In yet another disappointing season for the Washington Wizards, there was a curious and encouraging development. No, not the extension awarded to team president Ernie Grunfeld -- that’s baffling and dispiriting. Rather, forward Otto Porter performed at an All-NBA level.
If you’re in the group that believes Porter is nothing more than a premium-priced role player, that may sound preposterous. But hear me out. There’s ample evidence to support the notion that despite his limitations, what Porter brings to the Wizards is impressive, unique, and valuable. And some of that is easy to overlook, because it’s not the stuff of highlight packages.
Put simply, Porter excels at the things that win basketball games while avoiding the stuff that loses them. He makes shots, plays good defense, rebounds the ball, while he avoids turnovers and fouls. All of this dovetails with long-established statistical research and insights on what makes the biggest difference in winning or losing a game.
Per 100 team possessions, Porter this season averaged 23.3 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 2.4 steals. Here’s the complete list of players who managed a similar combination:
- Anthony Davis
- Andre Drummond
- DeMarcus Cousins
- Russell Westbrook
- Ben Simmons
The critique that Porter was efficient primarily because he was low usage and because he played with John Wall should be cremated and sprinkled into the Potomac alongside Andrew Nicholson’s contract. Last season, Porter’s usage rate was 18 percent, just below the league average of 20 percent, while his efficiency was a robust 12 points per 100 possessions better than league average.
Over the past two seasons without Wall on the floor -- more than 1600 total minutes and more than 3000 total possessions -- Porter’s usage rate was a league average 20 percent and his offensive efficiency was 10 points per 100 possessions better than league average. Without Wall on the floor the past two seasons, he has an effective field goal rate of .556. That’s excellent shooting. Without Wall on the floor the past two seasons, Porter’s turnover rate remained a freakishly low 1.7 per 100 team possessions.
This season, Porter’s performance for the first 18 games of Wall’s absence following knee surgery, was stellar and largely overlooked. This was the “Everybody Eats -- #FreeSato --are they better without Wall?” portion of the season, when the Wizards offense featured ball and player movement, and the team went 12-6. During that span, Porter’s usage rate rose to an above average 21.3 percent and his offensive rating was a stratospheric 129 points per 100 possessions.
For perspective, here’s the complete list of players who managed similar efficiency on similar usage in 2017-18: Karl-Anthony Towns and Chris Paul.
Then, something happened, and Porter’s offensive efficiency and overall production fell back to to Earth. One argument is that opposing teams figured out what the Wizards were doing, made the appropriate adjustments to their game plans, and Porter was unable to make the appropriate counter-adjustments. That could be correct.
However, I don’t think it is. For one, 18 games is an eternity in the NBA. Teams are constantly scouting each other, and scouts and assistants pay extra attention to the most recent games. It typically takes about five games for a new scouting report to emerge, and for teams to start shifting strategies and coverages.
Second, and far more important, Porter drove to the basket during that 18th game at New Orleans, took a hard fall, and injured his hip. He didn’t miss a game, but his production plummeted. The following night, he aggravated the injury in a collision with Dwyane Wade. You can see for yourself how his production tailed off.
In that table, PPA is Player Production Average, which is my overall rating metric, calculated for each individual game. You can read more about it here, but the quick summary is that PPA is built on the factors that determine why teams win and lose in the NBA. It’s pace neutral, includes a “degree of difficulty” factor, and accounts for defense. In PPA, 100 is average, higher is better, and replacement level is 45. If you scan down the list of games, I think you’ll see where Porter hurt his hip.
Was it the scouting report catching up, or was it injury? It’s impossible to know for sure, but based on analysis of an array of statistical measures, the most likely explanation for Porter’s sudden performance drop-off is also the simplest. He was playing hurt.
Overall this season -- even including production diminished by injury, even without Wall for half the season -- Porter’s PPA was a career-best 175. That mark ties Chris Webber in 1996-97 for the second-best season for a Washington player since my database begins in 1977-78. (The best season was from Moses Malone, who posted a 189 in his first year with the Bullets.)
To further put this in perspective, that 175 is the fifth best PPA for a forward this season. That’s also true of Porter’s total and per game production.
The All-NBA team includes six forwards.
And this isn’t just a case of getting excited because a pet metric “loves” a player. Other credible advanced analytics metrics have Porter’s value in the same general range. Win Shares ranks him seventh among forwards. ESPN’s Real Plus Minus has him third, as does David Berri’s Wins Produced. Jacob Goldstein’s Player Impact Plus Minus ranks him fifth. Basketball-Reference has Porter seventh in Box Plus Minus, and sixth in Value Over Replacement Player.
The only advanced stat outlier is PER, which rewards players for inefficient shooting. In a league where the team that shoots best wins nearly 80 percent of the time, an “advanced” metric says a player is contributing by shooting more often if he makes more than 27 percent of his shots.
Back to those first 18 games without Wall: Porter’s PPA for that stretch was a dizzying 225. Here are the players this season with at least 1000 total minutes who had a PPA of 225 or higher: Steph Curry, Davis, James Harden, and Clint Capela. (We can argue about Capela’s worth later, but would any Wizards fan be anything less than overjoyed if he was the team’s starting center?). That’s the whole list. Paul and James were close, but didn’t quite get there.
Now, could Porter perform at that level for a full season? I doubt it -- at those heights, we’re talking about MVP candidates, the game’s true elite, a level where Porter’s limitations certainly come into play.
However, there’s a lot of space to be sub-MVP level and still terrific. That’s the pool in which Porter swims. Critiquing his game is fair. He’s not a great ball handler. He’s not someone who will go one-on-one and take a defender off the dribble. He could be more aggressive looking for his shot. He could be a better on-ball defender. And like every other player in the league, he could do a better job of not getting bodied by LeBron.
Nevertheless, Porter’s production -- at just 24 years of age -- is outstanding. He wasn’t the problem with this season’s Wizards, and he’s not the reason the franchise seems stuck on early playoff exits. His hip might be an area of ongoing concern; he’s had previous issues with it. But otherwise, he’s someone the Wizards can build around, and someone whose play should already have him viewed as a worthy co-star to the more celebrated Wall and Bradley Beal.
With limited financial and roster flexibility and both Grunfeld and Brooks seemingly locked in for the foreseeable future, the Wizards can’t look to outside saviors for improvement. But they could -- and should -- focus more time and attention this summer on finding ways to magnify and benefit from Porter’s strengths. He’s already one of the NBA’s best shooters and most productive players, and he still has room to improve and grow.