As a team, the Portland Trail Blazers jumped up an astounding 21 wins from the 2012-13 season to the 2013-14 season; a 64% increase (33-49 to 54-28). While there were noticeable improvements across the board, Wesley Matthews’ was particularly noteworthy.
In 2012-13, Matthews contributed 14.8 points per game on 43.6% shooting, to go along with 2.8 rebounds. This past season, Matthews upped his scoring to 16.4 points per game on 44.1% shooting, and his rebounding shot up to 3.5 per game. Additionally, Matthews earned one more free throw per game, shot 4% better on free throws, and reduced turnovers by 0.3 per game. This was all in fewer minutes than the previous season.
While in some cases these increases may seem minor, there are a couple of factors to keep in mind. First, improvements of any type are quite difficult for players as elite as those in the NBA – once an athlete reaches that high of a level, there is simply not much room to improve. Additionally, this jump occurred between Matthews’ fourth and fifth years in the league, at ages 26 and 27.
Players certainly try to improve in any way possible, but continuing improvements at age 27 are by no means a given. These improvements are a testament to Matthews’ dedication and hard work. This is corroborated by the attitude he exudes – he is a true professional who tries to be at the top of his craft at all times.
While it is great that Matthews has improved, what really matters is how the Blazers (and thus Matthews) stack up against the other teams in the league. After all, the ultimate goal is to be the best team, and such dominance can be asserted by your team’s players simply being better than the other teams’.
While “best” or “better” are somewhat subjective terms, we can start to paint a picture of where Matthews belongs among the NBA’s shooting guards. The easiest place to start is PER (Player Efficiency Rating), a statistic developed by John Hollinger. It tries to roughly approximate the value of a player in a single number. It has its pros and cons, but it’s best taken as just one simple measurement of where a player stacks up.
According to ESPN’s player position assignments, Mathews has the 16th highest PER among all NBA shooting guards. However; of the fifteen shooting guards ranked above Matthews, only 10 averaged at least 30 minutes a game. Thirty minutes is a reasonable assumption for a starter, and indicates that the given player was able to perform at a high level consistently, instead of being called upon only rarely.
This would move Matthews up to 11th place in the league, a respectable spot. With that being said, the biggest concern for the Blazers is Western Conference foes. These are the teams that the Blazers meet three or four times during the regular season (instead of only twice for Eastern Conference foes), as well as teams they could meet in the first three rounds of the playoffs.
Recognizing that the ESPN positional assignments are somewhat kooky and Goran Dragic is actually a point guard, Gordon Hayward is actually a small forward, and Trevor Ariza (now in the West) is also a small forward, there are only five Western Conference shooting guards ahead of Matthews in PER – James Harden, Jamal Crawford, Monta Ellis, Kevin Martin, and Arron Afflalo (the jury is out on Kobe Bryant as he returns from injury).
Looking at this list, it is easy to see one of PER’s biggest weaknesses – properly valuing defense. The statistic is notorious for undervaluing defensive contributions (due to the difficulty of quantifying such measures), and this list cements this idea. I would take Matthews over any of these five players without question on the defensive end, which comprises a solid half the game of basketball.
While much of his defensive game is predicated on effort, Matthews appeared to be able to turn this effort into pure results more and more this season. This was perhaps never more noticeable than during the first round of the playoffs, when Matthews put in a Herculean effort in slowing down Harden. Offense is nice, but with Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge in the mix, it is far less of a priority for Matthews.
When it is all said and done, Matthews stacks up incredibly favorably against the league’s other shooting guards. With the current glut of talent at other positions (such as point guard and small forward), Matthews represents one area in which the Blazers could often times walk into a game with an immediate advantage.
Talent wins games in the NBA. System and schemes certainly help, but without talented players to execute them, they lose their potency. Keeping this in mind, there is an excellent chance that in any given game, Matthews will walk onto the court being the best shooting guard in the building. For being one of the least discussed starters on the Blazers and generally flying under the radar, this is quite the valuable position that Matthews has.