What If We Had Kept Wesley Matthews? An Alternate History

February 19th, 2014 | by Matt Pacenza
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

When your team is 19-33, it has plenty of needs.

Ask a fan of the Utah Jazz what it lacks, and that list is sure to include 3-point shooting, wing defense and toughness. (Among other things.)

That list raises an interesting question: What if the Jazz had kept Wesley Matthews, the undrafted shooting guard who had such a solid rookie season back in 2009?

After that season, the Portland Trail Blazers pounced and offered Matthews $34 million over five years. The Jazz declined to match the so-called “toxic” contract offer, perhaps skeptical that Matthews, nearly 24 years old at the time, would improve sufficiently to justify the price tag.

At the time, I thought it was the right decision. But, now, three-and-half seasons later? Wes Matthews is a clear bargain. A near All Star. The third or fourth best player on a team projected to win 54 games in the loaded West.

And, most intriguingly, his blend of long distance shooting, defense and leadership would be nearly a perfect addition to the Jazz. Let’s give our Time Machine a spin, look at the factors that went into the team’s 2010 decision and ask the question: What if we had kept Wes?

The Decision

Let’s look at Matthews’ rookie numbers:

Age

MP

FG%

3P%

FT%

REB

AST

STL

BLK

PTS

PER

23

24.7

0.483

0.382

0.829

2.3

1.5

0.8

0.2

9.4

12.3

Good, but not spectacular. A steady if not high-volume shooter, but very poor rebound and assist numbers dragged down his overall stats. His defensive reputation was very good, but not in the Tony Allen category. Of course, as with any rookie, it was reasonable to expect growth, but given that Matthews had played four years in college and was already 23, huge leaps were less likely. All that is what made the contract offer he got so surprising.

The Trail Blazers surprised the NBA – and the Jazz – when they made Matthews an “irresistible and surprising offer” of approximately $34 million over five years in July 2010, just after his rookie season. The offer was considered “toxic,” since “Portland front-loaded the contract with a $9.1 million first-year jackpot for the restricted free agent in an effort to make it too pricey for Utah to match,” according to the Deseret News’ Jody Genessy.

Even at that very high first-year price, the Jazz could have afforded Matthews, without being forced into luxury tax territory. However, just three days after the Trail Blazers’ bid, the Jazz traded for Al Jefferson, absorbing the three years and $42 million left on his contract.

It’s impossible to know how much taking on Big Al’s salary mattered, but the decision to not match the offer for Matthews was certainly final two days later, when the Jazz signed Raja Bell to a three-year deal worth $10 million.

In retrospect, signing Bell was a huge mistake, if not a terribly expensive one. But at the time, the Jazz were largely lauded for picking up the vet, and many league observers were hardly convinced that Matthews would be worth what the Blazers had paid him. An NBC sports columnist wrote, “Matthews should be a solid role player in the NBA for a number of years to come, but it really seems like the Blazers overpaid for his services here. ”

To answer “What if We Had Kept Wes,” let’s look at each of the next four seasons. We’ll start with some basic stats for Wes, plus each of the players who manned the SG/SF positions for the Jazz: Minutes per game, PER to sum up their overall offensive output, plus 3-point shooting percentage.

Year One

2010-11 MPG PER    3P%
Andrei Kirilenko

31

16.6

0.367

Raja Bell

31

8.2

0.352

CJ Miles

25

14.4

0.322

Gordon Hayward

17

10.7

0.473

Wes Matthews

34

15.5

0.407

Let’s state the obvious: If the Jazz could have signed Matthews, they never would have brought on Raja Bell. Heck, for those of us who sports-loathed the veteran mediocrity, that alone would have been worth $34 million, right? Joking. Kind of.

Matthews, who improved into a above-average SG in his first year in Portland, would have definitely boosted the Jazz, which won 36 games that year and finished 11th in the West. But certainly not enough to make the playoffs, as the 8th place Grizzlies won 46 games. Of course, the 2010-11 season was a tumultuous one of the Jazz, marked by both the sudden (and related) departures of both Coach Jerry Sloan and franchise player Deron Williams.

One last point that will become more critical as we move forward: would Matthews presence have hindered Hayward’s development during his rookie season? The answer is possibly, but no more than Bell did that year.

In short, Matthews presence that year would have slightly helped the Jazz, and certainly not hurt it in any way in the long haul.

Year Two

2011-12 MPG PER 3PT%
Gordon Hayward

31

15.5

0.346

Raja Bell

23

8.3

0.391

Josh Howard

23

10.5

0.243

CJ Miles

20

12.4

0.307

Alec Burks

16

14.0

0.333

Wes Matthews

34

14.1

0.383

In the strike season, the Jazz surprisingly made the playoffs with a 36-30 record, before being swept by the Spurs. With Matthews replacing Bell, and likely a few of Miles and Hayward’s minutes, they could have added at least a couple wins. That would have bought them a 6th or 7th seed that year, but as that meant facing the Lakers or Thunder, a first round exit would have almost certainly followed.

CJ Miles that year was in the final of a 4-year, $15 million contract. He only played 20 minutes a game that year, but one can imagine he might have fallen out the rotation and possibly been traded with Wes around. As it was, of course, he signed in the offseason with Cleveland, so such a shift would have changed little about the Jazz. Similarly, just after the strike settled, the Jazz signed Josh Howard to a one-year contract worth around $3 million. They might not have, if they knew Hayward would play the bulk of the SF minutes, but it was a short deal for a middling player with little import for an 8th seed.

Here’s a much more provocative question: Would the Jazz have drafted Alec Burks that year? Perhaps, but the front office might have shied away from a wing, with Matthews and Hayward clearly filling those two slots for the present and the future. Miles could have backed both up, with DeMarre Carroll and Howard or waiver-wire wing talents taking some of the SF minutes.

If the Jazz hadn’t taken Burks, who else was available? To answer this hypothetical question, remember that the Jazz likely would have had a slightly later draft pick. Some intriguing names were picked slightly later in the draft: The Morris twins, Kawhi Leonard, Nikola Vučević, Kenneth Faried and Reggie Jackson. Less intriguing names, of course, were in the mix. The team could have hit a home run or stuck out with a non-Burks pick there, as opposed to the solid double they did get.

Second provocative question: How would signing Matthews have affected Hayward as his minutes grew in his sophomore season? This gets to perhaps the most interesting question we have: If the Jazz had kept the 6’5” Matthews, it likely means that 6’8” Hayward would have played, and still be playing, a significant majority of his minutes at the small forward position.

It’s beyond this column to dive deep into the question of where Hayward fits better – or whether the distinction between SG and SF even matters – but a quick glance at other articles on the topic suggests that Hayward has tended to play better defense against SFs, where his lack of world-class athleticism matters less. And, on offense, matched up with a Matthews – a good 3-point shooter but not someone who thrives with the ball in his hand – would have allowed Hayward to play the facilitator/slasher role that he seems best suited for.

Year Three

2012-13 MPG PER     3PT%
Gordon Hayward

29

16.8

0.415

Randy Foye

27

11.7

0.410

Marvin Williams

24

10.9

0.325

Alec Burks

18

11.5

0.359

DeMarre Carroll

17

15.5

0.286

Wes Matthews

35

14.1

0.398

The further we spin this hypothetical out, the harder the exercise becomes. Would the Jazz have signed Foye to a one-year, $2.5 million deal with Matthews entrenched at SG? Would they have traded Devin Harris for Marvin Williams, if Hayward were taking most of the SF minutes?

One thing is likely: the Jazz may have made the playoffs. The non-Wes version finished in the 9th slot in the West, two games out, and one of their main weaknesses was perimeter defense, as Foye can barely guard the proverbial paper bag. Now, that team would have run yet again into the buzzsaw of the Thunder or Spurs, but playoffs are playoffs, both to the bottom line and fan morale.

Year Four

2013-14 MPG PER  3PT%
Gordon Hayward

36

16.4

0.303

Alec Burks

27

15.6

0.348

Richard Jefferson

27

12.1

0.418

Wes Matthews

34

16.4

0.410

Ah, real speculative fiction here. If the Jazz had made the playoffs last year, would Dennis Lindsey, Greg Miller and Kevin O’Connor have leapt so forcefully into rebuilding mode? Would they have considered making Paul Millsap an offer, especially given what a bargain his Hawks contract became? Would they have been able to land Trey Burke, or would their slightly worse draft pick have been enough to convince Minnesota to trade down?

Would they have decided to absorb $24 million in deadweight contracts from the Golden State Warriors, to gain more first-round draft picks, preserve cap space and accept a down season in exchange for a chance at a high lottery pick in an allegedly loaded draft?

Possibly. Or maybe, rather, the Jazz would have entered this year with a slightly different core, of Matthews, Hayward, Millsap and Favors, plus a free agent PG or one acquired via trade. Think Jeff Teague. Or Kyle Lowry. Or Jose Calderon.

It’s not quite “What if John Wilkes Booth Had Missed,” but it’s interesting to think about what keeping Wes might have meant for the Utah Jazz. A few more playoff games, fewer veteran mediocrities, a more competitive present – and possibly, a less tantalizing future.

Matt Pacenza

Matt Pacenza

When he isn't writing about the Jazz, Matt Pacenza is an environmental activist, Arsenal fan and world-class blowhard about many matters. A native of upstate New York, with a background in journalism and nonprofits, Matt lives near Liberty Park with his wife and two sons.
Matt Pacenza

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