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The Washington Wizards came within one win of the Eastern Conference finals on the strength of a starting five capable of smoking its competition on a nightly basis. Thanks to the Sacramento Kings, if owner Ted Leonsis and general manager Ernie Grunfeld want to keep that group together, it’s going to cost them.
The Kings on Sunday presented Washington’s Otto Porter with a maximum-salaried offer sheet, according to Chris Haynes and Marc J. Spears of ESPN.com. If the restricted free agent small forward signs the sheet at the end of the NBA’s moratorium on free-agent signings on July 6, the Wizards will have until 11:59 p.m. ET on July 8 to decide if they want to match its terms.
A maximum-salaried deal for a player with four years of NBA service time pays 25 percent of next year’s salary cap, or just under $24.8 million. With standard raises, a full four-year max would pay Porter a little over $106.5 million through the end of the 2021-22 season.
According to Haynes and Spears, Porter hasn’t yet signed the Kings’ offer sheet. He’s reportedly still got a couple of meetings lined up with other suitors, with the Brooklyn Nets — who tried a couple of times last summer to poach RFA wings, but to no avail — reportedly interested in Porter’s services. If Porter holds off on signing any offer sheets until after meeting with Washington, Grunfeld and the Wizards’ brass would have the opportunity to negotiate with Porter on structuring the deal in ways that might guarantee Porter more money but lower the annual salary cap hit — Jake Whitacre of Bullets Forever has some ideas — but the Kings’ bold move removes any doubt that might have existed. To keep Porter around, the Wizards will have to pay his full freight.
They’ve repeatedly represented that they’d do so, having prepared for the prospect by attaching a first-round draft pick to the dismal contract of Andrew Nicholson at February’s trade deadline to bring in free-agent-to-be Bojan Bogdanovic (no relation to the dude the Kings just signed) to clear some salary this summer to limit the luxury-tax pain associated with Otto’s max re-up. Still: that’s a lot of coin for a player whose game rarely explodes off the screen at the viewer screaming “superstar.”
But with incumbent wings Rudy Gay, Tyreke Evans, Ben McLemore and Arron Afflalo all hitting the market, the Kings have a yawning chasm on the wing alongside second-year shooting guard Buddy Hield and stashed-no-more Serbian shooter Bogdan Bogdanovic. Once you get past Kevin Durant and Gordon Hayward, Porter’s pretty clearly the class of a thin 2017 small forward market; there are far worse ways for a Sacramento side embarking on yet another rebuild in the wake of the end of the DeMarcus Cousins era to begin trying to fill the vast expanse of space they’ve got under the salary cap after committing briskly and almost entirely to players on their rookie contracts. (The Kings’ recent history is littered with examples of those “worse ways.”)
Besides, in a league now dominated less by towering interior behemoths than by versatile perimeter players who can shoot, slash, create and defend multiple positions, a wing with size, length, a sharp stroke, a playmaker’s touch and the ability to hold up in coverage — and who’s proven capable of holding up in the postseason crucible — is worth his weight in gold. Or, in the case of Washington’s 6-foot-8, 198-pound stringbean, even more than that.
That’s why Joe Ingles, about to turn 30, gets four years and $52 million from the Utah Jazz. And that’s why Porter, who just turned 24, gets twice that after turning in a season that earned him a fourth-place finish in Most Improved Player balloting.
As he has ever since coming out of Georgetown with the No. 3 pick in the 2013 NBA draft, Porter got better last season, refining an array of skills — savvy off-ball cutting, a confident catch-and-shoot stroke, floor-spacing marksmanship, improved ability to attack off the bounce and finish through contact, etc. — that made him immensely valuable to a Wizards starting lineup that ranked among the very best and most frequently used five-man units in the NBA. He posted career-highs nearly across the board for the Wiz last season, averaging 13.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 steals in 32.6 minutes per game while shooting 51.6 percent from the field, 43.4 percent from 3-point land and 83.2 percent from the foul line.
Porter’s one of just six players who played the full season to average those per-game numbers, according to Basketball-Reference.com. The other five all suited up in the 2017 NBA All-Star Game: James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Russell Westbrook, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George. They all scored much more than Porter, but Otto was almost unbelievably efficient in Washington last season. He ranked fourth in the NBA in 3-point accuracy, fifth in effective field goal percentage (which accounts for 3-pointers being worth more than regular buckets), seventh in True Shooting percentage (which factors in 2-point, 3-point and free-throw accuracy) and No. 1 with a bullet in turnover percentage, coughing the ball up on a microscopic 4.9 percent of Washington’s offensive possessions.
That efficiency, combined with his defensive versatility, marked him as a top-five small forward in the East last season, according to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus metric — behind only LeBron James, Antetokounmpo and Jae Crowder — and a top-25 player overall in 2016-17. He’s the kind of player who might lack a single elite talent that grabs your attention and demands your respect, but he does a little bit of an awful lot of things, does them well, doesn’t do very many things poorly, and doesn’t take much off the table when he’s on the court. He is an exceptionally high-floor player, and at age 24, there’s a chance that we haven’t seen anything resembling his ceiling yet.
However, there is obviously a significant difference between Porter and the five players with whom he shares space on the list I referenced above. They all have to generate damn near everything on the offensive end for their squads, while Porter has never had to be the No. 1 option. For the most part, he played off the ball while others created, finishing only 15.1 percent of his team’s offensive possessions with a shot attempt, foul drawn or turnover. The guy the Kings want to pay nine figures had the 12th-highest usage rate on the Washington Wizards last season.
In D.C., Porter got to play with John Wall and Bradley Beal, and spot up on the weak side of Marcin Gortat screen-and-rolls and Markieff Morris post-ups. In Sacramento, he’d be the highest-paid player on a team whose current top offensive option is Hield, and expected to become the top perimeter defender on a squad staffed primarily by dudes with two or fewer years of NBA experience for a franchise that hasn’t finished outside the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency since 2006. Maybe he’s capable of filling that role, but doing so will require much, much more of him than we’ve ever had any occasion to see to this point in his career.
The Wizards, for their part, badly want to keep Porter in precisely the role he’s got, thank you very much. Doing so, though, will mean committing to a third max deal, one summer after locking up Beal, and (Washington hopes) just ahead of getting Wall’s signature on a four-year, $170 million contract. The Wizards have offered their All-NBA point guard that “super-max” designated player extension; he hasn’t accepted it yet, preferring to wait and see what Washington does as July wears on.
“I just want to kind of see what they do throughout free agency, talk to my family, talk to my agency and my managers and see what we want to do,” Wall told Tim Bontemps of The Washington Post at the 2017 NBA Awards show in New York. “It’s definitely a place I want to be … I’ve just got to make sure things are going in the right direction, and make sure we are building the team in the way we want to be, and don’t get locked up in a situation where you might not feel comfortable.”
That same night, Wall made it clear that he felt Paul George — who, you might recall, plays the same position as Porter — was the missing piece the Wizards needed to vault into legitimate contention next season.
“Look at our team. We are one piece away,” Wall told Spears. “We have the point guard, we have the shooting guard, we have the center, we have the power forward. Our 3-man [Porter] did great for us. You can’t take nothing away from what he did. But [George] is a guy that can guard LeBron and go back at LeBron. It’s a piece that you’re going to need to win. If you don’t have a guy who can do that, you don’t have a chance. […] You got to add another star. You got to add another piece. You got to have three guys. And that’s what it’s looking like.”
George, as you’ve probably heard, isn’t available anymore. The Wizards don’t have the scratch to make a run at Durant or Hayward. What they’ve got is the right to make Porter the highest-paid player on their team, insufficient funds to satisfactorily replace him, and Kelly Oubre. Who is a nice player! But who isn’t, at age 22, the starting small forward on a team with conference finals aspirations.
That’s why the Wizards probably match. And once they do that … well, that’s their team, pretty much.
Bring Porter back at his max and extend Wall, and Leonsis is in line to pay the luxury tax for a team that’s yet to crack 50 wins or move past Round 2, and to be on the hook for $90 million in salary for Wall, Beal and Porter — just them, with the whole rest of the roster to fill out — for the 2019-20 season.
Gaining any financial flexibility means finding ways to offload deals for core pieces (Gortat, Morris) or ones who struggled to provide value after Grunfeld signed them in free agency (Ian Mahinmi, Jason Smith). The latter likely requires Washington to attach assets (Oubre, future draft picks) as sweeteners. The former harms the team’s chances of competing now. Wall knows that. Is bringing Porter back and hoping Grunfeld can do a better job of building out the supporting cast moving forward enough to get Wall to sign on the dotted line?
This is where missing around the margins hurts you. Not because you shouldn’t pay Wall, Beal and Porter, but because when you do that and you’re also paying eight figures for Mahinmi and you’ve got to attach first-round picks to Nicholson, you start running out of outs, and the moves you know you should make become moves you’ve got to think harder about.
The Kings are not so burdened; they’re trying to get better, and they think Porter can help them. Now we find out how much the Wizards want to keep that from happening, and how committed they are to the idea that internal improvement from their three top guns is what matters most in elevating to the ranks of the elite.
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