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Otto Porter is a really good player who deserves a max contract

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NBA: Washington Wizards at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Trevor Ariza knew.

It was May 2014. The Wizards first playoffs appearance in six years; the first of the John Wall era. The bitter taste of a conference semifinals knockout by Indiana was still in the team’s mouth. But the player exit interviews were sunny and hopeful, and the team’s trendline was pointed in the right direction. Finally.

And in response to a standard question about the team’s newfound team chemistry, Ariza wanted to talk about Otto Porter -- the kid who’d been drafted to take his job.

“It’s gonna be fun to see Otto get better,” Ariza said. “ ‘Cause he’s a really good player.”

At the time, this was something of a minority opinion. Porter’s rookie year was a frustrating disappointment. He missed training camp because of a summer league hip injury. His rookie season was a nothing-burger -- just over 300 minutes in 37 games, and two meaningless minutes in the playoffs. Fan forums were filled with discussion about whether Porter was a bust.

But Ariza knew. His teammates knew.

“First of all, the most important thing I see, he’s a hard-working kid,” Marcin Gortat said in January 2014. “This is a good sign. Second thing, he’s a smart, bright kid who doesn’t complain, doesn’t create any problems, and that’s the most important thing. He has actually a bright future. Obviously he’s skilled, he can shoot the ball, but the most important thing for him right now is he has to put some weight. He got to put a few pounds. He’s really small, he’s really skinny, and when he gets out there he has to be able to push people around, fight them and be physical with them. And right now he’s not really ready for that. But like I said, he’s got plenty of time in front of him. He’s a bright player, he’s gonna have a big future in this league.”

Ariza and Gortat were right. Ariza departed in free agency, and Porter got healthy and apprenticed under the venerable Paul Pierce. His second season wasn’t bad, his third season was solid, and this past season was downright terrific. Now a restricted free agent, Porter has been offered largest contract a player of his service time can sign. He is indeed a “really good player” and an ideal fit with the Wizards.

No matter your preferred measuring stick, Porter has improved every year he’s been with the Wizards -- by a bunch. This past season, he matured into a versatile player who did lots of the little jobs teams need done to win, while also becoming one of the most efficient players in the league -- a lethal shooter from anywhere on the floor with a league-best turnover rate.

How good was Porter’s shooting? Picture in your mind a “great shooter.” Odds are, you thought of Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant, or maybe Kyle Korver, J.J. Redick or even Bradley Beal. This season, Porter shot better than all of them except Korver. Porter this season tied for the 19th best effective field goal percentage (eFG) among non-bigs...since 1977-78.

Now, was Porter’s great shooting nothing more than Wall Effect -- his All-Star teammate setting him up for easy looks? No. His shooting was better when he was on the floor with Wall (.613 eFG to .545), but a) his shooting and overall efficiency was terrific even when Wall sat, and b) Nicholas Sciria of SmartBasketballGuy.com estimated Porter in the 44th percentile in three-point attempt openness.

In other words, Porter had historically good shooting numbers while getting fewer open looks than average. In yet a few more other words, Porter is an elite shot-maker and thus a great partner for Wall’s court vision and passing prowess.

Another key to Porter’s value lies in his freakishly low turnover rate. This year, Porter averaged 0.8 turnovers per 100 team possessions -- good for third lowest among players with at least 500 minutes this year, and ninth best since 1977-78.

So, Porter hits shots from everywhere and doesn’t make mistakes. He also adds value by rebounding his position well and playing solid team defense. Per 100 team possessions, Porter was 15th in rebounding among SFs with at least 500 total minutes -- more than players with bigger reputations like Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Carmelo Anthony, Jimmy Butler and Gordon Hayward.

On defense, Porter ranked 30th among small forwards in ESPN’s defensive Real Plus Minus metric -- ahead of several of those bigger names: Hayward (40th), George (41st), and Anthony (66th). Porter may never make an All-Defense team, but his length, activity and team play are necessary for good team defense, which is what’s most important.

“Max contract” scares people. It becomes more frightening for some because Porter hasn’t been an All-NBA, All-Defense, or even an All-Star. He didn’t make All-Rookie -- not even Most Improved. How could he be worth the max?

First, keep in mind there are different tiers of maximum contracts. Porter is eligible to get the lowest max -- the one for players with 0-6 years of experience in the league. At 25 percent of the salary cap, it’s less than those available to longer-tenured stars (Paul Millsap, Kyle Lowry, Steph Curry are examples).

Second, Porter is just 24, and while he’s already among the game’s more productive players, he’s far from a finished product. He compares well to Hayward (who is about to sign a bigger max contract) at the same age. He stacks up well against Paul George, Andre Iguodala, and Nicolas Batum as well. Click here for a comparison table. Don’t waste time with the per game numbers. Skip down to the per 36 minute stats, or (better) to the per 100 possession numbers. A maximum contract for Porter reflects the historical likelihood that Porter will continue to improve.

As we said, choose your sensible metric. Porter’s productivity is conclusive. But his value is as much in who he is as it is in what he does. His game is a perfect fit with two ball-dominant guards. Porter is the rare star who doesn’t need the ball in his hands for long stretches to influence a game. Similarly, Porter is happy to flourish in the background while Wall and Bradley Beal capture headlines and become celebrities. There’s nothing wrong at all with Wall and Beal enjoying fame. It also happens to be a really good thing for the team dynamics that Porter clearly would rather just play basketball than receive acclaim.

This past spring, Wall’s and Beal’s faces adorned a mural on the facade of Ben’s Chili Bowl. Porter, the Wizards’ third young star wasn’t featured; the team doesn’t promote him like they do Wall and Beal, and Porter seems content with that fact. Skeptics concerned he’s not a “star” may want to look back at that 2010-2012 Oklahoma City Thunder -- coached by Scott Brooks. Those teams were the basketball equivalent of the band with too many frontmen. Too many “stars” needed the ball, the credit, and the spotlight to stay together for the long term.

Within a matter of days, barring something really dumb, the Wizards are going to give Otto a lot of money. And as soon as it’s announced, there will be a blossoming of hot takes bleating that “you can’t give that kind of money to a role player.” There will be foolish suggestions that the Wizards would be better off letting Porter walk for nothing so they could use their non-existent cap space to pursue an imaginary star. Don’t be one of those hot take fools. Be happy that Otto Porter is a Wizard.

“ ‘Cause he’s a really good player.”

Otto Porter’s 2016-17 -- By the Numbers

Basketball-Reference has 68 players identified as SFs with at least 500 total minutes this season. Here’s where Porter ranks in key stat categories (per 100 team possessions):

  • MPG: 14
  • Offensive rating (individual points produced per 100 possessions): tied 1
  • Usage: 50
  • eFG%: 1
  • 2FG%: 9
  • 3FG%: 2
  • REB: 15
  • AST: 49
  • STL: 16
  • BLK: 30
  • TOV: 1
  • PF: 26
  • PTS: 25
  • PPA: 7

Here’s a statistical “EKG” of Porter’s performance this season. The orange line is his season average PPA after each game. The blue line is his 10-game average PPA. The vertical red line marks the All-Star break. Reminder: in PPA, average is 100, higher is better, and replacement level is 45.

One common line of criticism has been that Porter’s production dropped after the All-Star break. There’s some truth to that, which is evident in the performance EKG. At the All-Star break, Porter’s PPA was a robust 167. After the break, it fell to 146. He finished the year with a 161. In PPA, average is 100 and higher is better.

What’s fascinating is how little Porter’s performance changed. His field goal attempts, rebounding, assists, steals and fouls were almost identical pre- and post- All-Star break. His three point attempts (and makes -- more on this in a moment) fell, and his already absurd ability to avoid turnovers turned downright freakish. From the All-Star break to the end of the season -- a span of 25 games and 743 minutes -- Porter committed just four turnovers.

What changed was his shooting. His two-point field goal percentage fell from .586 before the break to .551 after. His three-point shooting went from .466 to .341. Did these changes signify a marked change in form or ability? Probably not.

The difference in his two-point shooting amounted to five makes -- an additional made shot every fifth game. The three-point difference was 11 makes -- one more made three every 2-3 games. Quite literally, the entire decline in Porter’s performance after the All-Star break was 16 made shots.

And, that decline -- as measured by PPA -- would have dropped him from seventh in production among SFs all the way to eighth.

Say it with Ariza: “He’s a really good player.”