WASHINGTON -- As John Wall exited the game with a minute and a half left, the Wizards were in command with a 27-11 lead over the Milwaukee Bucks. By the time the Wizards got both Wall and Marcin Gortat on the court with 8 minutes left in the second quarter, that lead has dissipated to just 4 points. This continued a pattern we have seen throughout the first three games of the season: the Wizards starters play well, and the bench struggles to keep up with their opponents.
It's too early to panic, but is it about time to worry?
After spending much of the year bolstering the team's depth, the Wizards find themselves in a familiar position: dealing with a game-time bench that is consistently outmatched. The issue is evident particularly at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters when John Wall and Marcin Gortat rest, which leaves a lineup comprised of mostly bench players.
We could see the problem developing during the first game against Miami, when Chris Bosh decimated the Wizards bench for 13 points in the eight minutes Marcin Gortat was sitting, and we saw a similar story during Thursday's game against the Orlando Magic. During that game, Nikola Vucevic put up nine points in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter and reignited a Magic team that was previously on the verge of being blown out.
Prior to the game, though, Randy Wittman was quick to challenge my suggestion that the second unit's defense might be the problem:
"I disagree," he said. "I think we've had to do a better job of getting ourselves in the flow of the game offensively. Turning the ball over, that makes your defense defense look worse, when the other team is in the open court, and you are not getting good shots offensively. I think they have done fine defensively, rebounding the ball, that's not been a concern."
When it comes to that second unit's offense, a big part of the problem is veteran point guard Andre Miller. Miller, who played a key role revitalizing the team's bench in the last several months of last season, hasn't proved nearly as effective this year. Through three games, he has yet to make a shot and has four assists to go with four turnovers in 32 minutes of play to go with an abysmal plus/minus rate. Given Miller's limitations on the defensive end, if he doesn't take the lead in the offense, he becomes a liability on the court.
When asked about his back up point guard, Wittman suggested that the team's bench issues may be more mental than physical:
"We've got to play with confidence. You got an open shot, you take the open shot. Don't play timid," he said. "We're playing to that a little . . . When you do that in this league, you are going to get eaten up."
And eaten up they have been so far this season. The Wizards were outscored by 32 points in the brief time Miller was on the floor and 21 points in the 10 minutes Kevin Seraphin has played.
Perhaps the team's shortcomings are understandable when you have a guy like Chris Bosh going against your backups, but Milwaukee and Orlando are hardly a murderers row of opposition. The Wizards will have a harder time compensating for bench deficiencies against even average NBA teams.
Besides the issues with Miller, the Wizards are also playing shorthanded and trying to integrate several new and inexperienced players onto their team. Drew Gooden mentioned this while acknowledging the Wizards bench problems so far this season:
"We have some guys out. At the end of the day, we don't know who our bench is right now," Gooden admitted. "[But] there's no excuse. We're professionals and we have to get our starters' back. They can't keep pushing the lead into double digits, and we come in the game, we sub out, and it's a 4 or 6 point game. That can't happen, especially at home."
Wittman says he will continue to experiment with player combinations to find out what works best. His experimentation was evident in Saturday's game against Milwaukee by keeping Gortat in at the beginning of the fourth quarter to play with Miller, and by giving Dejuan Blair his first playing time of the season. Glen Rice also would have gotten more playing time, but Otto Porter and Garrett Temple were playing too well to take out of the game and the Bucks were just a little too close for comfort.
Second unit woes are nothing new to Wizards fans, having suffered through the Eric Maynor point guard fiasco last year. Despite the team's struggles, the roster is deeper with more proven experience than in years past. The Wizards need to get it together before their schedule gets tougher, as they don't want last year's cries of #Maynortime to turn into this year's laments of #Millertime.