Otto Porter Jr. is a complementary standout. It sounds like an oxymoron, but that best explains who he is and why teammates love him. He shines by blending, by doing the little things that complete a team, by being a low-maintenance difference-maker.
In my dictionary of made-up sports terms, a complementary standout is the highest level of role player, not quite a star but vital to winning. When the Washington Wizards drafted Porter No. 3 overall in 2013, they coveted him because he seemed the perfect fit to form a dynamic young trio with John Wall and Bradley Beal. Porter has grown gradually over the past four years to become just that. He hustles. He’s not a great defender, but he’s a factor on that end because he gives solid effort, knows the scouting report and executes the game plan. He saves possessions with unexpected offensive rebounds. He actually moves without the ball and takes the best possible shots, all part of his stunningly efficient offensive game.
What are his underappreciated talents worth? We used to simply say a lot. Now, “a lot” has a staggering monetary value: $106.5 million.
That’s how much the Wizards will be paying Porter over the next four years when they exercise their right to match the offer sheet that Brooklyn gave to the restricted free agent. Get past the sticker shock. In our ideal sports world, would Porter — who will soon be the Wizards’ highest-paid player — make this much? Of course not. But this is the reality of an NBA flush with television revenue. The market has spoken, and it says this is what Porter is worth, no matter how outrageous it seems for a player who averaged a career-high 13.4 points last season.
The Wizards won’t balk at matching the offer because Porter is really good, more valuable than his numbers, and they don’t have the salary cap flexibility to let him go for nothing.
The options aren’t to pay Porter or find a player, maybe two, who might seem more enticing. They’re either pay Porter or go wishing upon a star to defy logic by finding a better option using the $8.4 million mid-level exception. Conventional wisdom is that you get what you pay for; in the NBA currently, you aren’t even guaranteed to get an all-star for a max contract. So what are you expecting to do with one-third of the max?
In addition, the Wizards franchise is still in the early stages of its best run since a glorious period from 1968-80, when it made the playoffs 12 straight seasons and won the 1978 title. If paying Porter $106.5 million is the requirement for keeping the core of these Wizards together until they reach their ceiling, it’s worth it. If paying Porter increases the chances to maximize what is already the second-best stretch in team history, it’s worth it. If paying Porter is a prerequisite for Wall to sign a super-max extension, it’s worth it.
Let’s focus on Wall for a minute. He has two seasons left on his contract, and the Wizards want to avoid having him hit the open market in 2019. When this free agency period began last week, they offered him that super-max extension, a four-year, $170 million deal. He said thank you, but he wants to see what the Wizards do to get better. We focus on additions, especially because Wall admitted that he tried to convince Paul George to prefer a trade to D.C. before Indiana dealt him to Oklahoma City. But retaining the Wizards’ core, which is still young and capable of improving, could persuade Wall as well. That’s one reason the Wizards are certain to match the Porter offer. It’s a sign that owner Ted Leonsis is committed to building a sustainable winner.
Before the draft, Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld assured that the team would go over the NBA’s luxury tax for the first time for “the right player.” Re-signing Porter would put the Wizards over the tax threshold. So he is the right player.
Porter’s new $24.8 million salary —which will bump up five percent each year — would put their 2017-18 payroll at about $125.9 million. (That figure includes team options for Daniel Ochefu and Sheldon Mac, which are worth $1.3 million each. It doesn’t include the $4.47 million qualifying offer for Bojan Bogdanovic, who is expected to sign elsewhere.) The tax level is $119.266 million.
The Wizards could continue to tweak the roster to relieve some of the burden, but if they don’t, they would be looking at an estimated tax bill of almost $9.5 million. Add it all together, and this team would cost $135.4 million. And all that cash wouldn’t guarantee the Wizards improved status in the Eastern Conference, but it would solidify them as a top-four seed again. Cleveland would remain the king, on paper. After adding Gordon Hayward, Boston figures to be closer to the throne, but the Wizards and even Toronto — which will have Serge Ibaka for a full season — don’t have to concede second place.
This is the price of simply being in the conversation right now, and we haven’t mentioned how player movement has made the Western Conference even stronger. But that doesn’t mean the Wizards should give up hope and start over again. After going 49-33 last season — their most victories in 38 years — the Wizards are in position now to have a string of 50-win campaigns. Do you know how many times this franchise has won 50 games in back-to-back seasons? Once. When they were the Baltimore Bullets, they went 57-25 in 1968-69 and followed it with a 50-32 campaign the next year. It was almost 50 years ago, and it stands as an aberration. So keeping this current team together isn’t pointless.
Winning championships always should be the goal, but there’s great value in the opportunity to adjust the historical standard of a franchise. The Wizards can do that. They’re also young enough — Porter and Beal are 24, Wall is 26, and Markieff Morris is 27 — to remain relevant even after LeBron James is gone, and Golden State starts to slide.
Don’t look at Porter solely as a monster contract, either. He’s a major 24-year-old asset. Wall and Beal improved after receiving their max contracts, and Porter is the kind of low-ego worker who figures to keep getting better, too. As time passes, his contract could look better. But there’s also the possibility that he could be traded in the future for a big-time star.
Without Porter, the Wizards would have just two incredible assets they deem untouchable in Wall and Beal, and a collection of players whose contracts aren’t desirable or who make too little money to pull off a fair trade with other teams that are above the salary cap.
Porter is a really nice player who is four years shy of his prime. He might continue to improve and become a fringe all-star. Or he might continue to improve and allow the Wizards to trade for a third all-star. Either scenario is a win for the franchise.
It’s an expensive win, and without question, there’s risk. But in this NBA environment, keeping a good team together is a bold enterprise.