WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – The numbers are stark. Since Washington acquired Nene from Denver in March 2012, its record without the brawny Brazilian power forward is a horrific 8-34, including 1-6 this season. That’s hardly encouraging given Nene’s likely absence for the next six weeks after he sprained his left knee on Sunday in Cleveland.
If Nene is sidelined as long as expected, the Wizards – who at 28-28 are in fifth place in the lackluster Eastern Conference and in line for their first playoff spot since 2008 — will have just five games left when he returns.
The Wizards are 21-16 this season with Nene, who had tied his career-high with 30 points last Saturday against New Orleans. The knee injury follows lingering plantar fasciitis that bothered the 6-foot-11, 260-pound Nene from the time he arrived in Washington throughout last season. He had averaged 15.7 points and 5.8 rebounds in the 21 games since being released from a minutes limit that followed him missing seven games with an ailing Achilles.
“[Nene]’s a really physical mean guy,” center Marcin Gortat said. “If he’s rolling nobody can really stop him.”
But will the Wizards’ best season in six years grind to a halt without Nene?
“It’s difficult to lose him because he was playing so well,” said the stocky 6-7, 240-pound Trevor Booker, who started 19 games this season when Nene was absent or recovering from the Achilles.
Booker will likely start tonight against Orlando with Kevin Seraphin sidelined temporarily with a sore right knee and with Al Harrington continuing to play himself into shape after returning last Saturday following more than three months on the shelf after Dec. 9 surgery to remove particles from his right knee.
“I have to take this opportunity and do something with it,” said the 6-9 Seraphin, who has done little since being picked 17th overall in the 2010 draft.
Gortat said he joked with Nene on Sunday that “now I have to take all the shots?” However, while the 6-foot-11 center will have to raise his game, the Wizards expect filling Nene’s large shoes to be a group effort. Jan Vesely was traded last Thursday, removing one potential replacement from the equation, but that group could include little-used Chris Singleton and 6-10 journeyman Drew Gooden, an 11-year veteran who could join the Wizards tomorrow.
“It’s going to be a collective unit,” Harrington said. “It’s going to take all of us. It’s definitely going to be by committee. Not one guy’s going to replace Nene.”
While the 6-9 Harrington said, “I need to get in better shape so I’m going to play [in] spurts [for now],” Gortat said he thinks the 34-year-old can be a difference-maker.
“He’s a guy that can stretch the floor and open up the whole middle for me, especially on the pick and roll,” Gortat said. “With his ability to shoot three-pointers is going to be huge. He’s a veteran guy. He can be a vocal leader.”
Second-year shooting guard Bradley Beal isn’t worried that the Wizards will collapse without Nene.
“This is a great opportunity for guys who haven’t gotten to play as much to show [coach Randy Wittman] what they’re capable of doing,” Beal said.
“It will definitely be a [gut] check for our team,” Gortat said. “One of our best guys went down and now we’ll see how we gonna respond. … It’s a huge opportunity for me to step in and play big. People probably are going to look a little more at me now. I have to put myself in a better position to score. I have to be more patient. I got to make plays. I would like to be the focal point offensively, especially under the basket.”
The Wizards, who have been through so much since they last reached postseason, are hoping that Nene’s knee won’t derail them.
“I’ve been here five months and I’m still trying to figure how this is possible,” Gortat said reeling off Washington’s inconsistency including its victories over some of the NBA’s top teams and its losses to some of the league’s worst.
“We’ve experienced so much since I’ve been here,” said Booker, whose four seasons in Washington are tied with Seraphin and All-Star point guard John Wall for the team lead. “I think we can handle adversity now.”
Tonight, the Wizards begin proving him right or wrong. Their 8-34 record without Nene doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, but his extended absence now means that they’ll have to work to end their playoff drought instead of just relying on their competition in the East to fail to catch them.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.