Most of our recent Mailbag questions have to do with Wesley Matthews in one way or another. That's understandable, so let's tackle a few!
What do we [the Blazers] need most to make up for Matthews being out? Is it even possible? Do you see anybody doing it?
Short answer: nobody will make up for Matthews' absence completely. You don't replace a guy who's been playing 5 years straight for your team, who's in a contract year, and who was performing as well as he ever has.
Last week I likened the situation to getting a replacement bass player in a band. That's true not only from the fans' perspective but from the players'. They're professionals. They're going to do fine. You might not see that big of a difference in the end product most nights. But no matter how good the new guy is, it's going to take time to find the groove. He'll hit the notes, but the seamless, unconscious trust and rhythm that typify great bands and great basketball teams doesn't develop overnight.
As for what the Blazers need most as they look to compensate, since Matthews makes his living as a 3D guy I'm guessing three-point shooting and defense.
Three-point shooting doesn't appear to be a problem. Arron Afflalo has been stellar in the early going, shooting 41.7% from distance as a Trail Blazer. That's higher than Matthews' 38.8% rate, though obviously Afflalo's sample size is far smaller (about 5% of Matthews'). But we said before the trade went down that Afflalo's three-point stroke would probably resurrect in Portland's triple-friendly system and so far it has.
Defense is another matter. The problem here isn't just Afflalo. He's not a world-beating defender but he can cover well enough. But defense takes synergy, confidence, communication, and the ability to read the floor and your teammates. The end result of 4 out of 5 players defending correctly will look similar to the result of no players defending correctly. It might take an opponent a little longer to find the open avenue, but they'll find it.
Thinking is the enemy of good defense. It gives rise to hesitation, which kills not only individual defense but trust and confidence in the system. Given his tenure with the team, Matthews could bypass thinking. Acting appropriately against his man and in concert with his teammates was nearly instinctual.
7 games into his Portland career, Afflalo is going to be thinking all the time. His teammates are going to be thinking about his thinking. That half-tick of hesitation gets contagious, chain reacting through the defense like brake lights on the freeway. Portland's execution won't be as sound without Matthews. It's not fair to expect it would no matter how sound the individual defenders are.
The gruesome Minnesota Timberwolves loss aside, we might not see a dramatic immediate effect from this. But critical games and critical series often boil down to extended defensive stands. It's black and white: Are you doing or are you processing what you should do? Are you enforcing your will or are you hoping it turns out OK for you? Can you see 2 steps ahead or are you trying to figure out what just happened? The Blazers have a little less capability to do and a little more need for processing now. They have to slow down and turn off the high beams to negotiate the fog. That's going to put them in situations where they're hoping more than enforcing.
Ideally Afflalo can assimilate and the difference will end up sliver-thin. But sliver-thin also describes some of the predicted margins in the upcoming Western Conference playoff matchups.
"Sliver-thin" assumes that events progress favorably. If Afflalo can't assimilate, the Blazers may be in for a bumpy ride.
Greetings Dave. Stuartt (yes 3 T's) here. Wondering your thoughts on Afflalo in the starting lineup. Our normal starting 5 including Matthews is among the very best in the league but it leaves us without the go-to scorer off the bench. Do you think this gives Stotts an opportunity to start maybe a better defender and maximize Afflalo's abilities in the second unit? I know he's used to being a starter but wouldn't his minutes be better utilized as a 6th man?
Afflalo is the obvious choice. He's a starter in this league; his bench position in Portland is an anomaly. He has the requisite skill set.
If your scenario turns out true--if Afflalo doesn't fit or if the Blazers need his punch off the bench--I seriously suspect Allen Crabbe might be the next name called. You never would have caught me saying that before Coach Stotts started him during Nicolas Batum's injury run, but here we are.
The arguments for Crabbe are three:
1. He's familiar with the system. He hasn't played a ton but 2 years with a team will teach you something about how they operate. He knows to take his shots and stay out of the way otherwise on offense. He knows where to go on defense.
2. He's the best defender among the incumbent shooting guards (including Steve Blake if he plays alongside Lillard) and his three-point percentage is acceptable.
3. Every other non-Afflalo candidate carries more flaws than Crabbe. CJ McCollum is a better all-around scorer but he hasn't got the defense and his best offense requires ball in hand. Alonzo Gee is a better defender but you don't trust his scoring. (He'd be the next choice, though, perhaps platooning with Crabbe, trying to eat up minutes until Afflalo got the call.) Steve Blake is good in short minutes but inserting him in the starting lineup would be an offensive and defensive nightmare over the long haul. Swinging down Nicolas Batum opens up space at small forward, creating the same problem at another position. Maybe a Batum-Dorell Wright combo would be more viable than Crabbe and Batum, but moving Batum out of his comfort zone when you've already lost Matthews doesn't seem wise.
Even if he did start, I don't think you'd see Crabbe playing 30 minutes per game. He'd be a tool to stagger Afflalo's minutes off-center with the rest of the starters, freeing room for his offense and bringing that mid-quarter punch. Afflalo would still get the lion's share of playing time, including critical, game-closing stretches. It's not like Crabbe would become a starter. He'd be a starter in this situation.
Oddly enough, Crabbe's strengths become weaknesses when playing behind Afflalo with the second unit. The bench needs the scoring that McCollum can provide, the play-making of Blake, or the all-around potential of Batum more than it needs a corner-standing Crabbe. If defense is the main criteria, you'd bring in Gee before A.C. This puts Crabbe in a weird position where he's probably the best option outside of Afflalo to start at shooting guard but the worst option to play the position in reserve.
All of that said, my money's on Afflalo staying in the starting lineup for a while. He'd probably view heading back to the bench as a demotion. Also Crabbe being the best option after Afflalo doesn't make Crabbe a money option.
Just when it looks like the starters and bench are going to get balanced out finally, Wes goes down. How do you keep the balance going? Will this team ever have a strong bench?
Yeah, it's frustrating. But even with Afflalo in the fold, the basic character of the team wouldn't have changed. No matter where Afflalo plays, the starters are the "Mah-nah Mah-nah" guys. The bench is strictly, "Do-doo do-doo-doo".
The best way to think about the Afflalo trade right now is how fortunate the Blazers are to have a player they can insert in the starting lineup. No, you don't get to see the full-strength roster. Like the dude in the video, Afflalo will occasionally head off on a weird scat run which will leave his teammates shaking their heads. But without him you're left sticking a pink cow in a main role. That's not going to turn out well.
Think of it this way. We're not entirely sure how good Afflalo would have been off the bench. Maybe he wouldn't take to the role or maybe he'd need time to adjust. Now he gets to acclimate to the team and the system in a way that's more natural to him. He'll also get tons of minutes. When Matthews does come back and the roster is at full strength next year, you'll have a fully-armed and operational Afflalo to judge by. This could be the best thing for his Portland career and for the eventual balance of the team.
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