In the comfortable little cocoon of Rip City, there's a healthy contingent of fans who have done their best to remain optimistic in the wake of Wesley Matthews' season-ending Achilles tendon injury. Yes, Wes is done for the year, and yes, that's a huge loss, but there are plenty of Trail Blazers fans who have found a silver lining.
The other guys will step up. Arron Afflalo is a suitable replacement. The Blazers are deeper and better coached than they've been in years. They'll adapt.
That's the tune being sung within Portland. Look more than a few miles beyond the Willamette Valley, though, and you might discover that the outsider's view of the post-Wes Blazers is a little more dour. Nationally, there are plenty of pundits writing this team off.
Here are a couple of relevant snippets from a recent Grantland podcast on the topic:
Bill Simmons: "Portland's season was ruined by the Wes Matthews thing. There's no other way to say it. Their season got ruined. They're not coming back from that. Sorry, Portland, you're just not. I thought he was their second-best player. For what he meant to that team, I thought Matthews meant more than [Damian] Lillard. What he does on the other end? Lillard's a DH. He plays one end of the floor and that's it. Matthews played both ends, and he was their best defensive player. I don't see how they come back from that."
Zach Lowe: "I love Arron Afflalo. But these people saying that Afflalo and Matthews are equivalent players, roughly - it's not true. He's not nearly the defender that Matthews is. He's not as good a shooter. And more than that, Wes embraced his role as, 'I'm going to post up now and then and get to dribble some, but I'm going to be an absolute killer catch-and-shoot guy."
First of all, let me just say that I tend to value the outsider's opinion a great deal in situations like this one. Even if the person you're consulting isn't someone who lives and breathes Blazers every day (although in Lowe's case, he's probably watched most of their games), it's worthwhile to hear from someone who's a little bit removed from the situation. As locals, we tend to get a little bit too close to the Blazers, and the emotional attachment skews our perspective - we can overthink things. We can get a little crazy. Being distant helps you develop an opinion that's more... coldly analytical.
There's also a downside, though. I think it's fair to say that while insightful, many of the outsider takes on the Blazers have been just a little bit too simple for my tastes. It's human nature to want to reduce complicated issues to tidy sound bites, and that's understandable. But can the Blazers' situation post-Matthews really be summed up as, "The defense will be weaker, Afflalo's worse and that's that?"
I feel compelled to interject with two things.
- While it's true that Matthews this season was a good defensive player (according to ESPN's real plus-minus stat, he made the Blazers about 1.11 points better per 100 possessions on that end), I don't think it's reasonable to call him irreplaceable on defense. The Blazers defensively have a system that can withstand the loss of one individual contributor. Even through seven weeks without Robin Lopez (their best defensive player?), they were able to hold down the fort. Their roster is stacked with long, athletic, versatile guys who can rip through screens, help when necessary and guard a variety of players. Losing Matthews hurts, but this team has plenty of guys left over who can pick up the slack.
- Leaping directly from "Afflalo's worse than Matthews" to "therefore, they're weaker now" is a major logical fallacy. The truth is that the Blazers aren't just going to replace one starting two-guard with another straight-up. They're going to play a form of "Matthews by committee," really. It's a matter of finding all the things that Wes gave them - the catch-and-shoot production, the crafty post game, the mid-range shots, the transition play, the defense, all of it - and asking for a little bit extra out of each guy left on the depth chart. No one's going to replace Matthews alone.
Let's take a moment to look at a couple of examples. How did the Blazers play when they still had Wes in the mix, and how can they replicate that style now without him?
Here's what Wes brought to the table defensively.
In crunch time of the Blazers' showdown with Cleveland in late January, the Cavs tried attacking Wes by running pick-and-rolls between his man, J.R. Smith, and the red-hot Kyrie Irving. Watch what happens on this possession - Matthews quickly volunteers to pick up Kyrie, and he sticks with him for the rest of the play. He does a great job positioning himself. Get too close to Kyrie and he'll blow past you; sag too far off and he'll just shoot. Wes keeps the right distance, doesn't chase too hard when Irving jab-steps as if to drive, and gives a beautiful contest when Kyrie settles for a fadeaway. Clang.
That's a fantastic possession defensively, and it's tough to replace. But for the post-Wes Blazers, it just means more responsibilities for other guys - especially Nicolas Batum. Like here:
In Wednesday night's contest against the Rockets, Batum was given the impossible assignment of guarding James Harden for most of the night - a job that would have gone to Wes in the old days. But if you watch here, he actually does an excellent job. Watch as Joey Dorsey comes flying at him from the right side with a screen and Batum, as if he's got eyes in the back of his head, senses the big man coming and darts to his left to stick with Harden. Then Harden tries to drive right, and Batum again stays with him. Finally Harden manages to throw Batum's tail by curling around a Dorsey dribble handoff - but by that time Dorsey's man, Robin Lopez, is waiting at the rim to offer help. He contests Harden's drive to the rim and gets him to miss. Mission accomplished.
Without Wes, it wasn't one guy locking down the opposing two-guard for 48 minutes, but that's all right. With a solid team effort, the Blazers got it done. What matters is that Portland held Harden to 7-of-19 shooting, only 5 free throw attempts, and won the game 105-100.
As for the offense, the No. 1 thing the Blazers are going to miss about Wes is that he's a guy you can station on the perimeter and have him catch and shoot over and over and over. Given that he shot 38.8 percent from long distance this year, he'll certainly be missed in that regard. But the thing about the Blazers' offense is that it's not just their shooters that shine - it's the way they get their shooters clean looks. Even without Matthews in the mix, the Blazers' style of play should remain more or less the same.
Here's a clip of Portland's ball movement getting an open look for Matthews back in the day.
Coincidentally, this is from a previous Houston matchup, on Feb. 8. Pretty easy to explain what the Blazers do on this possession, using their old starting five - they make extra pass after extra pass until they're able to break the Rockets down. The play begins with a pick-and-pop between Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, and both defenders (Dorsey and Trevor Ariza) collapse on Lillard and try to trap him in the corner. Instead of forcing a shot that's not there, Lillard instead throws the Rockets off their game by initiating a rapid sequence of ball movement, as the Blazers whip it around to Aldridge, to Matthews, to Batum and back to Matthews again. Eventually the Rockets have scrambled out of position too much, and Matthews is just open enough to hit the open 3.
What works on that play isn't just Matthews' shooting ability. It's the Blazers' free-flowing style of play and their collective instinct for finding the open man. That's a mindset thing, not a talent thing, and it can work even when the immensely talented Matthews isn't out there.
A different play, but a similar overall philosophy - as long as you have effective spacing, unselfish ball movement and good shooters all over the floor, you can get the job done. On this possession you see a series of Blazers perimeter players attempt to probe their way into the paint, then kick it out to an outside shooter in pursuit of a better look - first Lillard dishes to Dorell Wright, then Wright drives and kicks for Steve Blake, then Blake drives from the left side and finds Wright cutting to the opposite corner.
No one would argue that Dorell Wright is a "better" player than Wes Matthews, but that's not the point. As long as the Blazers continue to execute and use their unselfish style of play to generate open shots, they'll be all right.
It's pretty great that the Blazers got a chance for a key post-Wes statement win on Wednesday night against, of all teams, the Rockets. You've got to love the contrast between the two squads - one of them has been dominating all season long because they've got the best two-guard in the league (Harden), a guy who's been putting up gaudy statistics and may well be rewarded for them this spring with an MVP award. The other team is scrambling to replace a two-guard who was just lost for the season.
On paper, that looks like a mismatch - but that's because reducing a Blazers game to a positional matchup is egregiously missing the point. Yes, Arron Afflalo is an inferior shooting guard to James Harden. That was made painfully obvious on Wednesday night when Afflalo shot 2-for-13 against the Rockets and was outscored 18 to 9. But it's telling that the Blazers won anyway - they did it not by filling up the stat sheet from any one particular position, but by playing the same brand of team basketball that's carried them all season.
That style will need to continue working for Portland the rest of the way. They're not going to get world-beating production out of the shooting guard spot anytime soon - Matthews isn't coming back, obviously, and Afflalo might have a big game now and again, but he's not exactly the second coming of Jordan. The playoffs are around the corner, and the Blazers may well find themselves put through a meat grinder of devastating wing scorers. Imagine going through three rounds of West playoffs and having to face, say, Monta Ellis, Harden and then Klay Thompson in order.
Afflalo's not winning any of those matchups individually. Maybe in a single contest he gets lucky, but no way over the course of a seven-game series. That's OK, though. For the Blazers, the challenge is to win anyway.
Wes Matthews was never a dominant player all by himself, and that never mattered because Portland didn't ask that of him or anyone else. So in a way, nothing's changed. The Blazers will just have to continue being the Blazers.