.
Vesely, Seraphin and Singleton — the Wizards’ starting front court for the final 15 games last season— have combined to start just 22 games this season, and only as injury replacements. Booker has started 12 games but also battled various injuries to his right knee and left wrist, which cost him the opportunity to earn consistent minutes.
The problem is even more complicated because they are mostly competing for minutes at the same position. Wittman has attempted to solve the problem by rotating them in and out, but that has created more confusion and sporadic production.
“Everybody say, ‘You got to be ready.’ It’s kind of hard to stay ready, but you’ve got to perform. You just never know what to expect,” said the undersized Booker, who is averaging a career-low 4.9 points on 46.9 percent shooting in his third season. He started 32 games last season and averaged 8.4 points and 6.5 rebounds. “It’s been tough for me. Some games I play. Some games I don’t. I don’t have control over that.”
Singleton, the 18th pick of the 2011 draft, started 51 games as a rookie at small forward, but the Wizards brought in more accurate shooters in Webster and Ariza, which pushed him into the clogged power forward mix. Singleton had a lengthy stretch in Wittman’s doghouse in December, worked his way back into the rotation, and now only gets spot duty.
“Up and down, showed good strides but still not where I want to be,” Singleton said, when asked to describe his second season. “I knew going into the season, it was going to be a challenge because we were so deep everywhere and that was it.”
Seraphin, who is averaging a career-high nine points, has been Wittman’s favorite target when he wants to lash out about poor play. After JaVale McGee was traded for Nene last March, Seraphin started to come into his own, especially as Nene sat with plantar fasciitis in his left foot. Expecting to build upon his success, Seraphin set his sights on being the NBA’s most improved player, but is shooting worse and averaging fewer rebounds than last season.
“It’s difficult because I have two beasts in front of me: Nene and Mek,” Seraphin said. “I accept my spot. I know I need to be more consistent.”
Vesely has had the most profound struggles of the quartet, but he likely will avoid finishing with more points and rebounds than personal fouls, which was a concern earlier in the season.
“It’s still a process and we’ve got to continue to work with them and developing them and keep them working, because their time is going to come here,” Wittman said, adding that these final games are critical for the players. “You always want to see how guys react to certain situations; I do anyway. We’re not playing for a playoff spot. How do you react to these last three games? Are taking it as an opportunity to prove something?”