Otto Porter's Strange, Sad Breakout Season in D.C.

Otto Porter's rise can't overcome one of the worst benches in basketball, and his role on the Washington Wizards may ultimately inhibit his true potential.
December 7, 2016, 5:30pm
Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Despite playing inside one of the NBA's most acidic environments, the Washington Wizards' Otto Porter is silently having a breakout year. He's surged beyond competence, thriving within his role as the exclamation point at the end of a good chunk of sentences set in motion by John Wall and Bradley Beal.

In his fourth NBA season, Porter, a former third overall pick out of Georgetown, has made a much-anticipated leap. The 23-year-old (who doesn't turn 24 until June) is posting career-high per-36-minute numbers across the board, with the league's ninth-best effective field goal percentage and ninth-lowest turnover rate. He's shooting over 41 percent behind the three-point line and over 53 percent from the floor, with as many Win Shares as Draymond Green. There are 123 players who attempt at least three shots in the restricted area per game, and only five are more accurate than Porter.

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Porter's game is a tender eye of round roast—it's all lean, direct, and efficient. According to Synergy Sports, only two players who've used at least 205 of their team's possessions are more efficient: Kevin Durant and Steph Curry. Real Plus-Minus currently ranks Porter as a top-20 player and the Washington Wizards get slaughtered when he's off the floor.

And yet, it hardly matters. Porter's rise can't overcome one of the worst benches in basketball. The Wizards are a depressing 7-13; they rank 21st in net rating, and are 3.5 games out of a playoff spot despite a fairly easy schedule and no major injuries besides the newly acquired 30-year-old defensive center Ian Mahinmi. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 28 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The fact that a rapidly improving, home-grown building block who plays one of the game's most important positions isn't inspiring much optimism for Washington's present or future is both strange and sad.

Porter is a free agent this summer, and thanks to a salary cap that's estimated to increase by another $10 million, he's about to make "franchise player" money (and probably more than Giannis Antetokounmpo). But while Porter is improving, he most certainly isn't a franchise player yet, and the Wizards already have clear-cut 1 and 1A scoring options in Wall and Beal. There's a real possibility that he stalls if he stays in Washington. Sure, he can bulk up a bit, improve on the defensive end, maybe become a better passer and work on his outside shot, but the way this Wizards roster was constructed limits how much more Porter's role—and his game—can expand. He currently has Washington's seventh-highest usage rate and literally all his threes have been assisted.

Porter is an energetic wing who lingers on the perimeter while Wall and Beal draw the defense's attention. (Roughly half his field goal attempts come after a pass from those two.) He regularly punishes his man for ball watching, and knocks down open outside shots. He has mastered when and where to cut.

He does an incredible job running the floor and knows how to finish on the move. Porter is also one of seven players 6-foot-8 or shorter to grab at least 13 percent of available rebounds when they're on the court. He keeps possessions alive and is pretty great at making something out of nothing.

But the play types we commonly associate with All-Stars may not be in his DNA. Porter doesn't isolate, post-up, embark on pick-and-rolls, or come off screens very often. He's starting to throw the occasional pocket pass, but rarely sets teammates up when given a ball screen. He lacks an explosive first step and wiggle as a ball-handler, and the game hasn't slowed down for him as a playmaker just yet.

There are subtle ways to change this, though. Washington's reserves are a wet bag of trash, and it might be worth Wizards coach Scott Brooks' time to extend Porter's leash while Beal and Wall rest.

According to NBAWowy, the 98 minutes Porter has played without that duo have yielded mixed results. His usage rate spikes by ten points and the team's offense functions at a high level. But Porter's individual scoring takes a dramatic blow, and it's hard for Brooks to rationalize reducing minutes for his starting five, a group that's absolutely crushing people.

Porter also doesn't get to enjoy life as a small-ball four, where he has thrived on offense, all that often. One of Washington's most successful lineups pits Porter at the four and Kelly Oubre Jr. at the three, but it has played just 15 minutes so far this season.

There's also a question of whether Porter can hold up defensively in that role, despite having an ideal body for switch-happy schemes. On paper, Porter is versatile. In reality, smaller guards treat him like wrapping paper. Porter is long, but not particularly quick moving laterally.

Some stars, like the San Antonio Spurs' Kawhi Leonard, have been able to evolve without switching teams because their growth happened to align with organic roster changes. Leonard, for example, was always far more impressive on the defensive end and his improvement with the ball was never a given, but it coincided with the decline of San Antonio's veteran icons. Porter's situation isn't like that at all, and his duties are unlikely to change so long as Beal and Wall are around.

It's a dilemma similar to the one Harrison Barnes and the Golden State Warriors faced last season, and, to a lesser extent, what happened a few years ago between the Oklahoma City Thunder and James Harden. Most scoffed at the Dallas Mavericks when they maxed out Barnes, and he has clearly exceeded expectations. Same with Harden.

"I can handle this, too, Kawhi." Photo by Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Is Porter ready to take on more responsibility, or is his development and recent stellar play more reliant on Wall and Beal doing a majority of the leg work? More to the point, is Porter worth maximum money?

It's impossible to say for sure, but some team will likely offer it, whether it's a growing franchise with cap space that's thin on the wing (Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, New Orleans Pelicans, Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns), or—and this is highly unlikely—a team that has given up on finding a fully realized superstar and wants the next best thing: an All-Star in the making who has yet to become one (the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat).

Two front office execs in last 24 hours predicted to me he's getting a max. He's been really good. — Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA)December 6, 2016

Porter is restricted, which means Washington can match any offer presented by another team. If it's a max contract, the Wizards could get dangerously close to the luxury tax by keeping him on board; precisely zero owners are happy to step over that line with a team that isn't a lock to make the postseason. Even if the Wizards say "thanks but no thanks," they still won't have enough cap space to afford anybody who can come close to replacing Porter's production. If they let him walk, praying for improvement out of Oubre Jr. is the only option. As was the case with Beal last summer, Washington has all but assured itself of paying a market rate price or above for a player—a hallmark of general manager Ernie Grunfeld's 13-year tenure with the Wizards.

For now, few players are dominating in their roles like Washington's third-leading scorer. Whether that role lowers the ceiling on Porter's game—and whether it could be higher elsewhere in the league—is something teams will need to decide.

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