It was a bad team that came to the Verizon Center Saturday night to face the Wizards. The Orlando Magic are not going anywhere this year. Yet, like bad teams have done in Washington in recent years, the Magic were threatening to take over the sleep-walking Wizards in the third quarter. But thanks to the bench, it didn’t happen.
Basketball, more than any other sport, is dependent on just one or two players to be the difference between being a good team and a bad team. However, a good bench can make a huge difference. And in this game, a varied trio grabbed the game by the throat and wouldn’t let the Wizards fumble it away. Otto Porter, the third pick of the 2013 draft, who played so seldom last year that some were ready to write him off as a bust, not-yet-30-year-old Kris Humphries, who better known for his nanosecond marriage to Kim Kardashian and 35-year-old Rasual Butler, who came into the league in 2002 and is on his seventh team, combined for 75 and a half big minutes, 39 points and 13 rebounds in the 98-93 win. All three were on the floor in crunch time.
With Bradley Beal and Martel Webster hurt and Glen Rice Jr. seemingly in Coach Randy Wittman’s doghouse, you can’t underestimate the value of this kind of contribution.
Watching the game with my daughter from section 102, thanks to my friend Chuck Harab, who was out of town, I was reminded of how a lesson in bench value was learned the hard way by this franchise 40 seasons ago.
The Washington Bullets went into the 1975 Finals against the Golden State Warriors as favorites. Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Phil Chenier were in their primes. Mike Riordan was a scrappy small forward and Kevin Porter was a quick point guard who could make the offense go. They tied for the league lead in wins at 60 with Boston and had knocked out the Celtics in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Golden State won only 48 games and had to survive a brutal seven-game series with Chicago in the Western Conference Finals.
Those Bullets not only lost to the Warriors, they were swept in four games. And the difference was the bench.
Yes Rick Barry was the best player on the floor and led the Warriors, averaging 29.5 points a game in the series. Barry played almost every second – 172 minutes. But the Warriors had only two other players spend more than 107 minutes on the floor, rookie Jamal Wilkes and center Clifford Ray, who only concentrated on the defensive end, averaging 10 rebounds a game. Coach Al Attles used six other players – Phil Smith, Derrick Dickey, Jeff Mullins, Charles Johnson, Butch Beard and George Johnson between 60 and 70 minutes.
The Bullets, on the other hand, as good as the above – mentioned starting five was, only Nick Weatherspoon saw significant minutes off the bench. Coach Casey Jones was basically playing six against nine over the course of the game. A check of the box scores shows the Bullets leading at halftime in three of the four games, only to lose all four by a total of 16 points. They ran out of gas in each one.
Old timers may point to Jimmy Jones not being available. He had been the Bullets third guard most of the season and had hurt his knee in the win over the Celtics in the Eastern Finals. He certainly would have helped, but it’s hard to say if he would have made that much of a difference in the Finals.
It’s interesting to note that the next time the Bullets made the Finals – 1978, they were a deeper team than their opponent, the Seattle Supersonics. In addition to Hayes and Unseld teaming with Bobby Dandrige, Kevin Grevey and Tom Henderson – making for a stronger all around group than in 75, they had plenty of bench help. And ironically, a big part of that bench was Charles Johnson “CJ”, who had crushed them off the bench for the Warriors three years earlier. CJ, plus Mitch Kupchak, Larry Wright and rookie Greg Ballard made a huge difference for Coach Dick Motta. Seattle had only seven playing major minutes – Gus Williams, Fred Brown, Dennis Johnson, Jack Sikma, John Johnson, Paul Silas and Marvin Williams. The Bullets won in seven.
A year later, they matched up again in the Finals and Kupchak was hurt. It made a difference. Seattle won in five.
Now a good bench isn’t enough to overcome teams with players like LeBron James and Derrick Rose. As I said, in basketball one or two great players can make all the difference, but a bench you can count on is a big part of the battle.