All season the Washington Wizards have wrestled with one key offseason question. Similarly, Wizards fans have argued and agonized with the decision that would define Washington’s offseason. Should the Wizards sign Otto Porter to a max contract? Porter looked like a max contract player when he scored 34 points to go along with 14 rebounds in an early season blowout win over the Boston Celtics. But, Otto looked overmatched in the playoffs, averaging only 12 points per game, routinely missing big threes as he connected on only 28% from beyond the arc.
Porter’s contract extension remained a hypothetical last season, but now the Brooklyn Nets have offered Porter, a restricted free agent, a max deal of $106.5 million over four years. The Wizards have until 11:59 pm on Saturday to match this offer, otherwise, Porter will head to Brooklyn. The Wizards have said they will match any offer Porter receives, but the extension is no longer a hypothetical. The Wizards must act decisively if they wish to keep Porter in the nation’s capital. The Wizards are on the clock, and the question remains – what to do about Otto?
The case for keeping Otto is simple – he is 24 years old, has improved every season, and has emerged into one of the league’s top three-point shooters. Porter was Washington's number three pick in the 2013 draft and has improved significantly every season after struggling initially. Last season he started 80 games and established career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. Additionally, this improvement did not come at the expense of efficiency, as Porter shot a career high 51% from the field and 83% from the foul line. Most importantly, Porter developed a deadly outside game, hoisting 4.5 threes per game and connecting on 43% of these tries. Porter’s newfound shooting ability is the perfect floor spacer for John Wall’s relentless attacks to the rim.
Those against retaining Porter argue that the Wizards should not lavish a maximum contract on a player who has yet to show that he is more than the team’s third or fourth best player. Porter is little more than a catch and shoot player, with limited ability to create his own shots or open shots for teammates. Additionally, while Porter is a good defender, he is not an elite defender. Porter’s lack of size and strength makes it difficult for him to guard bigger players or compete in the post. Furthermore, keeping Porter would mean that the Wizards have no salary cap flexibility moving forward, and little financial means of upgrading one of the worst benches in the league.
In making this decision, it is important to consider Washington's current situation. The Wizards are in win now mode. Washington won 49 games last season, their best tally in 38 years, and pushed the Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Unlike the Celtics, the Wizards did not improve this offseason through the draft or free agency. The team’s stars, John Wall and Bradley Beal, are in their primes, at ages 26 and 24 respectively. Furthermore, following a flurry of offseason trades and signings, the Eastern Conference appears weaker than ever. Simply making the playoffs in the Western Conference will be a massive accomplishment, but the East has few competitive teams besides the Cavaliers and Celtics. If the Wizards resign Porter, they will bring back a team that should compete for the top of the Eastern Conference standings with legitimate aspirations of reaching the Eastern Conference finals. The Wizards likely do not have the talent to make the finals, but there is no shame in winning 50 games and finishing among the Eastern Conference leaders.
One additional factor in the Otto Porter decision is the readiness of Kelly Oubre Jr. If Porter leaves, Oubre will be called up to the starting lineup. Oubre attacks the rim with ferocity and has shown glimpses of developing into an elite defender with his seven-foot wingspan. But, at only 21 years old, Oubre lacks a polished offensive game and does not have a reliable outside shot. Oubre has a higher ceiling than Porter, but for the next season or two, Porter is the better player. Perhaps the Wizards feel that Oubre is ready for the starting small forward role and can handle much more than the twenty minutes a game he played off the bench last season. But, putting Oubre in the starting lineup will make Washington's perilously thin bench even worse.
The Wizards have little salary cap flexibility regardless of their decision on Porter. If Porter leaves, the Wizards do not have the money to sign a comparable free agent. If Porter stays, the Wizards will likely pay the luxury tax for the first time in the franchise’s history. If the Wizards decide to let Porter walk for salary cap reasons, it will make Ian Mahinmi's $64 million contract look even worse. Mahinmi is a fine backup, but he was injured at the time of the signing, and played only 31 regular season games last season, averaging six points and five rebounds. In other words, he is a useful player, but certainly not a difference maker.
The Otto Porter decision will have a significant impact on the future of the Wizards franchise. Re-sign Porter and the Wizards are committed to a core of Wall, Beal, and Porter that may never be good enough to win the Eastern Conference. But, this is Washington's best option for competing in the East. The Wizards will not have salary cap space in the foreseeable future nor are they projected to receive a top draft pick anytime soon. This means that internal development is their only method of improvement. The Wizards must hope that Wall continues his stellar play, Beal becomes a consistent star, Porter makes another leap next season, and Oubre continues to develop. While the Wizards should consider all possible options until their 11:59 pm Saturday deadline, the correct answer is simple – match Brooklyn's offer and pay Porter.