Last season, Wesley Matthews tied for fifth in the NBA in three-pointers made per game. He averaged 2.4 triples, same as the Houston Rockets’ Carlos Delfino.
It’s hardly a secret that Matthews was an elite three-point shooter. The Blazers had three players finish in the top 10 for three-pointers made per game, but Matthews was the one who led the team. Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum were just a smidge below Matthews at 2.3 makes per game each, tying for seventh along with Carmelo Anthony and James Harden.
But, when you turn to the percentages, Matthews’ efficiency was clearly a step above Lillard and Batum’s. He knocked down his threes at a 39.8% mark. Batum shot 37.2%, while Lillard made 36.8% of his threes.
Admittedly, Wes wasn’t the primary ball-handler that Lillard was. He wasn’t even the secondary ball-handler that Batum was. Matthews wasn’t responsible for making plays with the ball in his hands. Instead, he was used almost strictly as an off-ball weapon.
Lillard and Batum were much more versatile players in other facets of the game, sure. Lillard ran the point, often carrying the offense himself, and Batum could really do a bit of everything. Matthews complimented them as the three-point shooter who would just run to the three-point line and spot up every time down the court. Look at his shot distribution chart (courtesy of NBA.com):
As you can see, most of Matthews’ shots came from beyond the arc (52.6% of his field goal attempts were three-pointers). His three-point shots came mostly from either side of the wing, or to a lesser extent, the corners. And, get this: of Matthews’ 169 made three-pointers, 150 were assisted. That means 88.8% of his made threes were made shortly after catching the ball, if not immediately. That’s an incredible statistic.
Interestingly, it wasn’t major off-ball movement that led Matthews to his success. There were many times where Matthews got open through a screen along the baseline or up near the wing. However, it was primarily Wes’ basketball IQ and the ability to live off of his teammates as a spot-up shooter that helped him be so successful.
Now, what do I mean when I say basketball IQ? Certainly, I could have meant that Wes had good decision-making when it came to cuts and using screens away from the ball. But no, it wasn’t that.
Many of the Blazers’ offensive sets placed Matthews a pass away from the ball. This was by design, and not necessarily indicative of Matthews’ own decision-making. In fact, many of Matthews’ three-pointers came from mental mistakes by the defense which left Matthews open. LaMarcus Aldridge is a truly gifted offensive player with the ball in his hands, and the same could be said for Damian Lillard. Just a little bit of free space for a shooter like Matthews would suffice.
To his credit, Matthews added something more to that. This is the part where his basketball IQ plays in, and Matthews did all of the little things. His understanding of the strong side versus the weak side of the court and the ability to transition along the three-point line allowed him to make subtle decisions that paid off very well for him.
For example, a LaMarcus Aldridge post-up play on the low block might have drawn Matthews up to spot up on the strong side of the court. As a very talented one-on-one scorer, Aldridge could very well attract the attention of Matthews’ defender as well. Now, Matthews understands transitioning between areas, and the timing of when to make those transitions. If that defender so much as turned his head to Aldridge, Matthews would immediately relocate to a different spot in the same general area of the perimeter. That’s more than enough to lose the defender, and by that time, Matthews could’ve easily received the pass and taken the open three.
Let’s go to the video. The exact play described above occurred multiple times last season, and it can be seen in the following example. Pay attention to how Matthews moves from the top of the key all the way down to the break on the left wing. That gives Aldridge a much easier pass, and it also loses the defender who has his back turned to Matthews.
The same action works if you put Aldridge on the high post and Matthews closer to the break on the wing. As a matter of fact, Matthew can even go all the way to the corner in those opportunities.
Now, let’s study Matthews on the weak side. This time, Matthews is on the opposite end of the floor from the Aldridge post-up. Now, the key to spotting up on the weak side is being somewhere where the pass can be made to you. As Aldridge cuts into the middle of the lane, Matthews sees Andre Miller sagging way off of him and moves to the high wing. This is an easier pass than if Matthews were in the corner because of where Miller is, and once again, Matthews loses Miller entirely.
Finally, let’s add Matthews to the Lillard and Aldridge pick-and-roll. Once again, Matthews is in the corner. Aldridge pops open to the same side as Matthews, and as Lillard draws two defenders off of the pick, Matthews’ defender runs up to help. That leaves Wes wide open in the corner for the easy three. You could flip the pick-and-roll as well, and if Dame can lose the defenders on the pick, he’ll draw Matthews’ man away from him the same way as in the following play.
The common theme among all of these Matthews threes is that he isn’t curling up off of screens or cutting baseline to the corners. Instead, he stays planted behind the three-point line for practically the entire possession, instead making small but opportunistic shifts from area to area along the arc. That’s Matthews’ basketball IQ in full effect, and that’s how he finds most of his three-pointers.
It should be said that Matthews’ game relies partly on having teammates that will draw the defense’s attention. Without players like Aldridge or Lillard to attract the defense, it’s very possible that Matthews might not have come nearly as close to the amount of three-pointers made that he had.
Going forward, Matthews is a core piece of this team’s offense. He might be the least noticeable one when he’s not in the process of shooting the three, but make no mistake, as long as this team relies on Aldridge and Lillard, so too will they rely on the three-point shooting and basketball acumen of Wesley Matthews.