May 2, 2014; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Wesley Matthews (2) defends Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) in the first half in game six of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the Moda Center.Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Wesley Matthews' defense: As good as advertised?

Blazers fans are familiar by now with Wesley Matthews‘ borderline persecution complex. Like many NBA players, he’s talked a lot about using the words of skeptics to fuel him through the insane routine of practice and workouts required to flourish in the league. The problem is, Matthews has been in the league for five years now, and he’s carved out a space as one of the better shooting guards in the NBA. There hasn’t been much real criticism of his game the last few seasons. We all know Wes, and we all love Wes.

Which made it a huge surprise to me when, looking through some defensive numbers, I found that Matthews rates pretty poorly by most of them. His reputation as an elite 3-and-D guy seems to have been long since borne out by the eye test and by performances like his job on James Harden in the playoffs last season. But the stats indicate otherwise.

The team, as a whole, allows 0.94 points per possession, per Synergy Sports. Matthews allows 0.96. Not disastrous, but the Blazers’ mark as a team is already pretty poor, and it doesn’t look like Matthews is helping matters. In particular he struggled to stop anyone behind the arc, allowing 39.8% on the 259 3s attempted against him.

On/off stats tell the same story. From Basketball-Reference, here are his career on/off numbers:


 

The column to look at is the “Ortg” under “Opponent.” Wes’ teams have given up 1.0 more points/100 possessions with him on the court than off the court. And that’s in spite of the boost he should theoretically get from starting 84% of his 381 career games. Even last year, in the middle of Bench-pocalypse 2013, the Blazers were 3.4 points worse defensively with Matthews on the court, which was the worst figure among a starting lineup that included J.J. Hickson and Damian Lillard.

ESPN’s real plus-minus, which seeks to divorce the value of a player’s presence from the teammates he plays with, also rates Matthews poorly. He is 44th among shooting guards in defensive RPM at -1.08 points.

So what’s going on? We watch Wes 82+ games per season, and he looks good. One factor might be what could be called the Reverse Dwyane Wade effect, where a guy’s stats look worse than expected because he never sits out a night. Despite playing in all but 13 games in his NBA career, Wes has been afflicted by nagging ankle and hip issues. But he didn’t have a single injury listed this year, and there were three other guys on the team who started 82 games, so there must be something else happening.

But Julian, what about all his great defensive performances? What about his defense on Harden? Didn’t you call that a 'minor defensive masterpiece,' whatever that means?” Good question, reader who pays too much attention to my work (mom). We’ve seen Matthews lock dudes down on the perimeter before. His hustle and footwork can make him a very effective on-ball defender.

 

Matthews_Synergy

(click to embiggen)

 

If there is a flaw to Matthews’ game, it doesn’t come from effort or attention-- it has been clear since day one that the guy works his tail off and rarely gets caught out of position, but he’s never been the best athlete. It is telling that the defensive skill where Synergy ranks him the best is defending the ball handler in the pick-and-roll. He’s strong and smart enough to navigate screens, which is most of the battle. Additionally, offensive players are never as fast dribbling the ball as they are sprinting around off the ball. He does similarly well with “Off screen,” a rather hazily-defined category that fits Wes’ strengths nonetheless. Meanwhile he gets torched on spot-ups, which require him to chase dudes around around the court and close out quickly.

It is important to mention that according to both unadjusted plus-minus and RPM, Matthews makes up for any defensive issues on offense. And I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that he’s actually a below-average defender. Any metric based on plus-minus will have a significant margin of error, and Synergy numbers can’t take into account Wes’ help defense, like in the play below, where he concedes an open Bradley Beal 3 in service of stopping an easy John Wall 2.

 

(Side note: John Wall is good.)

 

But this feels an awful lot like I’m just rationalizing to avoid evidence against one of my favorite players. Is it possible that Matthews is actually part of the Blazers’ defensive problems? I’ll hedge for now and say the Blazers should make an effort to put Matthews in more situations that play to his strengths (on-ball defense). Frankly, having a Harden-stopper might not be such a bad idea in the West right now. That is as far as I’m willing to go at the moment, but Wes’ defense is something I’ll be watching closely next season. At the very least, he’ll finally have a doubter again.

 

 

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