While the Washington Wizards field one of the most formidable starting fives in the NBA, their bench leaves a lot to be desired. So far in their Eastern Conference Semifinal matchup with the Boston Celtics, their bench issues have reared their ugly head and proven costly.
During the regular season, the Wizards five usual starters, John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, and Marcin Gortat, missed a combined total of 16 games. That is very impressive mark that shows the durability of this starting unit. However, based on how this team is assembled, that is 16 games too many.
The Wizards averaged the second fewest bench minutes per game and the second fewest bench points per game of any team in the NBA, narrowly edging out the Minnesota Timberwolves in both categories. In the case of the Timberwolves, Head Coach Tom Thibodeau is notorious for playing (and often overplaying) his starters big minutes. Under Tom Thibodeau, a Bulls player led the league in minutes per game every year from the 2011-2012 season through the 2014-2015 season, with Luol Deng leading the league for two seasons and Jimmy Butler leading the league for two seasons.
In the case of the Wizards, the lack of bench minutes was less of a product of the head coach and more of a product of necessity. The primary contributors off the bench for the Wizards from the beginning of the season were Kelly Oubre, Jason Smith, Tomas Satoransky, Trey Burke, and Ian Mahinmi (when healthy). That is not exactly an intimidating assembly of people. At the trade deadline the Wizards trade their 2017 first round pick to the Brooklyn Nets for Bojan Bogdanovic and signed Brandon Jennings after he was waived by the New York Knicks. Bogdanovic looked to provide the scoring off the bench that the Wizards were desperate for, while Brandon Jennings simply allowed the Wizards to stop putting Trey Burke in the game. While these two acquisitions represented major upgrades, that says more about the previous state of the Wizards bench than anything. When you are relying on adding players from two of the worst teams in the NBA to solve your problems, you're in trouble.
In Games 1 and 2, the Wizards sprinted out to an early lead, only to have that lead quickly fade away in once the bench came in. In those two games, only one member of the Wizards bench had a positive plus-minus in either game. Even that performance was uninspiring as Jason Smith was +1 in 10 minutes in Game 2. The bench player with the most minutes for the Wizards, Kelly Oubre, was -22 in Game 1 and -24 (-14 in regulation) in Game 2. Yikes.
In Game 1, the Wizards built up a 14-point lead after the first quarter, only to have the Celtics cut it down to 5 by halftime. Once Markieff Morris left with a sprained ankle, the Celtics really took over. Kelly Oubre replaced Morris to start the third quarter and the Wizards were ultimately outscored by 20 in that quarter alone. Again in Game 2, the Wizards jumped out to a 13-point lead after one, only to see the Celtics get to within 3 by halftime. While that game was ultimately decided in the fourth quarter, if the Wizards bench simply held serve during their minutes in regulation, the game would not have been so tight in the closing minutes of the fourth.
In Game 3, the Wizards bench finally showed up. Every single member of the Wizards bench had a positive plus-minus in the game. They were led by Jennings and Bogdanovic who were both +10 during their playing time. Bogdanovic scored 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds off the bench, by far the best bench performance the Wizards have had this series. The bench did not really put on a dominant perfomance and much of the success came from the sheer dominance by the Wizards starters, making it difficult for even the Wizards bench to blow the game, but ultimately the bench did its job for the first time in the series. If the Wizards are going to have any chance to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, they are going to need their bench to continue to contribute.