The past left the Washington Wizards with only one goal only this summer: Bring back Otto Porter. Any other moves general manager Ernie Grunfeld made to reshape his team in the offseason would come on the periphery of a core that had Washington within one game of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Wizards had $92 million in salary committed for next season when free agency began on July 1, not counting the cap hold for Porter that allowed them to retain the right to match any offer sheet he signed. The draft wasn’t helpful, either; Washington sacrificed the future for the present at the trade deadline by dealing its 2017 first-round pick for Bojan Bogdanovic.
Whether Porter is a “max player” in the traditional sense of the term is irrelevant. He’s being paid like one now, after the Brooklyn Nets gave him a four-year, $107 million contract on July 4 that the Wizards matched a few days later. Nothing about Porter’s free agency was a surprise. Everyone knew he’d receive a maximum offer sheet on the semi-open market, just like everyone knew Washington would quickly ensure his career would continue in the nation’s capital.
The game has changed, and players like Porter are reaping the benefits more than most — both on the court and in the front office. Rangy wings who knock down open 3-pointers, finish at the rim and capably defend multiple positions have never been more in vogue. Among qualified players, only Steph Curry, Kyle Korver and J.J. Redick shot a higher percentage than Porter’s 44.4 on catch-and-shoot jumpers. He was in similarly hallowed company at the rim, joining Kevin Durant and LeBron James as the only non-bigs to shoot at least 70 percent from the restricted area.
Porter was arguably the Wizards’ most viable defender of Isaiah Thomas in the second round of the playoffs, and it’s his positional versatility that gave Scott Brooks the option of rolling out small-ball lineups during that seven-game clash with the Boston Celtics — one that Washington’s coach probably should have exercised with much greater frequency.
Porter is a late bloomer, and just turned 24. He won’t ever be a primary source of offense, but should continue rounding out the edges that made him a prototype role player on that end of the floor. There’s another step for him to take defensively, too. Porter’s body isn’t finished filling out yet, and time is the only way players gain a full grasp of the commitment and nuance it takes to be elite on defense. He has the physical tools and mental makeup to get there.
John Wall’s prime will be wasted in Washington if he doesn’t, and might be even if Porter does reach his utmost potential as one of the league’s most impactful role players. That’s the problem the Wizards face: Their big three cast is very good, but probably not good enough to win a championship without an elite supporting cast — and the salaries of Wall, Bradley Beal and Porter combine to place severe limitations on the front office’s ability to upgrade the roster.
Losing that first-round pick in June’s draft certainly didn’t help matters, and neither did Bogdanovic signing a two-year, $21 million deal with the Indiana Pacers. To be clear, Washington pretty much knew from the beginning he’d be a three-month rental. Porter’s new contract put the Wizards firmly in luxury-tax territory for 2017-18, ensuring a reserve’s eight-figure salary would be too much for the Wizards to pay. The hope is that Kelly Oubre proves ready to step in for big minutes when Brooks opts to slot Porter at nominal power forward and perhaps as the first small off the bench.
If Oubre doesn’t play the latter role on a game-by-game basis, it will be because of veteran sharpshooter Jodie Meeks. Signed with the mini midlevel exception, he’s coming off a quietly solid season with the Orlando Magic and should provide Washington with the imminent long-range threat Marcus Thornton never did. Meeks’ 63.3 effective field goal percentage on catch-and-shoot jumpers in 2016-17 ranked just outside the league’s top 10 and represents a night-and-day difference compared to Thornton’s unplayable mark of 47.5 percent.
Tim Frazier will be a similar upgrade on the departed Brandon Jennings and Trey Burke simply if Brooks has the confidence to play him in tight spots in the spring. Wall notched 44 minutes in Game 7 and missed his last 11 shots from the field. Fatigue, he readily admits, played a part in those struggles.
“In the third quarter (of Game 7), like three minutes in, I asked coach for a sub and he was like, ‘No, you’ve gotta play,” Wall recently told Chase Hughes of CSN Mid Atlantic. “I was like, ‘Oh, s***. This is gonna be a long night for me.'”
Frazier isn’t flashy, and a shaky jumper has kept him from writing his name in ink on the league’s list of rotating backup point guards. But he’s consistent, lowered a problematic turnover rate last season and knows where to be on both ends of the floor, which is more than anyone could say for Jennings and Burke. The Wizards got him for a measly second-round pick, too.
Frankly, nothing Washington did this summer was ever going to change its place in the championship hierarchy. It was always a foregone conclusion that Porter would be back and that the Wizards would be forced to rework their bench on the cheap. Meeks and Frazier won’t be winning their new team any playoff series, but even replacement-level impact from perimeter reserves would be superior to what Brooks had at his disposal last season — and could be the difference between Washington sustaining a lead and giving one up. Just ask the Celtics how important that is.
The East is in turmoil. The Wizards not only have continuity at the top of their roster, but depth they didn’t have last season, when failing to maintain a second-half lead on the road was the only thing that kept them from the Eastern Conference Finals. Will Washington get there in May? This summer has certainly increased its chances, both directly and otherwise.