Since returning from his left foot injury, Nene's played in five of six games including the last three - but with minutes limits. That's why the questions posed to Randy Wittman now focus not on the Brazilian big man's nightly availability but what it will take to keep him on the court longer.
"We're still working on that," Wittman said shortly before the Wizards headed to Atlanta for Friday's rematch with the Hawks.
Nene made his season debut in Atlanta on Nov. 21, returning to the court with a minutes count in two. Against the Hawks. Wittman took his power forward to the 20-minute limit brink, then blew past in the next game, using Nene 29 minutes in the double-overtime loss to Charlotte. Nene has not played 20 in any game since. This weekend he faces his first back-to-back game test with Washington hosting Golden State on Saturday.
Look past the double-overtime thriller and the 30-year-old's on-court time has dropped one minute in each subsequent game since his return; 19 against Portland in Washington's first victory, 18 at New York and 17 in Tuesday's stunning upset over Miami.
Nene is averaging 10.6 points, though he hasn't reached double digits since doing so in each of his first two games. Regardless, Nene's impact on his teammates and the Wizards' overall play remains high, insanely so. With Nene in the lineup, the Washington has won two of its last three and is 2-3 overall with two overtime losses. Without Nene, 0-10.
"Nene’s presence, just his presence," Wittman said following Washington's first win of the season over Portland. "It’s not so much the stat line, or anything like that."
Speaking of those stats, according to basketball-reference, Nene's 36 minute per game averages this year are 18.5 points and 8.4 rebounds. Last season with the same minute's variable but without having to work his way back from injury, 20.2 and 10.5.
It's those big picture reasons why Wittman's been judicious with the 30-year-old's minutes. At the end of Washington's practice on Thursday, Nene struck a familiar seated pose with ice wraps on both knees, his left foot resting on another bag of the chilly wet stuff.
"The more he gets his legs underneath is really the main thing," Wittman said.
Eventually he will return to the starting lineup, but for now having Nene available in the fourth quarter is the larger issue. By bringing him off the bench, Wittman can better manipulate those minutes to ensure his best interior threat is on the court in crunch time. This weekend's back-to-back scenario adds to the time challenge.
"Get in better game shape before you want to push that lever. I don't want to push it too soon - he doesn't either. Obviously, a lot has to do with him, his comfort level. You don't want to get him in that situation where his legs aren't there and he's still not in the best shape he needs to be in to play 30 minutes instead of 20 minutes. That's where little injuries creep up and we want to avoid that."