Come back with me to July 21st, 2010.
The Trail Blazers were coming off a disappointing first round loss to Nash's Phoenix Suns. Brandon Roy had missed half of the series after a late season knee injury. None of the Blazers' young wings had impressed in his absence. Both Roy and Greg Oden were expected back for the upcoming season and the feeling was if the Blazers could just stay healthy and get some depth this team could be special.
But would that depth come from an undrafted, 2nd year guard the Blazers had reportedly agreed to pay $35 million over the next 5 years? That was the question on July 21st as the Trail Blazers introduced their newest player - Wesley Matthews. The Portland media lifted up the 35 million pound elephant in the room and set it down on the table. To his credit, Matthews didn't shy away and tackled those questions head on.
"People that say I'm overpaid -- I might be. We never know. I know one thing is that I'll be in the gym and I'll be working to give myself a chance to be the best that I can be."
Part of the reason Matthews felt so comfortable answering those tough questions was that he had answered them before. You don't go undrafted without a few concerns tarnishing your resume. Scouts knew he was tough and took pride in his defense but doubted he had the quickness to stay in front of NBA guards. If he couldn't guard his position, then he had better dang well be a dynamic scorer.
Matthews poured in over 18 points a game his senior year but that number was buttressed by over seven foul shots a game. Without a quick first step, tight handle, or elite jumping ability would he be able to muscle his way to the rim against stronger, more athletic players? Even his jump shot was called into question. His senior year was the only time he shot well from deep and he never got much lift on his jumper. Many scouts worried longer defenders would block or bother his attempts at the next level.
All of this led to the prevailing idea that Matthews couldn't defend, couldn't get his shot off, and was only successful because he was bigger and stronger than his opponents. No wonder thirty teams passed on him twice.
Wesley Matthews famously spent the draft in his high school gym working out and waiting for his phone to ring.
"I look at the phone and it was 11:40, something like that. At that point I was like ‘It's not gonna happen'. Grandma came up to me. You've got till 12:01 to be mad about this, pissed off about this, feel cheated about it, and it was almost like on draft night I was just like really? Like really? I gotta do this again? Alright, I've got till 12:01. I'mma be pissed. I'mma kick some stuff. I'm gonna throw some stuff over. I'm gonna turn some chairs over and then once 12:01 hits, it's time to shock the world."
Shock the world he did. Matthews didn't play well enough in either summer league to earn a spot and was actually looking at international teams when the Utah Jazz called. They offered him a training camp invite and Matthews busted through that small window of opportunity. A few key injuries and less than a year later, he was starting in the playoffs, guarding the likes of Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony.
Matthews had answered all of the questions about his defense and his jumper, knocking down 38% of his threes, but he was still somewhat limited on offense. Seventy percent of his two-point field goals were assisted, according to basketball-reference.com. He was rarely creating his own shot and had only made it in the NBA by becoming a completely different player than the one he was in college.
Spot-up threes, fast break layups, and cuts within the offense. Wesley Matthews scored 20 points but he hadn't created a shot for himself and the Jazz hand't run a single play for him. 3 and D hadn't become a common phrase yet but Wesley Matthews seemed to typify the concept.
* * *
On July 21st, 2010, I was putzing away the summer after my freshman year of college trying to find something to do until school started again. As I typically did in those situations, I called my best friend to discuss the state of the Blazers.
"Did you see the press conference?...No?...Really?"
It still shocked me that other people didn't watch the live streams of the Trail Blazer press conferences. I have since learned that this is, in fact, normal.
I explained how the new player seemed like a really good guy with a no-nonsense attitude. I had never really seen Matthews play but had gathered enough information from youtube videos to have an informed opinion.
"Sure he can knock down open shots, but he can't do much else and I'm just not sure he's athletic or long enough to be a lockdown defender."
I was convinced we had overpaid for Matthews. Seven million a year sounded like too much for a backup who played the same position as our best player and franchise savior Brandon Roy. Especially when he was a four year college guy and wasn't likely to get much better. For Matthews, a new contract hadn't answered people's questions so much as raised new ones.
In his first year with the Trail Blazers, Matthews was again thrust into a bigger role than planned. Roy struggled with knee soreness all year and started only 23 games. Matthews blossomed not so much by demonstrating new skills but proving the skills he already had could be put to good use. Nate McMillan ran Matthews off of down screen after down screen giving him open looks at threes or one dribble curls to the rim.
Comparing that highlight video to previous one you still see the good defense, fast break points and kick out threes. Added to the mix are frequent curls to the hoop off of down screens. In his second year, less than 55% of his two point shots were assisted and his usage percentage had climbed from a paltry 16.5% to a a healthy 21.3%, according to basketball-reference.com. The Blazers were running actual plays for Wesley trying to get him free near the hoop and proving that a player who can shoot threes and finish at the rim is an honest to God offensive weapon.
There was no doubt about it. Wesley Matthews had gotten better and he was absolutely worth the almost six million dollars we had paid him.
I was just about to eat my words when the lockout finally ended. Andre Miller was out in favor of Raymond Felton who clearly thought the season would be cancelled. Without a reliable point guard and the constant improvising of Jamal Crawford, the Blazers struggled to run any sort of coherent offense. This left Wesley outside his comfort zone trying to create along the perimeter.
Three images come to mind from that season I keep trying to forget. Felton dribbling the ball off his foot, J-Crossover launching a long, contested jumper after a bevy of pointless maneuvers, and Wesley Matthews throwing up awkward runners after hopelessly careening to the rim. For the first time, less than half of Wesley's two point shots were assisted as he struggled to create his own shot. Predictably, his shooting percentages plummeted as well dropping to an abysmal 50% at the rim and 41% overall.
The whole season sucked and it felt as close to a complete waste as any year I can remember. The only silver linings were that we finally got some definitive answers to questions that had been hanging over the franchise. Roy and Oden would never be the same and it was time to move on. We knew Batum and Aldridge were keepers and that everyone else either had to be replaced or wasn't worth planning around. And we had found Wesley's ceiling having watched him bump up against it game after game.
He could shoot set shots but couldn't pull up off the dribble. He could finish at the rim but only with space and on straight line drives. He could come off down screens but couldn't run a pick and roll or score one-on-one. He was a good defender but not an athletic force that could change a game by himself. He was good, but...
"He just can't be what we need him to be. Do you think we could get a first rounder for him?"
That was my opinion that summer. It just didn't make sense to keep the role player when you no longer had the star. I was so sure of this perception that I openly laughed out loud when the new coach (Terry who?) was talking about letting Matthews run pick and rolls. Others in Portland shared these concerns and Wesley took exception.
"How can you judge somebody on something they haven't been in? That's ignorant to me," Matthews says. "How can you judge me in the pick and roll when I haven't been in it? How can you judge me in isolation? How many times did you actually see me isolate last year? How many times did you actually see me in a pick and roll?"
If I had narrowly escaped eating my words the previous summer, Matthews would leave me no such wiggle room the second time around. Just look at the following highlight video and note what's different.
There are still the fast break layups and kick out threes but for the first time there's a smattering of pull-up jumpers and drives off of pick and rolls. He had tightened his handle and, while certainly no Chris Paul, he could make the simple reads hitting the rolling big man or keeping the ball moving along the perimeter. He was now a threat to shoot, pass, or dribble and this improvement had a lot to do with the Blazers' creating a top ten offense seemingly overnight.
Now, one could argue that Lillard's emergence and Stotts' robust set of offensive principles put Matthews back in his comfort zone. It wasn't so much that he got better as the team found a replacement for Roy and Matthews was able to fall back into his role as a secondary guard. This is true to some extent but it understates the change in Matthews' game. Quite simply, he was doing things he had never done before.
"To me, Wes has come back like 10 times better," Aldridge says. "I feel like now he knows how to come off the pick and roll, he knows how to make the pass, make the read. Last year, he couldn't make the plays he is making now."
You now had a pretty dang complete offensive player to go along with his defensive effort. As a result, the conversation around Wesley changed. Fans still entertained trades but with much more reluctance. It went from "Well, why don't we just move Wesley?" to "Man, I would hate to lose Matthews, but he's the only guy with value and we need more talent". With the question of being over paid well behind him and his age continuing to climb, everyone felt pretty satisfied with what Matthews had turned out to be. Everyone, that is, except Wesley.
The first time Stotts ran a cross screen to get Wesley open in the post I screamed at the TV. I mean, it was fine when Matthews posted up point guards off switches or went to the post to get a look late in the shot clock, but why would you ever plan to post Matthews when Aldridge is sitting right there?
That sequence must have happened for ten straight games before I finally came around. Matthews was fading over both shoulders. Up and under moves. Drop steps. Where it came from I had no idea but it was a serious weapon. Up until this point, Matthews had pretty much piggybacked on the hard work of others. Someone else drove and kicked it out for an open three. A double on Aldridge got him a clean look. Now he was forcing double teams, bending the defense and hitting open shooters that could benefit from his effort.
Nowhere was this shift more apparent than in the Houston series. Not only did Wesley compete valiantly against Harden, who many were calling the best player in the entire series, he straight up outplayed him for six games making big play after big play.
That was the last play of game four and as soon as I stopped jumping up and down and screaming, I called my friend with a simple statement - "We can never talk about trading Wesley Matthews again"
Wesley had finally answered all of my questions.
It's never a good idea to overreact to a single series, let alone a single play, but this statement had been a long time coming. Matthews as a prospect was as an average shooter who might not be able to get his shot off or stay in front of people. Then he was a killer from range and a bulldog on defense who couldn't dribble. Then he was a guy you could run around picks. Then a guy who could dribble around picks. Finally, he became a matchup problem in the post and an absolutely essential part of playoff series win.
This type of progression is not normal. Each skill he added is arguably more difficult to master than the previous and these aren't the standard "He worked on his jumper" improvements you can fix by doing something 10,000 times in a gym by yourself. Dribbling is one of the hardest skills to improve at the NBA level, let alone reading a defense in real time. Countless players have failed to improve in these areas and remained one-dimensional and limited offensively.
Pretty much the only thing left was the ability to isolate along the perimeter and to be a touch more dynamic in the pick and roll. Guess what Wesley worked on this summer?
"Just playing in traffic. The ability to break people down. Having more confidence in attacking off the dribble, making plays for not only myself but other people off the dribble, just giving us that other dynamic in the game."
The results haven't been revolutionary but Matthews seems to have taken another step. The percentage of his shots that are assisted is down again - all the way to 41%. This time his shooting percentages increased rather than dropped. He currently has the 6th highest true shooting percentage among players that use as many possessions as he does, according to basketball-reference.com. He's also seen a small increase in assists despite playing the fewest minutes since his rookie season. Some of these trends may taper off but it all points to Matthews being a little more dynamic with the basketball.
As far as I'm concerned, Matthews has answered every question about his game. Can he get his jump shot off? Can he stay in front of quicker guards? Can he run a pick and roll? The only question left is the one Matthews has been focused on all along: "How good can I be?"
It's a testament to his work ethic and dedication that no one thinks they know the answer anymore.