The Portland Trail Blazers have lost shooting guard Wesley Matthews to a season-ending Achilles Rupture. There's no way to sugar-coat the news. They'll have to cope for the rest of the season and the playoffs without their starting shooting guard.
"Cope" is the only way to describe it. You don't really replace any player, much less a member of the starting lineup, much, much less a member of a starting lineup as competent and tight as Portland's. If the Blazers don't field the best Starting 5 in the league, top to bottom, they're at least in the discussion. Technically losing Damian Lillard or LaMarcus Aldridge would be a bigger blow (due to depth if not talent) but saying that ignores the synergy between these five players. They don't just play off each other, they feed off each other. When one of them sits down everybody's counting the minutes until the lineup will be complete again. There's a sense of solidity to this unit, an unspoken trust that they can make things happen and cover for each other's weaknesses. Time and again we've seen the Blazers down double digits, the result of inconsistent play and bench malaise, only to have Lillard, Matthews, Batum, Aldridge, and Lopez stage late-quarter runs to resurrect or win a game. The Blazers have had more talented and successful fivesomes, but only "Clyde, Terry, Duck, Buck, and Jerome" ranks above this quintet for recognition and bond as a group. 2015 echoes 1992: you cannot mention one starter without mentioning all five.
Recognizing that the loss of Wesley Matthews runs deeper than numbers, let's take a more concrete look at what the Blazers will miss over the next 5-8 months and how they might replace some of Matthews' contributions.
What Matthews Brings
Matthews gave the Blazers 16.1 ppg this season with 3.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists. He shot 45% from the floor. His calling cards were a 39% rate from the three-point arc with 7.5 attempts per game. On the day he went down, Matthews ranked second to Steph Curry in total three-point attempts for the season. 59% of his attempts came from that range. His PER stood right around 16, True Shooting Percentage at .587. He has played more total minutes this year than any Blazer except Damian Lillard and is tied with Nicolas Batum for 3rd most minutes played per game.
The Blazers have scored far better with Matthews on the court than off it. Their defense has remained relatively the same either way (measured by points allowed per 100 possessions). Most metrics have Matthews playing better defense this year than he has at any point in his career but those numbers are easily influenced by team performance. It could be a case of a rising tide lifting all ships. Nevertheless, Matthews contributes to that tide.
Less tangibly, Matthews has been known as the "Iron Man" for his willingness to play through any adversity, including injury. He's been a motivator but also a pillar. Some players you worry about up and down nights. Matthews will have them statistically but you know you can depend on him to be at the right spot when you need him. You don't have to look twice.
If all that made your eyes glaze over, here's the summary: Yup. This is going to hurt.
Players the Blazers Will Throw Into the Gap
Arron Afflalo is the most obvious candidate to take Matthews' place in the starting lineup. He's started 413 NBA games, nearly 75% of his career total. Portland's February 22nd matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies marked the first time since 2009-10 that Afflalo came off the bench. He spent 6 years as a fulll-time starter before being traded here.
Trail Blazers Coach Terry Stotts likes to throw curveballs in these situations. Allen Crabbe hasn't played 500 minutes all year but got 7 starts the last time the Blazers had to deal with wing injuries. But even if somebody else gets the start in name to preserve Afflalo's scoring off the bench (or because he's only played 5 games with the team), you can bet Afflalo will absorb the lion's share of Matthews' court time.
Though he hasn't found his groove with the Blazers yet, Afflalo's per-minute scoring numbers compare pretty well with Matthews'. He gets those numbers differently, though. For most of the last two seasons, three-pointers have comprised about 37% of his total shot attempts (compared to 51-59% for Matthews). Afflalo is roughly twice as likely to shoot between 10 and 22 feet as Matthews is.
5 games in Portland have already curbed those tendencies, though. Almost 52% of his attempts in a Blazers uniform have come beyond the arc and he's hitting at a 44% clip from range. Early indications favor him stepping into Matthews' shoes without too jarring of a break in style, but we'll have to see if habits revert when he gets a steady diet of minutes and touches. We barely see Matthews dribble; we've already seen Afflalo over-dribbling.
Adapting to Portland's defense might be a greater challenge. Afflalo is no slouch defensively but Matthews was well-versed and versatile. Even if Afflalo has the physical skills, developing the trust and instinct to move where system and teammates demand won't be easy. Matthews barely had to think. Afflalo will be doing nothing but for a while.
Nevertheless, if you want a Matthews clone you'd have to search pretty far to come up with a better candidate than Arron Afflalo. The Blazers are fortunate to have him available in this situation, even if it's not the one they planned for him.
Nicolas Batum might not replace Matthews directly at shooting guard but he'll be called upon to shoulder some of Wes' former responsibility. (And hey...with Portland's veteran depth at forward, Batum may just find himself playing a few guard minutes proper.)
Batum and Matthews play different offensive games. Batum takes ball in hand more and prospers when he cuts to the hoop with or without the rock. Matthews is a catch-and-shoot player who prefers to go back-to-the-basket when called upon to initiate inside the arc. The triple is an integral part of both repertoires, though. If Afflalo's shot isn't ringing true, Batum has to become a more reliable outlet off the catch.
Batum also becomes the unquestioned defensive captain of the team, at least at the smaller positions. Neither he nor Matthews takes nights off, but with two pillars guarding the gate you'd see one or the other drift upon occasion, knowing the other side of the floor was taken care of. That kind of emotional wiggle room is gone. Nic will not only have to guard his area and take care of whichever opponent is scoring best, but he'll also need to hawk the ball a little more, trying to keep the ball from moving to weak spots and maybe picking up a any steals the Blazers might leave on the table with Matthews out.
In short, Batum won't have to change his game radically on either end but he'll need to crank it up and bring it every night.
See the above comments on Batum, only take away "defensive stalwart" and substitute in "volume scorer, three-point threat, and turnover-generator".
The Trail Blazers have plenty of options at shooting guard but they're all young or new to the team. Don't be entirely surprised if Coach Stotts reverts to a Blake-Lillard lineup during bench shifts in the short term. It's a bad defensive combo most nights but heady play and three-point shooting make up for that...somewhat If Stotts ends up promoting Afflalo off the bench he may decide that surety is better than firepower during the middle stretches of the game. Surety, thy name is Blake.
If Stotts decides to go young, most people will envision CJ McCollum sliding into the void left behind Matthews and Afflalo. If Coach values continuity, though, he might look at Crabbe. McCollum hits threes at a higher percentage than Crabbe (40.3% to 38.6%) but Crabbe shoots nothing but. A whopping 61% of his attempts come from distance. If the Blazers want someone to hit the outlet shot and stay out of the way otherwise, Crabbe may fit better than the more diverse (and offensive-minded) McCollum. Crabbe is also a better defender and his overall shooting percentages are higher. Stotts could tap Crabbe for limited starting or mid-quarter shifts without actually shifting gears around him.
If Stotts makes Afflalo the starter, he may need gears to shift when the bench comes in. Bench scoring has been a semi-chronic issue. Point production was one of the reasons Afflalo attracted Portland's attention. If the Blazers are just looking for baskets, McCollum may be the best choice off the bench.
The caveat with McCollum and Crabbe is clear: this isn't November. Th time for experimenting has passed. Lack of experience isn't welcome in a vicious playoff-seeding race where 1-2 games can change your bracket position and potentially your future. If either young player gets the chance, you can bet the leash will be short.
Yet another in Portland's litany of 3D players, this swingman throw-in to the Afflalo trade just got more interesting.
Gee is not a natural three-point shooter, attempting only 1/4 of his shots from distance for his career and far less than that this year. But over the last 2 seasons he's exceeded 40% on the few attempts he did take. Also Gee may be the most viable defensive replacement for Matthews outside of Afflalo (maybe including Afflalo).
Bulk offense is not Gee's thing, though. At his peak 2-3 years ago he scored 10 points per game. He's great for opportunity buckets but not much more.
If the Blazers want nice defense and maybe a couple steals out of their shooting guard, they might look for an infusion of Vitamin Gee. Odds are he'll at least get a look off the bench.
Don't be surprised if Dorell Wright gets a call, not at shooting guard but as part of a mixed defense-and-distance bench lineup. He knows the schemes and can serve as an outlet if Lillard, Afflalo, or McCollum go more ball-dominant. He'd make a good power forward option off of small-man drives or post-ups.
Ray Allen said he wasn't going to play this season, but... Or, you know, can Brandon Roy still play?
Why not? He's already played center and power forward. With his new three-point stroke, could shooting guard be far behind?
Reading down this list, a couple things become evident:
1. The Trail Blazers really, really like what Wesley Matthews does for them.
2. The Trail Blazers like it so much that they've acquired a bunch of guys who also do those things.
Even though nobody can replace the instant chemistry that Matthews brings and few can duplicate his suite of skills, the Blazers will have plenty of options to mix and match as they compensate for his absence. It's unlikely they'll find a 34-minute substitute to fill Matthews' footprint but they'll find 8 minutes of this, 6 minutes of that, and 20 minutes of the other.
The Blazers certainly won't run out of three-point shooters, though the vagaries of hot and cold shooters' nights may plague them. The bigger questions will be, "Who plays defense, especially in critical, late-game moments?" and, "Who's capable of scoring big when needed, particularly off the bench if Afflalo becomes a starter?"
Blazers fans have every right to be worried. They thought these questions were answered, or at least close. Now those questions are right back up in the air again with the final exam just around the corner. Unless the team rallies quickly around each other, it's a good bet that opposing coaches will be looking to exploit cracks in the lineup come playoff time. No amount of mixing and matching will erase them entirely...at least not over the course of four, 7-game series. Portland's deep-playoff dreams got dimmer last night.
Blazers fans have even more right to be sad. Matthews' loss feels less like losing a player and more like hearing that your all-time favorite band will be employing a substitute bass player when they come to your town. Even if the concert is great, it's not the same.
But Blazers fans can take solace in their new-found depth at shooting guard and small forward, thanking their lucky stars for the recent Afflalo-Gee acquisitions. Matthews may have blown his Achilles tendon but the blow did not strike Portland's Achilles Heel...at least not squarely. The Blazers have armor yet, plus a chance to fight with it.
Portland fans can also look around their conference and point to Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, and a barely-functional Tony Parker, saying, "This isn't a good thing, but at least we're not the only ones." In fact, the Blazers may not even be the worst off in that group.
This injury isn't really the end of the world. It just feels like it.
In the meantime, neither talent nor depth will tell the whole story of Portland's success. They rise or fall together. Interdependence increases the risk that a Matthews-substitute failing will take the entire ship down with him. It also offers the possibility that even modest success will provide enough surface area for a patch over the Wesley-shaped hole, a patch glued tight by increased effort from the other four starters and the veterans off the bench. We'll have to see which of those eventualities comes to pass.
Best guess: the patch will hold for quite a while but the team will run into a storm somewhere in the playoffs that it can't weather. But hey, that probably would have happened with Matthews healthy, just at a slightly later date.
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