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Everybody Beats the Wiz

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NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Washington Wizards Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Back in the 1970s there was a critically and popularly acclaimed Broadway show entitled “The Wiz.” It was an updated version of The Wizard of Oz, featuring an all African-American cast including Stephanie Mills starring as Dorothy. They made a movie out of it, and 34-year-old Diana Ross persuaded the financial backer that she should replace Mills in the lead role despite the age disparity. The film tanked, though some consider it a cult classic.

Some years later, four brothers started a chain of electronics stores and called it The Wiz. Their slogan was “Nobody Beats The Wiz”; that slogan was repeated ad nauseam on TV and radio ads in the Tri-State Area of my youth, leading to ingenious mockery on Seinfeld in the 1990s. According to legend, the firm was threatened with a lawsuit by the owners of the Broadway/Hollywood property over the name “The Wiz. In any event, they changed the name of the store to “Nobody beats The Wiz,” which is of course a quite ridiculous name for a store, but, hey, it was the time of Crazy Eddie (“Prices so low... they’re INSANE!!”), so what are you gonna do?

Anyway, that’s why the title of this article is amusing to me. As to the content: despite having completed their Big Three of Wall, Beal, and Porter, Washington has never gotten very far in the playoffs, and this year they are off to a very poor start. There’s a lot of talent there, and so they may turn it around. But if that doesn’t happen, it may be time for them to rev up the tank. And in that case, they’ll be looking to deal. How can the Sixers benefit?

The obvious trade candidate for the Wizards is John Wall; after all, he is the oldest and highest-paid of the three, and by far the most famous star, so normally would be the most marketable. The problem is, he signed a contract so gigantic that even playing at his best — which is very good indeed — he is only around a break-even. And he has had knee problems that have kept him from being his best over the last season-plus. As a consequence he may have negative trade value. It’s possible that there’s a team out there that has large expiring contracts they can combine together in such a way that the package benefits both teams. This would, I think, need to be a team that:

  • Has trouble attracting free agents
  • Could use a player with Wall’s mix of talents (scoring, ball handling, OK-not-great shooting, size)
  • Is either good enough that Wall might help them contend, or is a team that just wants to be decent rather than terrible
  • Is in a location Wall would find congenial enough that he wouldn’t become a troublemaker to get out of the situation

Suggestions welcome! Like, maybe if New Orleans could package together enough Alexis Ajincas and Solomon Hills, and add in some draft picks, it would work for the Wiz because they avoid the luxury tax, clear space so they can add talent later, lose more games to improve their draft position, and pick up picks. And the Pels could add a star player to help them keep AD happy; Wall is not up at the Westbrook level, but he’s a big upgrade on Elfrid Payton! No doubt there are problems with this specific pairing, I haven’t done the detail work, but in theory something like this could work for both sides.

Anyway, it seems unlikely to me that they’ll be able to find a suitor for Wall; my guess is they are stuck with him until his contract has only 1+ years left; i.e. he may become valuable again at the trade deadline of the year before his final year. It’s a super-long deal, running through 2023, and Winter 2022 is over three years away. So I’m guessing Wall can renew his Washington Metro card without worrying the investment will be wasted.

The guy all the Sixers fans seem to want is Bradley Beal. Why is a bit of a puzzle to me. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Beal is a nice player. Last year his RPM was around +1, which is average-starter level, but the year before he was around +2.5, which is very high for a shooting guard. The year before that he was negative; I think that was the year he got hurt but I’m not sure if the injury mattered for his per-minute numbers like RPM. The year before that he was over +2, and prior to that he was too young to be valuable. So, two very good years and one OK year, if we give him a break and write off the bad year in 2015-16. He’s a top-10 shooting guard, but SG is the NBA’s weakest position; my guess is that overall he’s not top 50. He is still only 25 so has time to improve; many players at 25 are as good as they are going to get, but plenty of others keep improving until their late 20s; Kyle Lowry, who seems to be peaking in his 30s, is their patron saint. Beal’s RPM drop off last year is not a good sign for the “he’s still growing” story, but RPM is far from perfect, and one year is not proof of a trend.

Personally I don’t see the match here that others do. Beal is a clear upgrade from JJ Redick; Redick is around a +0 or +1 rather than Beal’s +1 or +2. Nothing wrong with an upgrade! But still, given that Beal is viewed as an extremely high-value asset who’ll be costly to obtain, he seems to me like a weird choice. My issues:

1) People act as though Beal is a borderline superstar, but as noted above you just don’t see that in the on-off statistics. He is a minor star offensively and a significant liability defensively. There’s a commenter here who gets angry every time I mention the fact that I think a player is good not great because his team only gets modestly better when he takes the floor. His objection is that he could just look up the on-off stats himself. Of course that’s true, but if he did that, he wouldn’t learn the fascinating history of nobody Beats The Wiz! Anyway, in an act of appeasement worthy of Chamberlain — neville, that is, not Wilt! — I’ll mention some traditional stats of Beal’s (though now that commenter will probably just trash me for using traditional stats; after all, those are even easier for him to look up himself than on-off stats!).

Just like his on-off stats, the box-score numbers are quite good, but not great. He shot 37.5% from three last year, a bit below his career average. There’s something funny about three-point percentages; if someone shoots 39%, as Beal has for his career, people act as though he’s a Golden God, but if he shoots 37%, like Cov or Butler or for that matter Beal last season, people say he’s just a bit above league average. But you know, 39 - 37 is, um, 2! 2 extra percent, times 6 threes a game, times 3 points, equals .36, i.e. a third of a point a game. Now, a third of a point is a lot in basketball terms, but let’s not go nuts. It’s probably worth about the same as, I don’t know, half an offensive rebound or something. A third of a point coming from a source other than three-point shooting is very likely to me lost in the trad-stats shuffle, whereas somehow with 3PT% it’s treated as a huge deal. Beal’s other box score stats are fine; he’s moved up in recent years from a 7-ish assists + rebounds guy, per 36, to more like 8 or 9. That’s a good number for an SG. His steals and blocks add to a bit over 1.5, again, solid. The big deal is that he scores 22 points per 36; if he took 5 fewer shots and scored 5 fewer points, he’d be a little less good but not much, and would be seen as nothing special. He’s a fine player. But he’s nowhere close to a superstar, in terms of helping his team win.

2) It’s not as though he’s disproven the fancy metrics by just winning all the time; the team has won, what, one playoff series in his years there? Even though he’s always had other good talent around him? And they’re losing like crazy this year?

3) He plays shooting guard, where we are very deep; it’s Butler’s natural position, and JJ’s, and Shamet’s. And maybe Zhaire’s, we’ll see. Let’s not even get into Markelle! Now, of course we can use more talent at that spot, and Jimmy can slide to SF; again, not saying Beal wouldn’t be a useful addition. But compare to PF, where we have no one who’s much better than an average backup, and you can see this is an odd slot to obsess over.

4) He makes serious money; 25-27-29 in millions over the next three years; that’s a lot for a +2 player.

5) I think he’s the guy the Wiz are going to want to keep and build around, so prying him away would take a ton, and I don’t think he’s worth a ton as a stand-alone and I really don’t think he’s worth a ton in excess of his contract.

So let’s turn to Otto Porter, or, as I call him, the Other Cov. He’s the one that I want! I was bummed to lose Cov in the Butler deal, and this is the closest we can come to righting that wrong. Porter is a 6’8” small forward who can guard multiple positions, so similar to Cov in many ways. He is a good defender though of course not at the Covington level. On the other hand, he’s an even better shooter than Cov; indeed he is among the absolute best shooters in the NBA, having hit around 44%(!) over the past two full seasons. He’s paid about the same as Beal, so he is not cheap, but in Otto’s case what you get for the money is a guy who puts up those stellar Cov-style adjusted plus-minus numbers; +5.0 last year, +3.6 the season before. The year before that he was a lot lower, at +1.5, but, first, as noted under Beal that’s actually pretty decent, it ranked him the #11 SF that year, second, he was just a baby of 22 back then. That’s his big advantage over Cov; Porter, 25, is three years younger. Another interesting comp for Porter is Khris Middleton. Middleton is going to be a free agent this offseason, so in theory we may be able to obtain him without giving up other assets. But keep this in mind: the difference between middleton’s RPMs and Porter’s over the past four seasons is that while they average the same, Middleton was in the 1-2 range the past two years and 3-5 the year before, while Porter has gotten better by this metric year after year, culminating in his monster seasonin 2017-18.

Porter is widely seen as an overpaid role player. I don’t know what “role player” means other than “guy who doesn’t score a ton,” but Otto Porter is really good and at just over $25M/year is not overpaid, and will start to look like a bargain in a couple years if the cap rises significantly..

And he’s the perfect fit, in just the same way Cov was. He spreads the floor, shoots efficiently, defends well, switches well. We can play:

Joel

Porter

Buckets

JJ

Ben

with Ben bringing the ball up and guarding the PF. That puts four deadly offensive threats around Ben, while sacrificing nothing on D other than by playing JJ. Maybe Zhaire can fill the JJ spot down the road!

What would it cost to get him? I honestly don’t know. But if you’re looking to tank, you need to trade Otto Porter, as otherwise he helps you win too much. And since Wiz fans view him as an overpaid non-core asset, I think that if the team decides to Blow. It. Up. they will likely look to deal him. Here’s my proposal:

  • Markelle Fultz, Wilson Chandler, and whatever cap filler (Patton, Furkan, Bolden) is necessary

For

  • Otto Porter and Tomas Satoransky

I am very much an on-the-record Prokelle, so it hurts me to lose him. But Joel made the leap this year, and now we have Butler too, and when you have two guys that good plus Ben Simmons, who is excellent and who may become transcendent, you can’t afford to wait until Markelle gets to his near-prime in four years. If you have the opportunity to get a legitimately excellent player for his prime years, and Markelle needs to be included for both cap and fairness reasons, then I’m willing to give him up.

Chandler is, as I’ve written many times, a backup-quality player who is for some reason perceived as more. People call him a “solid two-way player” or some such, and while it’s true that his offense and defense are of similar quality, that isn’t great when both are below average. He’d be useful to keep, but we don’t have the cap room, so he’s included in the trade.

Finally, with Bayless gone and Markelle in the trade, we’re ridiculously thin at PG. I mean, there’s Old Reliable TJ, we can play Jimmy there from time to time, and maybe Shamet can handle the point, that remains to be seen. But given that you want the flexibility to play Ben in the frontcourt, another solid backup combo guard would be useful, and I nominate Satoransky. He’s not headed to the Hall of Fame or anything, but at 27 he’s in the center of his prime, and so it’s not all that surprising that he was very good last year; actually his RPM was well ahead of Bradley Beal’s; and he played PG a lot. He’s big at 6’7”, can shoot the three a little, gets lots of rebounds and assists. His contract expires at the end of the year so we’re not stuck with him, but if he plays well he should be cheap to keep around.

Would the Wiz be interested in this package? Who knows; who can grok the fullness of the mind of Ernie Grunfeld? Markelle has DC-area roots, which doesn’t hurt. He clearly still has superstar potential; the likelihood of him getting there is debatable and hotly debated, but I think it’s entirely possible; as I have noted elsewhere he is very young, and we know he has it in him. And of course WAS would be clearing space, avoiding the tax and creating flexibility to do interesting things in the future. I could imagine us having to sweeten the pot with a pick, or the Wiz doing so because we’re taking on so much salary. I know there are fans here who think one awful free throw the other night means Markelle has negative trade value. Well, maybe! But as I say many people think Porter is negative given his high pay. And Scottie Brooks is not playing Otto in the fourth quarter; seems to lack confidence in him — hey, just like Markelle! Maybe they both need a change of scenery.

There’s another very important and often-overlooked benefit to a trade like this one. It enables us to keep JJ Redick! I’m on record as feeling JJ is somewhat overrated, but he is a good player and seems to play an important role as leader/teacher/mentor as well. Say we head to the offseason without doing an additional deal. Kemba Walker calls up and says he’ll come for $30M a year. Kemba is terrific, so we’d then need to trade Markelle for whatever he brings (let’s say it’s a late first-rounder), renounce JJ and everyone else that’s not nailed down, bring Kemba aboard, and then try to infill the rest of the roster with minimum-salary and exception guys. That’d be a good outcome; with a Joel-Jimmy-Ben-Kemba core we should be a destination for vet ring-chasers.

But here’s an even better idea. Suppose instead we trade for Kemba; say it’s Markelle and Chandler for Kemba at the deadline. Well, the bad news is, we don’t get that late first we got for Markelle in the scenario above. But the good news is:

1) We get kemba for the 2019 playoff run; that team would have a real shot!

2) In the offseason, we can keep everybody we have Bird rights for, which unless I am misunderstanding the rules would include Jimmy, Ben, Kemba... AND JJ! — (along with Joel of course who is already on a long-term deal). And TJ! And of course the young guys. We could keep pretty much the whole team. And we’d still have the exception and the minimum-salary slots to bring in quality vets; indeed I believe, though I might be wrong, that in this scenario we’d get the full exception that runs around $9M, rather than the half-size “room” exception we currently have..

In a way it’s like we pick up Redick in the trade. And the same applies to the Porter trade proposed here; I just illustrated it with Kemba to show it’s not Porter-specific; it’s a key advantage of trading for a star rather than signing one. For the record I like the Kemba trade idea about as much as the Porter one, which is good since the team has a lot more power in negotiations if it has multiple attractive options. Maybe I’ll give the Kemba idea a full write up in the future. Anyway, the point here is, with this Porter deal our rotation for next year would look something like:

Starters: Joel, Porter, Butler, JJ, Ben

Bench: Ariza*, Zhaire, Shamet, Rondo** Sixer 2019 first-round pick, Amir (sorry, I still like him!), TJ, Tyson Chandler***

*Signed, in this hypothetical, with the $9M exception; even better would be Mirotic, but I figured that’s unreasonably optimistic

** Signed, in this hypothetical, to a vet-minimum contract; I guess Rondo and Butler have history so it probably won’t actually be Rondo, but you get the idea!

*** Signed, in this hypothetical, to a vet-minimum contract; I’m stealing all LeBron’s guys!; but if you don’t think we can get Chandler, sub in Muscala here

Last thing: would the Porter trade kill our chance at a real superstar, like KD or Kawhi? Well, frankly, the chance of one of them coming is pretty low. And there’s an argument that with two elite ball handlers in Simmons and Butler, we’re better off having a fourth star who adds value in a different way. Well, not compared to the megastars like Kawhi, who’s just too damn good, but, say, compared to adding Kyrie Irving, a fine player but maybe too much of what we already have. But anyway, the answer is that of course doing this trade doesn’t kill our chance to add a guy like that. It just means that if Kawhi wants to come, we’d need to trade Porter for picks in order to clear space. I don’t know what picks we’d get, but what’s the worst case, that we’d have to add a second to ditch him? Fine, in that case we’d have (effectively) swapped Markelle, Chandler and a second for Kawhi Leonard. I’ll take it!

I think the Porter deal proposed here is a very appealing idea. But it’s not the only one — as I wrote in my last article, the Sixers are now well set up to make another move or two, which is good because they almost certainly need to do so if they want to make the Finals. I suspect I’ll be back soon with other ideas worth discussing; some of those might be even more attractive than adding Porter, some less so. But if the team pulled the trigger on a Porter/Satoransky deal, I’d be thrilled.