RICHMOND | As the Washington Wizards limped along through last season’s 19-63 campaign, the team had no choice but to heap a heavy workload on the shoulders of forwards Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler.
In 81 games, Jamison - then 32 and in his 11th season - logged 3,096 minutes, the fourth-highest total in the NBA last season and the most for the veteran since his fifth season in the league. (The only players with higher tallies were significantly younger - Andre Iguodala, 25, Joe Johnson, 27, and O.J. Mayo, 21.)
Butler, 29, was sidelined for 15 games but averaged 38.6 minutes in 67 contests, which ranked seventh in the league.
The pair’s minutes arguably should have been scaled back to avoid risk of injury and to preserve their careers, but as captains both players were determined to press on and give the Wizards a glimmer of respectability. And at one point, Washington had only nine healthy players, so the All-Stars couldn’t have rested much even if they had wanted to.
Five days into training camp this season, neither Jamison - who had offseason surgery after missing the final game of last year with bone spurs in his left ankle - nor Butler said he feels the effects of the arduous campaign. Both said they are fresh and confident they have plenty left in the tank.
But given the depth of Washington’s revamped roster, a taxing minute tally shouldn’t be a concern for either player. Coach Flip Saunders’ biggest challenge of the preseason may be trying to find a way to distribute minutes among a collection of players who each give the team something unique.
Saunders is known for sticking to an eight-man rotation and has said his goal is to settle on an eight- to nine-man rotation. But if he admits that with none of his new players backing down or regressing in training camp, it won’t be easy.
“The trouble is, what they’re doing right now is they’re putting me in a situation where it’s tough for me to pick eight or nine,” Saunders said. “You like that; the way our guys compete, I’d like to play each guy 30, 35 minutes because they deserve that, but you can’t. So I tell them, your job is to make it hard on the coach.”
The only players whose minutes most likely would be few if the season started today are backup point guard Javaris Crittenton (out at least two weeks with a double bone bruise and strained tendon in his left foot) and second-year center JaVale McGee, who according to Saunders has limited knowledge of the system and still is working on increasing his stamina.
By the same token, the only players certain of seeing significant playing time are starters Gilbert Arenas (point guard), Butler (small forward), Jamison (power forward) and Brendan Haywood (center). The other seven Wizards players are engaged in a fierce competition for either the starting shooting guard spot or one of three or four key backup roles. On the shooting guard spot, Saunders said: “If I had to make a decision today, who I would start? I really don’t know who I would pick.”
He said he expects to tinker with that position and the rotation spots throughout the preseason and has no problem waiting until the start of the season Oct. 27 to reach a verdict. Saunders described his decision as a good problem to have, and he sees the abundant talent as a key tool to preserving the legs of his starters during the regular season.
“If you take a main player, and… you’re cutting him from 35 to 30 minutes, five minutes over 82 games is 410 minutes,” Saunders explained. “Basically he’s playing less 10 games a year, which is significant, so his season is cut about 10 percent or so. … Your body can only take so much over the course of a season or year.”
Jamison said he has no problem carrying a heavy workload, but at the same time he has no problem playing reduced minutes if it means his backup, Andray Blatche, is playing well and helping the Wizards to victory.
“I look forward to giving these guys the opportunity and me sitting down the last couple minutes of the fourth quarter because we’re winning games. That’s what it’s all about,” Jamison said. “It’s not about having an ego with some of the big guys with Caron and Gilbert. We realize the overall picture is not All-Star Game or making the playoffs.
“We really want to make some noise, and that’s going to take maybe the minutes going down a little bit and these other guys getting the opportunity to help us out.”