Wesley Matthews, soon to be entering the fourth year of his five year deal from the Blazers, has always been a “solid-but-not-great” ranking in my eyes. This has always bothered me, because a team does not go far with “solid.” There has to be talent. I think part of the problem is that Matthews inherited Brandon Roy’s starting spot, a comparison that is decidedly not in Matthews’ favor. This cannot be held against him by any stretch, but the difference in talent is certainly apparent.
However, the recent revelations on the importance of three-point shooting have started to make me question this old view of mine, particularly when I started looking at lineups. I suspected Matthews, a career 39.5% three point shooter (39.8% last season) offered the Blazers far better spacing with his shooting ability, and the numbers certainly back up this assumption.
Of the Blazers top six most commonly used lineups, Matthews was not featured in two. Of the four he was featured in, the lineups collectively shot an effective field goal percentage of 48.5%. Of the two that he was not a part of, the lineups collectively shot an effective field goal percentage of 42.95%. This is a staggering difference. This difference is approximately the difference between the Miami Heat and the Sacramento Kings effective field goal percentages this past season. It’s huge.
This is a very macro way of looking at the issue, which must always be approached with caution. In the two lineups that Matthews was not present, he was essentially replaced by Victor Claver or Sasha Pavlovic, two players of an obviously lower caliber. So it makes sense that field goal percentages would plummet. That’s really the point though – it’s readily apparent that given the set of other options the Blazers had at their disposal, Matthews was simply invaluable. Additionally, sometimes just looking at an issue in as broad of a manner as possible is for the best. It helps prevent overthinking.
I previously noticed that both teams that made last year’s Finals were absolutely loaded with three point shooters. The Spurs had 10 35%+ three point shooters, and the Heat had eight. The Blazers had only four such players last season (discounting Meyers Leonard and his three makes). This just means that Matthews was even more valuable to the Blazers specifically compared to other teams. That three point shooting really matters, and while 39% is not elite, it’s good. It’s good enough to force defenses to account for Matthews as a shooter, which is what truly matters.
When Matthews’ defender knows he can shoot threes, a couple of things happen. Right off the bat, his defender is more distracted than with a non-shooter, because he is always keeping Matthews and his shooting ability in the back of his mind. A distracted defender is a worse defender. Next, it forces the issue of physical spacing – Matthews’ defender will stay closer to him in order to have a better opportunity to close out. This in turn just means there is more room for the other Blazers to work with on the offensive side. Just by being on the floor, Matthews can help his teammates, always a handy trait to have.
Just having even one shooter is an immense benefit, and it starts to help you realize just how many fits Steph Curry (45.3% on threes last season) gave / will give teams. He quite literally bends opposing defenses, which exponentially clears things up for teammates. Matthews has never been nor will never be Curry, but the Blazers can still reap some of the same “shooter” benefits. The part that has me salivating is if (when) Damian Lillard can boost his three point shooting by even just a little bit.
As a rookie, he already shot 36.8% on threes while jacking up 6.1 a game, a solid percentage, especially on so many attempts. With practice plus an improved supporting cast, it is not hard at all to imagine that number creeping up closer to 40% in the near future. If Lillard and Matthews can both start hitting threes at a 40% clip, defenses will really be in a bind. One of the bigger beneficiaries would likely be Lillard himself, who would now have much more room to work with on his drives. Throw a hopefully healthy Batum into the mix (over 40% three point shooting his second year in the league), and you have a three point shooting stew brewing.
The Spurs and Heat laid out some pretty clear blueprints for postseason success, which both prominently featured threes and D. It looks as if the Blazers are approaching completing the “threes” part of this recipe. The defense still has a long ways to go, though, especially if the Blazers are to borrow elements of both Memphis and Indiana’s recent success. Threes matter, and Matthews is a huge part of that.
Final points on Matthews: while he has never been a stellar defender, Matthews actually puts the effort in and tries, which is the first and easiest part of improving on the defensive side of the ball. Additionally, while he missed 13 games last season, Matthews did not miss a game his first three seasons in the league. That’s about as durable as you can ask a player to be.
While Matthews will never be “great,” perhaps his “solid” is all the Blazers will need.