NBA Sunday: Paying Otto Porter

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The Washington Wizards have already proven themselves to be a dominant home team, but it’s their ability to win games away from the District of Columbia that may eventually help them become a contender in the increasingly competitive Eastern Conference.

That and the continued thriving of Otto Porter—whose improved play nicely coincides with his pending restricted free agency this coming summer—have seen the Wizards improbably rise back toward the top of the Eastern Conference.

Owners of the third seed and the lead in the Southwest Division, entering play on February 5, the Wizards have won five of their last seven roads games. Although they’re just 8-14 on the road as a result, that record is much better than the 3-12 record that they had turned in before the previous hot stretch.

Among the things that have changed have been Porter’s dependability. As he appears to have taken the step forward that many were expecting, the question that the Wizards must determine, in short order, is whether they are willing to heavily commit to him.

What we have seen in the Eastern Conference this season is that with one win streak or losing streak, we could see a team move up or down four spots. For that reason, at any given time, it can be difficult to truly measure where a team ranks.

For the Wizards, though, Porter is leaving little to question.

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With Tuesday night’s 117-101 win over the New York Knicks, the Wizards finished the month of January with a 12-3 record. They enter play on February 5 having won seven consecutive contests and 14 of their last 16 games. The questions as to whether or not John Wall and Bradley Beal can be effective together or whether Otto Porter or Markieff Morris can be impactful players on an everyday basis are a distant memory. At least for now.

LeBron James may be in the midst of an unprecedented run as the conference’s dominant force, but even he has realized that his reign atop won’t last forever. That’s why he’s been so vocal about his desire for the Cavaliers to address their point guard situation. James is currently playing in his 14th season and has seen both his minutes and playmaking responsibilities trend upward this season. Although still clearly the cream of the East, it’s fair to wonder not only how much longer the Cavaliers will dominate, but which teams will have an opportunity to eventually knock them off of their perch.

Along with the Milwaukee Bucks, the Wizards appear to be a team worth mentioning.

Despite turning in a rather disappointing 41-41 record last season (and missing the playoffs), the Wizards have continued to be a highly-regarded team that most believed to be capable of accomplishing greatly. Now that it is known that they are at least capable of playing at a consistently high level, the question as to what they are still missing becomes the most obvious inquiry.

Recently, the Wizards have been limited by injuries, especially on the part of Bradley Beal. Having missed a combined total of 46 games over the course of the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, the first and most obvious improvement for the Wizards has been the relative health of Beal. He’s missed just four games this season, and the Wizards have lost three of those four contests.

What makes the Wizards an interesting case, however, is the fact that they are a team with young pieces and long-term contracts. And while it’s nice to have players whose better days are ahead, there is also a lot of value in maintaining flexibility. The Wizards currently have $103 million in salary commitments this season and have about $97 million on their books for the 2017-18 season. That $97 million, however, doesn’t include salaries for Porter or Trey Burke, both of whom will hit free agency this summer.

Wall, Beal, Markieff Morris, Ian Mahinmi, Marcin Gortat and Andrew Nicholson each have contracts that run through at least the conclusion of the 2018-19 season, with Beal actually not ending until after the conclusion of the 2020-21 season. Those six core players represent about $320 million in salary commitments and re-signing Porter at his market rate this summer will only add to the ledger in D.C.

In some regards, though, the Wizards appear to be a success story. Gone are the days where the public wondered whether Wall was mature enough to be a top-flight point guard at the NBA level or whether Beal could become the dynamic scorer many believed. Along with Porter, with Kelly Oubre, Jr. also having emerged as an impactful player for the club, the Wizards are a team that can fairly boast an organic growth process. In that regard, re-signing Porter for a sum of $20 million per year seems like an easy call to make. Still, doing so would fully commit the team to a core of players that many probably wouldn’t think capable of supplanting the Cavaliers as the top team in the conference over the next few years.

The alternative, however, flies in the face of the idea of building and competing at the NBA level. Having surprisingly emerged as the NBA’s three-point percentage leader this season, Porter has shown a fairly smooth all-around game that many around the league believe could command maximum money this offseason. One scout recently told Basketball Insiders that Porter had the makings of being a go-to guy, but wasn’t getting that type of opportunity because of the other mouths that need to be fed on the Wizards. Think James Harden.

With about half of the NBA’s teams capable of clearing $30 million under the cap this coming summer, there are going to be several teams that will have the ability to bid for Porter’s services. His well-timed performance this season and the Wizards having already made huge commitments to the other auxiliary pieces on their roster make for an interesting dilemma.

Re-signing Porter at $20 million or more per year would be an interesting call to make mainly because he would be paid to remain the third, perhaps even fourth option on the offensive end. And while all NBA teams will be required to spend upwards of $90 million on their payrolls, it is difficult to imagine the Wizards paying Porter and still managing to avoid being luxury tax payers.

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The last time Porter spoke with Basketball Insiders was at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. He had just turned in an 18-point effort and drilled four of his five three-point attempts. Porter recalled his year of tutelage under Paul Pierce and remained steadfast in his belief that he would be granted the opportunity to prove that he could be a difference maker.

He’s seized it fully. And this summer, either by the Wizards or another team, he will be paid like it.