Taking Stock: Wesley Matthews and the Question of Talent

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No team in the league would be sorry to see Wesley Matthews don their uniform. He's a smart, committed player with a strong shot and occasionally-inspiring defense. Are those qualities enough to cement his place on a squad desperate for raw, unbridled talent?

Today we continue to take stock of the Portland Trail Blazers' current roster with the last member of the "Core Four", shooting guard Wesley Matthews. In case you missed it we talked about LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, and Nicolas Batum last week. You can click through those links to participate in the conversation.

Assessing Wesley Matthews' performance, let alone future, requires healthy dosesof perspective and context.

If you take a short-term view of his performance, comparing last year against this, Matthews did quite well in 2012-13. Like Nicolas Batum, Matthews has become a three-point shooting fool under new coach Terry Stotts. The long ball has been his go-to shot ever since he arrived in Portland but this year he broke the "more threes than twos" barrier, attempting 53% of his shots from distance. Fortunately he shoots them well, coming in just a tick under the 40% mark this season. His field goal percentage and true shooting percentage both rose significantly this year. He's the only core member who improved by becoming more efficient instead of more prolific in the offense. Matthews' rebounding declined slightly this year but all of his other stats came in around, if not above, last year's production.

In short, if you liked Wesley Matthews already you can find plenty of reasons to like him more after 2012-13.

If you weren't that fond of Matthews, though, he's probably done little to change your mind.

Though Wesley's numbers went up across the board from last season in most cases he's significantly below his production in 2010-11, his first year in Portland. His production dived a couple years ago and hasn't fully recovered. His career high point could be termed "good", especially since it came with little experience under his belt. Now he's mired firmly in mediocrity in all categories save the precious three-pointer.

His performances over the last two years have also confirmed a fatal weakness in his game and called into question one of his supposed strengths.

Not since Rudy Fernandez roamed the lane flipping bizarre loop-de-loops have Blazer fans seen a dribbler whose drives were so certain to end in failure. At least Fernandez had the dribble penetration part down. His finishes were just comically bad. Matthews has the opposite problem. He can finish if he gets to the hoop but has such trouble finding the rim that he might as well not bother. If the lane ain't open, he's praying and hopin'.

The Blazers wouldn't be the first team in this era to rely on a three-point-specialist defender at shooting guard. But the Blazers differ from the more successful teams employing that template in a couple ways:

1. Those teams are usually stocked with overwhelming, multi-faceted offensive players at other positions, alleviating the need for an offensive powerhouse at the 2-spot. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are multi-faceted but they lack the overwhelming aspect. Lillard, in particular, needs an alternate ball-handler to take the pressure off. The Blazers offer Matthews and Batum, jump shooters without a dribble to speak of. You can carry one of those guys in the current configuration, but two is pushing it.

2. Those specialist shooting guards actually defend. Matthews has heart. Matthews understands individual defense. Matthews makes the most of his athletic ability. He's made some incredible defensive stands at critical moments. But over the course of 35 minutes as a starter, his lack of lateral quickness catches up with him. The less head and heart come into play, the more emphasis lies on physical repetition and stamina, the worse Matthews looks. Defensive stats are half interesting, half chicanery, and half team-dependent. Even so Wesley looks no better than average compared to suspect teammates. Nobody playing defense next to J.J. Hickson, Meyers Leonard, and Damian Lillard will come through unscathed on the defensive end, but you'd expect Matthews to be more than just a place-keeper. He's not been.

Right now the Blazers need more than Matthews is currently giving on either end of the court. For now they can ride his three-point prowess and occasionally-mighty defensive stands, but long-term they can't get away with starting him alongside the mercurial (and similar) Batum. If the Blazers were to acquire a super-stud center that tune would change. Stick a healthy Dwight Howard on this team and now Matthews, Batum, and Lillard shooting threes looks like the perennial playoff contending Orlando Magic teams with souped up talent at the wings. You already know the chances of that happening.

Odds are the Blazers will need to compromise at the center position instead, particularly on offense. If that's so, Matthews' value drops, as does the practicality of a Batum-Matthews marriage. That's the clincher. The Blazers will never, ever regret having Wesley Matthews in uniform. No team would. But if the pecking order above him remains the same he may not give the Blazers enough of what they need to make his long-term future secure. The choice will come down to him or Batum...an argument for the ages among fans if not among the decision makers in Portland's front office.

More than any other core member, Matthews is dependent on Portland making smart, effective moves this year. If they can't--if this lineup starts looking stale--his name and comparatively attractive contract will become the subject of constant trade rumors. Even if everything else were to recommend him, Portland's desperate need for talent may end up carrying more weight in those deliberations.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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