On March 5th the Portland Trail Blazers were finishing out a strong regular season that they hoped would result in a breakthrough postseason performance. It was early in the third quarter of a tie game, and Wes Matthews had a fast break opportunity to take the lead. He received the pass, made a hard cut to his left, and crumpled to the floor in pain. He had ruptured his Achilles, ending his season.
It was easy to recognize this was a significant blow for the Blazers, who relied on Matthews for many things, including a toughness that had helped Matthews (ironically) earn the nickname "Iron Man". It would not have been quite so easy, however, to predict just how many dominoes would fall from this one incident. The Blazers struggled to finish the year and lost in five games to the Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs. With several key players set to be free agents, and mounting concern that star LaMarcus Aldridge wanted out, the Blazers hit the self-destruct button.
Nearly every national media member who commented on the subject predicted that Matthews -- who was also a free agent to be -- would see his bargaining position greatly weakened when the offseason arrived, a thought that now seems laughable. Matthews agreed to a deal initially worth about $57 million over four years, but in the aftermath of the DeAndre Jordan debacle, that deal jumped to $70 million.
Best Case Scenario
Matthews continues to be one of the game's premiere "3 and D" players, guarding the opponent's toughest perimeter player every night, hitting threes in bunches and even showcasing some versatility with a few post up looks that coach Rick Carlisle used to generate for Vince Carter every now and then.
Matthews is a great fit for Dallas, because really Matthews is the type of player that would be a great fit anywhere. At one point Matthews led the league in threes made (he took over 7 a game), and while he's only shot better than 40 percent once, he's also never shot lower than the 38.2 percent he made his rookie season. In other words: Wes is really, really consistent, and that may prove to be important in of itself, when you consider how streaky the Mavs other top scorers were last year (Dirk, Parsons and Deron Williams all had up and down seasons).
30 percent of Matthews' offense last year came from spot ups, and of the 22 players with as many or more spot up attempts, only 3 averaged better than Wes' mark of 1.17 points per possession: DeMarre Carroll (1.18), Danny Green (1.19), and Anthony Morrow (1.26). Intriguingly, Matthews was even better coming off screens, averaging 1.19 PPP, which tied with Stephen Curry as the best average in the league among players with at least 50 possessions in such a situation. While neither Curry nor Matthews were used as much coming off screens as -- for example -- Kyle Korver or J.J. Redick, Wes could see a few more of those looks as a Mav.
The post-up aspect of Matthews game is what could really help make him a weapon in Dallas. Matthews was one of the most prolific post-up guards last year, and looking again at PPP he finished in the 86th percentile, a tremendous number for a 6'5 player. I'm sure we won't see Wes sit on the block every time down, but with a pair of bigs who can stretch the floor like Dirk and Zaza, having the option to play inside-out with Wes down low and Dirk up high has to be appealing to Carlisle, who as I pointed out would also put Vince Carter in the post on occasion. Being creative with Wes will be key because he really hasn't shown himself to be the type of player who will generate a lot of shots for himself off the dribble.
Wes Matthews' role on offense will likely be as more of a secondary option, but one of the biggest reasons he received the contract he did is because of what he brings at the other end, where he will immediately become the team's best and most vocal defender. That is certainly a compliment for Wes, but it's also an indictment of the Dallas roster and ultimately this is where Matthews has a chance to make the biggest impact. The Monta Ellis experiment in Big D came to an end partly because building a strong team concept around an undersized shooting guard with poor defensive instincts was difficult; with Wes now in the fold, Dallas suddenly has a lot more size on the perimeter, and are far better equipped to handle the game's best 2-guards like Southwest Division rival James Harden. At a solid 220, Wes even has the strength necessary to slide over and cover forwards as well, giving Chandler Parsons some relief.
Now, for years Wes has had a reputation as a great defender and in truth that may have been slightly overstated; the data paints more of a "solid, but not exceptional" picture. He did, however, have the best year of his career in terms of defensive plus-minus in 2014-15, and his effect on team defense that season was more pronounced than it had been previously during his time at Portland. Going forward Dallas is counting on that trend continuing.
Worst Case Scenario
The elephant-sized caveat in the room, of course, is that all those nice things I've said about Wesley Matthews are dependent upon him returning from what is one of the most devastating injuries in professional basketball.
We can say that Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson know what they're doing. We can say that Casey Smith and the training staff here in Dallas is as good as it gets. We can say that Matthews is the type of player who has made millions of dollars overcoming obstacles and outperforming expectations, all through sheer will and determination.
We can say all that, but what we can't say is that we know exactly what's going to happen. Many of the other guys who have suffered this injury never made it back to the court, and of those that did most of them were shadows of their former selves. For $70 million, Dallas isn't paying Wes Matthews to be a shadow, they are paying him to be even better than before, and no amount of spin makes that anything less than a sizable gamble.
In the short term, not having a productive player here may torpedo the team's chances at a playoff berth. Longterm, if Wes is damaged goods, the Mavs will have an even bigger problem, as that will leave the team with only one player who can reasonably be expected to be a quality starter two to three years from now (that being Parsons, who will enter free agency before then and, if you haven't heard, has his own injury concerns).
I don't know when Wes Matthews will be ready to go, and I don't know how good he'll be once he does. But I'll tell you what: I'm glad he's here.
I was always one of Monta's bigger detractors, and in fairness I think I may have been a little harder on Monta than I should have been given the good qualities he did have and what were in my view tactical miscalculations by Dallas in who they paired him with in the backcourt (fellow defensive sieve Calderon one year, then fellow ball-dominant, non-shooter Rajon Rondo the next). Still, I always was rubbed the wrong way not only by his inefficient, street-ball style on the court, but his demeanor and apparent attitude off it.
Wes is in many ways the anti-Monta. A throwback player, who offensively can meld seamlessly with his teammates, defensively works his tail off, and who brings a boatload of positive intangibles to the table. Wes Matthews isn't going to sulk on the sideline while his team wins in double-OT. Wes Matthews isn't going to pout if Dallas brings in another guy who makes more money annually. I think this is a player who will speak up during timeouts, hold other players and himself accountable in team meetings and set an example with outstanding work ethic and practice habits. I would never go all "crotchety old beat writer" on you to the point where I'd say that matters more than production, but I think it's still a big part of why you pay certain guys and let others walk.
So, whenever the Wes Matthews era in Dallas does begin, I'm ready. I think it will be worth the wait.