Otto Porter said he just needed to catch his second wind, and once that happened, he was fine.
Porter had played the entire first quarter Nov.9 against the Los Angeles Lakers. He took a break after the horn, but was sent back to the floor to start the second quarter. Porter wasn’t removed until there was 9:08 to play in the second, finally receiving a chance to sit down and rest his legs after playing almost 15 consecutive minutes to open the game.
Porter’s minutes against Los Angeles is just one of several anomalies in the ever-fluctuating rotation decisions of Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks. The Wizards, now 8-5 after three consecutive home wins against meek opposition, are a month into the season and have no clear pattern as to who is playing when. This is partly because of injuries, partly because of performance, partly because of matchups and, in general, because Brooks is maintaining the rare strategy of playing five bench players together.
“You want to give guys a fair chunk of games and minutes and they get some consistency,” Brooks said. “Get to know each other on the court, per se. Not saying I’m going to be stuck to those lineups. I’d like to see our [bench] guys continue to build some rhythm and chemistry with one another. But, I also feel comfortable changing it up; putting [Markieff Morris] in that second unit like I did last year, putting Brad [Beal] in there. Having a couple of guys in there. But by doing that, you have to change also the starters’ minutes. It’s always a fine line, but you want to find a productive 48 minutes regardless who is on the court, who’s playing with one another. The good teams and good players can mix and match.”
When the starters play with the second unit is one of the sticking points around Brooks‘ rotation decisions. Standard practice in the NBA now involves minimizing every second of having five bench players on the floor at once, if doing it at all. Brooks has used 86 different lineups in 13 games. Of those, the one that has played the third-most minutes is an all-bench group of Tim Frazier, Jodie Meeks, Kelly Oubre Jr., Mike Scott and Ian Mahinmi. That group has a -6.3 net rating, a measurement that has improved greatly because of the last two games.
The 86 different lineups appear to be a lot. They are not. Houston has used 84 lineups. The Boston Celtics have deployed 148, which includes dozen of lineups that have played just two minutes or fewer together. But, neither of those teams has an all-bench group as its third-most used lineup, the way Washington does. Houston keeps James Harden on the floor for extended periods. It also keeps at least one starter on the floor at almost all times. The Rockets’ 11th-most used lineup is one that consists of five bench players. They have played just 15 minutes together this season. Boston has an all-reserve lineup that plays the fifth-most minutes. The next group with the most minutes has a starter with it.
A few things are happening in Washington. First, Brooks has had to adapt early in the season because of Markieff Morris’ initial absence, then his step-by-step return to playing 30 minutes per game, which is what he did last season.
Brooks would also prefer to use a nine-man rotation. That means someone has to sit almost every night — in this case, it has become Jason Smith — to make the numbers work. However, that doesn’t explain the variances in when the bench group plays together or which starter — if any — is on the floor early in the second quarter.
Porter has developed his game to the point that he is now a quality scoring option with the second unit, a place Oubre is trying to get to. Porter can play either forward position, can score over smaller players in a switch or pick up points with his usual tactics of precision shooting and timely cutting. In the 16 minutes Porter has played with the backups, the group has a net rating of 14.8. He thinks his job with them is multi-faceted.
“We’re able to switch a lot, rebound inside if we need it,” Porter said. “Score, if we need it. Just give somebody that’s from the starting group to stay in there, direct traffic, get Tim to run things where we get a lot more movement. Just kind of try to stay solid as much as possible.”
Scott is shooting 54 percent from the field in November. After a lost year, both personally and professionally, last season, he appears to have settled in. Wall called Scott “our best scorer off the bench” which has become beneficial during Morris’ effort to return. An effective Scott allows Brooks to bring Morris back slowly.
Smith’s recent lack of participation has the dueling duality of being both strange and understandable. When the Wizards were flat against the Mavericks Nov. 7, Smith provided a jolt when he entered the game. Brooks declared afterward that he needed to find ways to play Smith more. He repeated the stance the following day at practice. Smith has played 91 seconds in the three games since.
Brooks knows Smith will not complain. He also has Scott playing well and Morris, who played often with the second unit last season but is yet to do so this one, to mix in. The question is how long will Brooks keep putting Ian Mahinmi in front of Smith. Smith claimed Mahinmi’s second-half minutes against Dallas.
Mahinmi has defensive potential that the other Wizards centers lack, plus a $64 million contract. It’s hard for a coach to remove those things from the rotation, even when that player has a putrid 8.87 player efficiency rating.
One benefit to the all-bench ensemble is a reduction in minutes for Wall. He is under 34 per game, for now, after averaging 36.4 last season. Monday, he played less than 30 minutes in consecutive games when healthy or not being rested for the first time since April 14 and 16, 2014. Even then, Wall was being provided an end-of-season break prior to the playoffs. If Brooks has his way, the break will continue. It just likely means a group of five bench players together on the floor, something that is not happening often elsewhere in the NBA.
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