These exercises have remained his standard for years. If his bothersome hip is acting up, or even if he is feeling like 26 million bucks, the preparation leading up to the game has never changed. Over the past 13 games, however, there has been an adjustment before tip-off: Porter now stands on the sideline with the other reserves.
In the Wizards’ 116-113 loss Tuesday night to the Cleveland Cavaliers — a game in which Washington trailed by 25 points in the fourth quarter before its furious rally came up just short on the final possession — Porter again performed as a sixth man playing behind forward Jeff Green. Porter, in his sixth season, hasn’t consistently come off the bench since his second season in the NBA. His preparation has not changed, but he has certainly needed to adjust.
“I mean, of course everybody in the NBA wants to start,” Porter said. “It’s an earned position, but at the same time, for the better of the team, you have to take sacrifices. And that’s what I’ve been doing.”
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After returning from a quadriceps injury Jan. 2, Porter accepted the backup role because he was under a minutes restriction. The role has continued because Porter, usually one of the team’s best marksmen, has finally started shooting.
Porter missed his opening three shots of Tuesday’s game, but his first make — a play in which he took the one-on-one challenge against Rodney Hood and pulled up for a midrange jumper — justified Coach Scott Brooks’s reasoning for bringing the team’s highest-paid player off the bench.
“I just like the fact that he’s getting shots up. As a guy off the bench, he’s getting like 15 shots a game. As a starter, it was always like nine or 10,” Brooks said. “So the math was easy for me. He was playing better. He’s getting more opportunities, more shots. Whether that’s because it was [a result of] the unit he was with or he feels more confident that ‘I have to do more,’ I like that from Otto.”
Porter scored 11 points on 12 shots as the Wizards (21-29) dropped to 7-6 in games played since Porter’s return from injury and 6-20 overall in road games.
None of the top rotational players who stepped onto the floor made a defensive impact as the Cavaliers (11-41) shot better than 56 percent through most of the second half before a late dip. In another troubling third-quarter performance, the Wizards gave up six three-pointers and 35 points in the period. By the fourth quarter, the deficit had reached 25 with 6:58 to play.
Bradley Beal scored a game-high 31 points but finished his night cheering on the reserves, who played hard until the end and nearly pulled off a remarkable comeback. The lineup of Gary Payton II, Troy Brown Jr., Jordan McRae, Sam Dekker and Thomas Bryant pulled within three late in the game, and the Wizards had a chance to tie the score after Cedi Osman missed two free throws for Cleveland with 11.1 seconds left. But Brown lost the ball in the waning seconds, and the Cavaliers held on as Porter watched from the sideline.
Never in his coaching career had Brooks made a decision like this — moving a starter to the bench after his return from an injury. And though part of a coach’s job is to balance egos and keep players happy in their roles, Brooks and Porter did not discuss the lineup change beforehand.
“I have to take into consideration guys. I want them to play well. When guys are comfortable in their position, they usually play better,” Brooks said. “But with Otto, that was never a concern.”
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Porter’s $26 million annual salary and his standing as one of the team’s foundational pieces — although his name has emerged in trade rumors all season — linger in the background of any conversation about which unit he plays on. This isn’t unusual. Other coaches around the NBA have had to make similar decisions on players with a certain amount of status.
“The best example in my coaching career is Manu Ginobili,” San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s going to be in the Hall of Fame, and he came off the bench for years because it made us a better basketball team. In that situation, it worked, and it was perfect. Some other situations may have different circumstances that require a different decision, but for us that was what was best. Manu went along with it and understood it. He probably didn’t like it. He probably would have rather started all the time, but he did it. So it’s a tribute to his character.”
Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr can relate to Brooks’s position.
“It requires a very mature player to handle that. For us, it was [Andre] Iguodala. Andre is one of the smartest basketball players I’ve ever been around,” Kerr said. “There was a lot of communication that went into it, but ultimately the only reason it worked was because he embraced it. So if it’s working here, it’s because Otto is embracing it. . . . It takes a real pro and somebody very professional to make it work.”