The moth balls were kicked off Drew Gooden, he was aired out and then placed back onto the court in March. In January, Gooden remained embalmed, playing only 27 minutes as the Washington Wizards’ power forward. Twice in March, he played that many or more in a single game. Kris Humphries’ groin injury made Gooden’s use necessary. That injury-driven change, and other alterations because of rest or ailments, may have helped the Wizards stumble into versatile lineups with the playoffs just days away.
Before the Wizards took apart an Atlanta team driven by backups Sunday, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer was asked about the stretch-four fetish in the NBA. He paused and thought. There is no one way to play, Budenholzer explained, then pointed to the rumbling Memphis Grizzlies with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol and the propensity of the San Antonio Spurs, where he was a longtime assistant, to use two non-long distance shooting post players at the same time. This was how the Wizards were constructed by two men, coach Randy Wittman and general manager Ernie Grunfeld, with philosophies more attached to yesteryear than tomorrow.
The alignment left Wittman searching throughout this season for how to complement John Wall’s speed and the inside power of Nene and Marcin Gortat. He was willing to try every bench combination that could be used, but never changed the starting lineup when his players were all available and the team wavered. Then, Nene and Paul Pierce needed rest. Humphries was hurt. Into the lineup went Gooden. Otto Porter, still a curiosity, started a few games. The court opened. Against the woeful Philadelphia 76ers — motto, “Hey, at least we’re not the Knicks” — the scoring-challenged Wizards mustered 70 points in a half. Considering the opponent, the occurrence was not enough to produce a parade. But, since the Wizards had so many offensive issues for so long this season, it was at least noteworthy.
The lineup changes in April have been intriguing. Wittman has used fellow point guard Ramon Sessions next to Wall. That adds speed and slashing to a team which, overall, has little of each. Porter and Gooden at times played with a single big man, opening the lane in a way rarely seen during the season. The changes have been a stunning benefit to Gortat. His field-goal percentage in February was 56.5 percent. March that moved to 60.9 percent. In six April games, it’s 71 percent. The uptick in conversion rate has coincided with a reduction in words to the press for the typically amiable center from Poland.
Wittman continued his search against the Hawks on Sunday. Sessions, Bradley Beal, Porter, Gooden and Nene played extended minutes together. Gortat and Nene only played alongside each other to open the first and third quarters. Nene was removed with 5:52 to play in the first and 5:22 in the third. Against the Hawks, Nene and Gortat combined to play 59 minutes. Just more than 12 of that was together.
“I wanted to look at some different things, some different lineups that we were able to do that we haven’t done a lot,” Wittman said. “We looked at that some and we’ll look at some other different lineups the last two games.”
Rotating Nene and Gortat this way left Kevin Seraphin on the bench for almost the entire game. Wittman, it seems, has been pleased with using Gooden or Humphries as the other “big” when Nene and Gortat are on the floor. Seraphin could well become attached to the bench in the playoffs.
Recent rest for 17-year veteran Paul Pierce has caused The Otto Porter Conundrum to resurface. The only guarantee with Porter in his second season is fluctuation. Three times this season, Porter scored in double-figures in back-to-back games. More often, he has an effective evening against a lowly team then follows that performance with a mediocre or worse one the next game. Porter has scored 10 points or more 17 times. Of those, 13 were against opponents with .500 records or below as of Monday. Though Porter’s job is not purely to be a scorer, on a team that has trouble doing that, his lack of influence there is important.
Porter’s player efficiency rating for the season is a lousy 11.94; the league average is 15. His real defensive plus-minus is -1.56, which is 59th among 86 small forwards. For comparison, Pierce is at 0.20. Yet, a look at Porter as the starting small forward shows a different player. He shoots more and better. His 3-point percentage soars to 45.5 as opposed to 32.3 when he’s off the bench. Whatever test — eye or analytics — he passes it as the starter.
However, any embrace of Porter’s numbers when he is being introduced amid flames and high volume, needs to come with a sample-size and competition warning. He’s only started as the small forward eight times and, often, against lesser opponents. What he’s done is not definitive. All of which leaves Wittman a team than can be deployed in the playoffs differently than it was most of the regular season, though he still must wonder about certain options.
Before the season started, the Wizards’ ambition was to reach the Eastern Conference Finals. As the season wraps, their chances of making it that far appear slim. At the least, they now have a rotation arrangement that improves their chance of countering spread-out teams and presents more options, even if took injury and advanced age for it to show up.