The problems used to begin when Coach Randy Wittman stood up and started making substitutions. Once one or two of the starters sat, the Washington Wizards would experience a considerable drop-off in production. The errant shots, shot-clock violations and porous defense of the second unit was so gruesome that Wittman was quickly shuffling from his seat and calling for a barely rested player to get back on the floor.
But now that Bradley Beal and Nene have both returned from their respective injuries, the Wizards are close to being whole again. And, because the two opening night starters are being held to minute restrictions, Wittman has discovered that using Nene in a reserve role is the best way to adhere to those limitations while allowing Beal and Nene to be on the floor at the finish.
The result has been a marked improvement from a once-maligned bench, which is averaging 39.3 points over the past three games — all road wins — and has found a way to maintain and even build leads while the starters get much-needed breathers.
“It’s been great. It’s just showing that we’re growing together as a team,” Beal said. “We’re all in this together as one big team, and the guys who are coming off the bench are impacting the game and doing a great job. I think everybody is playing their best ball right now and we have to continue to keep it going.”
Before Beal made his return after missing the previous nine games with a stress injury in his right fibula, the Wizards had the league’s least productive bench, averaging a measly 19.4 points per game — the second units for every other team in the league contributed at least 21. But in Beal’s first game back in New York, Martell Webster moved back to a reserve role and scored a season-high 30 points in a 102-101 win over the Knicks.
Nene came back the next game and scored 17 points as the Wizards’ bench chipped in with a season-high 45 points in a 113-107 victory over the Brooklyn Nets. The reserves added 37 points as the Wizards escaped Boston with a 106-99 win at TD Garden.
“When your bench is contributing to the team, it makes it a little easier to win games,” Webster said.
Trevor Booker is averaging 10.2 points and 8.8 rebounds while starting the past six games and anticipates that he will eventually move back to the bench once Nene is ready to return to his regular minutes. But Wittman said he is open to keeping Nene as the Wizards’ version of San Antonio swingman Manu Ginobili — a sixth man who sticks around for the close: “Hey, listen, if we’re playing good, a certain way, we’re going to continue that.”
Nene is just relieved that the Wizards are getting closer to full strength. “Everybody is excited about that. Everybody is waiting for this moment, but the future we leave in God’s hands,” Nene said. “We just need to do our business.”
Wittman struggled to find a consistent rotation, partly because the lineup was constantly changing. Nene has missed seven games because of tendinitis in his right Achilles’ heel. Trevor Ariza missed five with a strained right hamstring. And veteran Al Harrington, who was expected to provide a scoring punch off the bench has been out since Nov. 12 and recently had surgery in his right knee to remove loose particles.
“It kind of threw things into disarray,” Wittman said of the injuries, “but I think now it’s starting to come back. Any time you can solidify a young group — which our bench was when we were hurt — with some veterans, it gives you confidence.”
W ittman used to sit Nene early in the first quarter so that he could work with the reserves, but now that point guard Eric Maynor is out of the rotation, the Brazilian big man is the primary facilitator and providing stability for the second unit. The move has helped lead to improved play from Garrett Temple, Kevin Seraphin and rookie Otto Porter Jr.
Nene “sets the tempo, gives an attitude, especially on defense,” Webster said. “I think he’s more holding everybody accountable for his actions. With him being almost like a point forward from that spot, being able to quarterback from the post, that’s big, because he can reroute guys and he tells you when to cut, with his eyes. We need that, because sometimes on offense, people on the perimeter become stagnant with ball watching and he keeps guys moving.”
Nene has played 23 minutes in each of his past two games and expects to maintain the load when the Wizards take on the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday at Target Center.
“I can’t explain why I get injured, but the good thing is Trevor Booker has been playing good,” Nene said. “He has the chance to start a game, to get the motivation, to get that confidence. If he playing good like that, I’ll be happy. That’s the thing. I don’t like to talk about injuries, but sometimes, a positive thing can come from injuries.”