Glee greeted the Wizards' open-court offense, with Marcin Gortat as the lone big man on the floor with the starting unit, when training camp opened in the final week of September. Two months later, with a losing record and the team on a four-game losing streak, talk of going back to what worked before is inevitable.
Gortat, never shy to make his feelings known, was the first to say something this strongly. Is he implying that Nene should start again, or just want to have the rotations adjusted so he's playing more with Gortat on the floor? The Wizards have outrebounded the Milwaukee Bucks (twice), New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks, Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons, the latter of which is impressive because of Andre Drummond (19 rebounds per game), with Gortat as the only big in the paint.
"We missed some shots but it’s tough also because with the system we play, four outside one inside," he said after 16 points and 10 rebounds in Saturday's 84-82 loss to the Toronto Raptors, who had a 47-42 edge on the boards. "I’m by myself over there fighting for the rebounds. Usually you got two, three guys inside the paint so it’s a little bit different without Nene being at the four."
Nene, who started alongside Gortat as the power forward the previous two seasons, missed Saturday because of a left calf strain. Even though his career rebounding numbers are modest (6.6), Nene tends to clear the traffic around the rim to allow Gortat to rebound. His screens, passing from the high post and reads make the Brazilian so unique though his full impact is rarely reflected in the boxscore. He gets his hands dirty so others can do the rest.
Of course, last season Gortat wasn't happy on the offensive end because being on the floor with Nene being there clogged the paint and caused difficulty for him, as well as John Wall on drives, to operate. The idea of moving Nene to the bench and sliding in someone who has three-point ability into that role opens the floor but usually comes at the cost of rebounding. The Hawks, who won 60 games last season, are 28th again.
The Wizards are 6-8 and struggling with their identity and have dropped from seventh in the NBA last season to 25th in rebounding. Playing the old way got them to the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2013-14. Last season, going smaller with Paul Pierce in the postseason as the "stretch" four got them past the Raptors and almost past the Hawks in the semis until Wall broke his left wrist. They've succeeded at a high level with both styles.
Kris Humphries had started every game at power forward as his three-point shooting evolved but has only made one deep ball in the last five games. For the first time Jared Dudley, who is undersized at 6-7 and was a teammate of Gortat's with the Phoenix Suns, started there Saturday. He had seven points and four rebounds.
"Jared is a different player. He’s giving a lot to the team. I love to play with him," Gortat said. "But just as Jared is giving us offensively great opportunities, we’re suffering on rebounds a little bit. It is what it is.
"Coach is still looking for the right guy at the four spot. … It’s tough. Everybody has to do more now, including me. It’s not easy."
Nene could be out for a while, so maybe this is a moot point. There's no timetable on his return from the calf strain which has bothered him since preseason.
When the Wizards made that leap from a 29-win team after 2012-13 to a playoff team, they had to learn how to win without Nene as they were 9-34 at one point. When the 7-footer returns, it will be up to coach Randy Wittman.
The second unit, which only had eight points without Nene vs. Toronto, has been so effective because of his presence. Nene hasn't played more than 23 minutes this season, so playing him more minutes would reduce his efficiency and put him at higher risk for foot and leg injuries.
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