Why the Wizards were happy to give $106M to their third-best player

Michael Lee
The Vertical
Otto Porter Jr. shot 43.4 percent from 3-point range last season. (AP)

WASHINGTON – Otto Porter Jr. has spent most of his NBA career in the shadows, a rare top-three pick absolved of the typical pressures of a franchise savior who was asked to serve as an unselfish complementary piece, or super role player, to John Wall and Bradley Beal. Porter managed to humbly dodge the spotlight, letting Wall and Beal take turns – and occasionally jostle – over who commands the most shine, but maintaining just enough ego to accept the role while also ending up in a peculiar position this summer. Thanks to a career season and impeccable timing, Porter is now the highest-paid Washington Wizard and the fourth recipient of a nine-figure contract in franchise history.

Porter’s path to this point – as the sole winner in an offseason that has been cruel to restricted free agents – is remarkable in that he defied the conventional AAU basketball factories as a means to NBA success. From pickup games with his cousins in his late grandmother’s backyard in the remote Missouri Bootheel to training sessions with his father and uncles at the high school gym that now bears his name, Porter developed the fundamentals and aw-shucks charm that led to a maximum contract worth $106.5 million.

“I grew up playing in Morley, Missouri. I never in 100 years thought I would be in this position that I am today,” Porter, 24, told The Vertical. “So it’s definitely a humbling experience.”

Several factors that were beyond Porter’s control contributed to the Wizards handing him a deal that caused many to flinch but was warranted under the current collective bargaining agreement: another staggering spike in the salary cap, last year’s embarrassing, failed attempt to recruit hometown product Kevin Durant that resulted in some botched free-agent signings, and the slow development of Kelly Oubre, which left the organization without a viable replacement. Wizards owner Ted Leonsis was willing to make the commitment to Porter – even though it put the organization in luxury-tax territory for the first time – after witnessing the fellow Georgetown alum’s steady improvement, which prompted the talent-desperate Brooklyn Nets to lavish Porter with a massive offer sheet that the Wizards matched.

“The market spoke, I said, ‘Done,’ ” Leonsis told The Vertical, when asked about the gaudy price tag for a player who has yet to become a star. “There’s not that many transformative free agents out there and a lot of teams are paying a lot of money on free agents and they’re not quite sure how it’s going to work. I felt keeping Otto, maxing Otto, was way lower risk than saying, ‘Let’s let him go and we’ll get someone in free agency.’ I get a lot of emails, a lot of tweets, ‘Cut him loose!’ Oh, really? The coach loves him, teammates love him, he’s one of the best 3-point shooters in the league. Cut him loose? No. That’s not in the plan.”

When Leonsis took over as majority owner of the Wizards in 2010, the league was in a much different and more tenuous financial place that resulted in a lengthy lockout roughly a year later. Before a stunning broadcasting deal that nearly tripled revenues and dramatically increased franchise valuations, the league created a salary-cap structure with more punitive luxury taxes and repeater penalties that spooked some organizations into making decisions that were regrettable in hindsight.

The Wizards believe Otto Porter Jr. hasn’t come close to reaching his peak. (AP)

Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti pulled off the greatest three-year draft run in NBA history, selecting two MVPs and a two-time runner-up in succession, but the team lost what could’ve been a potential dynasty when it decided to trade James Harden to Houston rather than give him the maximum contract that would’ve propelled the organization into the luxury tax.

Washington made four straight lottery selections from 2010-13. They hit on Wall, a four-time All-Star, and Beal, a borderline All-Star last season. They whiffed on Jan Vesely as well, but Porter is starting to come into his own after struggling his first two seasons. The Wizards are now the first team in the max-contract era to reward three at the same time to players who were drafted and developed within the organization. The common thread for Wall, Beal and Porter is that none made an All-Star team before receiving his first massive payday.

“For us, if you articulate a strategy of, ‘We’re going to be bad and we’ll get high draft picks,’ and you realize NBA players come into their prime at 26, 27 years old, you’re hoping that this happens,” Leonsis told The Vertical. “The worst thing that happens, you use a high pick, he’s a restricted free agent and you’re debating, ‘Do we want to keep him? Is he worth that?’ I said, ‘We want to be a ‘have’ team. ‘Have’ teams do whatever they want.”

Cleveland drafted Andrew Wiggins, but Minnesota avoided being put in a similar position of giving out three max deals to players developed within the organization, getting out ahead of the situation by dealing Zach LaVine for a more established star in Jimmy Butler. Philadelphia is excited by having a talented core of players all on their rookie deals but will likely have to confront that scenario with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz and possibly a fourth with Dario Saric.

Porter has been with the Wizards throughout their most successful run in decades. They have reached the conference semifinals in three of the past four seasons, something only three other teams – Golden State, Cleveland and San Antonio – can claim. The Warriors, Cavaliers and Spurs own all of the titles over that span, and the Wizards have a ways to go to be considered among the league’s elite teams. But they are trending toward becoming a contender in the depleted Eastern Conference, where many teams are embracing rebuilds over chasing LeBron James.

Success for the Wizards isn’t necessarily measured by whether they reach the NBA Finals, or in possibly upending the Warriors’ seemingly impenetrable reign. By retaining Porter, Washington has made attainable the goals of winning 50 games and reaching the conference finals – feats the franchise hasn’t accomplished since 1979. But the urgency to end the slightly longer championship drought is what prompted the unapologetically honest Wall to publicly lobby for Paul George at the NBA’s awards show and to double-down on his reasoning even after Porter re-signed, by stating, “It’s a difference between a role player and a superstar.”

Porter’s response to Wall’s comments revealed that he’s not under any delusion that more money has made him exponentially better (“We’re talking about Paul George,” he said with a shrug). But he also didn’t shriek from the assessment. “I didn’t take no offense to what John had to say. End of the day, it’s just motivating me to get to where that level is. It’s all good,” Porter told The Vertical. “I’ve always had that in the back of mind, what type of player I want to be. I’ve always wanted to be an All-Star type player. I feel like I don’t have a ceiling. I can only get better from here on. And for me, it’s the work that I put in and the goals that I set for myself.”

Though Porter now has the NBA’s 14th highest salary, one spot below Durant, the pecking order on the Wizards remains the same as it relates to touches and shots, with Wall and Beal dominating the possessions. That’s why, even after handing him the huge contract, the Wizards lessened the expectations that will be placed upon Porter, who said the talent on the roster and a supportive coaching staff “will cancel the pressure around me.” Leonsis, president Ernie Grunfeld and coach Scott Brooks all spoke of wanting more of the same as opposed to something different. “We want a max team and it would be bad for us if the optics were, ‘You have to earn your contract.’ We’re thrilled to be able to bring him back, and now what we want is no more talks of contracts and dollars, it should be about wins.”

Leonsis added that Wall would be back as the Wizards’ highest-paid player once he agrees to a four-year, $170 million super-max extension, which would begin in 2019. The team has already extended the offer, and Leonsis predicted Wall would eventually accept: “My goal is to have no drama.”

The Wizards already avoided some unnecessary drama by bringing back Porter without hesitation. Porter, who intended to stay despite signing the offer sheet with Brooklyn, is ready to pay back the organization. “I’m going to continue to be humble and work hard, make sure everything goes according to plan,” Porter told The Vertical. “Right now, like coach Brooks said, for me, it’s all about winning. I’m going to continue to do what I’ve been doing and improve by that. Going up against a guy like Kevin Durant, and LeBron James, every time I go against them, I’m getting better every night. I’m working to get there, that’s my goal.”

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