CHICAGO – An NBA team’s “bench” is the equivalent of the NFL’s “special teams,” the NHL’s “power play” or the “bullpen” of MLB. More than merely a subset of the overall roster defined by a specific role, it’s a group labeled broadly enough to allow for internal criticism far more pointed than an individual player might hear.
And boy, did Washington center Marcin Gortat go there, as they say, after the Wizards’ loss to the Bulls at United Center Saturday night.
“We need energy. We need effort. We’ve got to make shots,” Gortat rattled off in rapid succession when asked what the Wizards can do, at a dismal 2-7, to improve. “I think there’s a lot of things we can do better. I think right now, as far as I know, I think we’ve got one of the worst benches in the league right now.”
The Wizards’ second unit has been blowing saves and muffing punts at an unnerving rate. Washington is 2-6 when its bench gets outscored by the opponents’, including the 32-18 disparity against Chicago.
Its preferred starting lineup of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris and Gortat has a 101.2 offensive rating and 100.7 defensive rating, but overall the Wizards are 100.1 and 104.8. The Wall-Beal-Porter-Morris-Gortat unit — intact and on the floor together for only 123 of the team’s 437 minutes — is a plus-3.0. Overall, the Wizards are getting outscored by an average of 4.2 points.
One reason for the drop in production is simple: the names and faces have changed, eroding both experience and familiarity. A half dozen backups from last season — Jared Dudley, Garrett Temple, Ramon Sessions, Gary Neal, Nene and Kris Humphries — all are gone. Those six logged a total of 8,083 minutes in 2015-16, about 40 percent of Washington’s total court time. Their average age: 30.3 years. Years of NBA experience: 8.3.
The top six in minutes prior to Saturday — Marcus Thornton, Trey Burke, Tomas Satoransky, Kelly Oubre, Jason Smith and Andrew Nicholson — had played 650 of 1,945 minutes. Their average age: 26.0 years. Years of NBA experience: 3.8.
Time together: Six weeks.
Many of the changes were by design in the wake of Washington’s 41-41 fall from contention after two consecutive trips into the Eastern Conference semifinals. Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld went younger and cheaper in cobbling together a second unit for new coach Scott Brooks, hired to replace Randy Wittman.
The thought from Day 1 was that it would take time for all the new parts to gel. But patience already had worn thin by the end of the season opener, a loss at Atlanta marked by a fourth-quarter collapse. There was early talk that Brooks’ plays for the starters weren’t suited to the reserves and a lack of cohesion generally.
“Just discombobulated, man,” Burke was quoted in the Washington Post after the bench got outscored by 11 points. “Guys out of position. It starts with me. I feel like we’re all getting accustomed to each other out there and all getting accustomed to the system and what Coach Brooks wants us to run.”
Manpower has been an issue, too. Center Ian Mahinmi, signed to a whopping four-year, $64 million deal in free agency, has not played a lick while recovering from preseason knee surgery. Added for his defense and, based on his career season for Indiana in 2015-16, Mahinmi was expected to lighten Gortat’s load. So far, the 32-year-old “Polish Hammer” has been averaging a career-high 34.4 minutes.
Wall and Beal each missed his second game of the season Saturday, the former as a precaution on the tail end of back-to-back games in his return from May surgery on both knees, the latter for tightness in his left hamstring. That created a predicament in which Brooks chose to start rookies Satoransky and Sheldon McClellan.
At tipoff, those two newbies had a combined 155 minutes of NBA exposure. By comparison, Chicago’s starting backcourt of Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade had 62,249 minutes of NBA regular-season and playoff experience.
The disparity wasn’t a problem, though. Satoransky and McClellan outscored Rondo and Wade 27-14, neither Wizards rookie looked cowed or uncomfortable.
“I’m not afraid to throw guys in there,” Brooks said. “Age has nothing to do with my process. Experience, that helps but you gain experience day by day if we do our job of developing our guys.”
Brooks said that Wall will sit out one game of the team’s back-to-back games at Philadelphia Wednesday and against New York Thursday, after which the medical staff will assess his availability for such sets. Beal’s hamstring issue isn’t considered serious and Mahinmi has been penciled in to return in approximately two weeks.
After that, the Wizards are hopeful that familiarity, spotting starters in with handfuls of backups and the sort of trial-by-fires that Satoransky (plus-13 in the 11-point loss to the Bulls) and McClellan got will boost the bench. Right now, piecing together five guys to cover 240 minutes is a challenge.
Said Brooks: “We’re not putting our heads down. We’re not happy with our record but we’re not gonna just give in. … We’re all going to be together one day, hopefully, soon.’
That’s a more delicate and forward-looking way of saying what Gortat did up top.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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