Signed as an undrafted free agent after summer league for the Jazz in 2009, Wesley Matthews was initially expected to claw for a roster spot on a team already featuring such wings as Kyle Korver, Andrei Kirilenko and Ronnie Brewer. But he impressed early on, fitting in well with Jerry Sloan’s system and philosophy, and with Brewer’s trade midway through the year, Matthews improbably rose to a starting role in his rookie season. He held his own, posting a PER slightly above league average and showing poise in 10 playoff games. He was well on his way to becoming another of Utah’s patented “steals”1, a talent who fell through the cracks and was caught by a perceptive eye in the always savvy front office.
Most will remember what happened next, though: in swooped the Portland Trailblazers. The Blazers had become something of a thorn in Utah’s side as far as restricted free agency at the time, throwing a big offer sheet at Paul Millsap the previous offseason and forcing the Jazz to match what was seen at the time as a somewhat oversized contract to keep him in Salt Lake City. They were now running the same game with Matthews – preying on Utah’s slightly clogged cap sheet that included nearly $17 million a year on what had become Andrei Kirilenko’s albatross contract. Portland used the full midlevel exception, which under the previous CBA was a 5-year, $32+ million contract, and after deliberation the Jazz decided they could not afford to match and allowed Matthews to become a Blazer.
And as with all former players, it’s become a fun game within Jazz circles to evaluate whether or not Matthews has lived up to the contract many felt was overly bloated at the time. Views have been mixed and varied over time – SCH’s Andy Larsen tweeted last week about how his initial skepticism is no longer present, while Grantland’s Zach Lowe noted how Matthews seemed to jump back and forth between underpaid and overpaid more than almost any other player in the league’s public consciousness.
Matthews is exceptionally heady and self-aware, and every coach in the league would kill for more like him – he knows exactly what he is as an NBA player, and never allows ego or adrenaline to force him out of his comfort zone. He entered the league as an above-average three-point shooter, and has remained right around the 40% threshold that typically defines high-usage options from distance. Though it may not have been the case when they pried him away from Utah, Matthews is in the perfect situation for a player with his skill set, not expected to initiate offense with Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge as the team’s go-to options. Those two, plus the interchangeable wing pairing of Matthews and Nicholas Batum, have given Portland a lethal and diverse attack with shooting and matchup problems all over the court.
Matthews may not be the first option, but he’s a vital cog that keeps the machine humming. He is Portland’s floor spacer, leading the NBA in corner-3 attempts for the regular season by a hair over Trevor Ariza. He’s a smart off-ball cutter who interacts well with Lillard and Aldridge as they draw the majority of the primary defensive attention, allowing Matthews to slither away for good looks. He’s particularly adept at cutting into Aldridge’s strong side while the big man posts up, timing his cut with his own defender helping off onto LMA:
Matthews has over a 6’8 wingspan, slightly long for a shooting guard, and he’s not shy whatsoever about using it to shoot over smaller defenders. What results are plays like the second clip above – where most players wouldn’t consider that gap “open”, Matthews needs very little free space to get off his quick release with those long arms. He prefers the left corner to the right one2, shooting nearly 44% from there on the most attempts in the league, according to NBA.com.
Another area where he utilizes his smarts and little physical advantages is down on the block, where he’s developed into one of the league’s top wings. He’s been a 40%+ shooter from the post every year in his career but one, including this season when Portland kicked up his volume there several notches. He finished nearly triple the number of post sets this year compared to last year, per Synergy Sports, and actually slightly improved his efficiency – he shot just a hair under 44% on such sets, and logged a top-50 mark league-wide for per-possession post efficiency3. He’s useful going to either hand, and has effective fakes that contribute to a solid rate of fouls drawn from the block. He’s sublimely gifted at leveraging his weight and wingspan situationally:
Okay, so perhaps James Harden isn’t the best example as a defender, but Matthews has been running this sort of trick all year long. He has a lightning quick spin in either direction, and is an expert at feeling contact with his back turned and rolling off it with precise timing. If the defender pushes back with him, like Harden does here, he’ll step back and shoot over him:
The Blazers are aggressive in pursuing mismatches for Matthews in the post, sometimes extremely so – he’s gone straight at Harden when the two match up this postseason, and has mostly eviscerated him.
I talked above about Matthews being self-aware, and he seems to embody the term in many ways. He knows he’s not a primary ball-handler, and he embraces this – per SportVU data, he possessed the ball less per game than any other Portland starter besides Robin Lopez, and by a large gap. He handled the ball roughly as much nightly as Earl Watson, for example, despite playing over 34 minutes a night to Watson’s six and a half. He never goes it alone, takes cavalier hero jumpers with time left on the shot clock, or short-circuits plays to get his own stats.
He might be slightly overrated defensively, but he’s certainly no worse than league average or slightly above. He’s solid against the pick-and-roll, though nothing special, and he’s never lacking in effort. Curiously given his offensive success there, he’s had some real trouble defending against post players, allowing opponents over 56% shooting on over 100 finished sets, per Synergy. The Blazers were a middle-of-the-pack team defensively, and this number stayed basically the exact same whether or not Matthews was on the court. He certainly does allow coach Terry Stotts some freedom, as he’s big enough to guard both wing spots and perhaps even certain points in a pinch even if he’s not an elite stopper. He’s also strangely seen a dip in his overall production during each postseason he’s been a part of, but it’s really just a slight across-the-board drop in his numbers and overall PER that is likely influenced by the more star-heavy game we typically see in the playoffs.
Beyond any quantifiable measures, Matthews is simply one of those guys winning teams always seem to employ. He’s athletic, excels in a few select areas, knows his role perfectly and is a poised, mature cog on a growing team. Whether it’s with Portland or elsewhere, seeing him play a feature role-player part for an NBA champion will not surprise me in the least.