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Wesley Matthews: Can He Return To Form?

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Wesley Matthews was a key piece for the Trail Blazers this season before a disastrous injury sidelined him. What did we learn about Wes this season, and what does the future hold?

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Over and over and over again during the weeks immediately following the season-ending injury to Wesley Matthews, you heard it repeated by local Portland pundits and national media figures alike - Matthews had been the "heart and soul" of the Blazers. It was an odd thing to hear because, let's be honest, those words had rarely been attached to Matthews in the time previous to the torn Achilles he suffered in that fateful Mavericks game on March 5. Suddenly, post-injury, you heard it every day.

On one hand, good. Matthews deserved every bit of praise he received and then some. He was a great player for the Blazers on both ends of the floor this season, and a likable guy off the court as well. If there's anyone you're going to praise effusively, it should be Wes.

On the other hand, was all the eulogizing a bit over-dramatic?

This question wouldn't be answered overnight. But since we had a good six weeks to watch the Blazers post-Matthews injury, plus one short playoff series, we can now conclusively say that the impact of his loss was big. "Heart and soul" might not have been such a stretch after all.

What went right this year?

Pre-injury? Well, just about everything. For starters, Matthews was the same old incredibly consistent 3-point shooter that he's always been - in six NBA seasons, he's shot between 38 and 41 percent from distance every single year, and 2014-15 was no different, at 38.9 percent. Only this year, he continued that clip at a higher volume, putting up 7.4 3-point attempts per game and making 2.9 of them, both easily career highs.

Matthews also expanded his game offensively to include other things. He became a more adept mid-range shooter than he'd been previously, and he also developed a really nice knack for taking smaller defenders inside and posting them up in isolation situations.

And then there was the defense. This was something you heard repeated a lot post-injury - that Matthews was the team's best defensive player, that the Blazers just couldn't guard the perimeter the same way without him. This was no BS. Matthews was stellar defensively this season, and the stats proved it beyond a reasonable doubt - opposing offenses averaged 106.0 points per 100 possessions when Matthews was off the floor, versus only 102.0 when he was on.

As wing players went, there was pretty much no one he couldn't guard. He had the size and strength to match up well with bigger guys, and he was quick and feisty enough to check smaller players equally well. Check out this clip of Matthews guarding Kyrie Irving in a game against Cleveland earlier this season. Note his ability to ferociously rip through a Kevin Love screen like the man's not even there:

He would tail guys relentlessly, he would get physical and muscle up against them, and he contested every shot like a beast. You couldn't ask for anything more. Matthews was great.

What went wrong?

Well, this one's obvious.

All the great things Matthews achieved this season were erased in an instant when Matthews went down with that Achilles injury. It was just an awful fluke of an injury, too. If you listened to his public comments he made soon after the incident (see below), you'll note that Wes said it happened on a cut he's "made hundreds of thousands of times" in his life; just one misstep and his whole career was irrevocably altered. It's terrible. Not much else you can say.

What makes it worse is how Matthews' injury affected the team. Before the starting two-guard went down with six weeks remaining in the season, the mood in Rip City was one of excitement, one of optimism; this was a team that was clicking at just the right time to gear up for a long playoff run. Post-injury, though, that mindset was gone. In its place there was just ... despair.

Before the injury, the Blazers started their season 41-19. After it, they finished 10-12. They went from "fringe championship hopeful" to "obvious first-round whipping boy" in the blink of an eye. What went wrong? Yeah, that. That went wrong. Enough said.

What can he work on?

In short, just getting his career back on track.

This begins with getting himself back into game shape physically. After an Achilles tear, this is a daunting challenge - better players than Matthews have tried to battle their way back from the same injury and failed. Isiah Thomas ended his career. Kobe Bryant technically isn't done yet, but his 2013 Achilles injury was most definitely the turning point as he began a sharp, sharp decline.

Matthews is probably in better position for a recovery than either of those guys. For starters, he's younger. He's 28 years old, turning 29 in October. He's been remarkably durable physically his entire career (three 82-game seasons under his belt already, plus the full 66 in the lockout year). He's the kind of guy you'd bet on to beat an injury like this. In that postgame interview above, he was asked about his timetable and deadpanned: "What's the recovery time for this, like eight months? I'll try to make it in five."

He was kidding, but he wasn't. It wouldn't shock me at all if Matthews tried to make it back for opening night in 2015. He's a competitive player who demands a lot of himself physically.

Except here's the thing. Even if Wes is ready to play this fall, there's no guarantee he'll be doing it in Portland. He enters this summer as an unrestricted free agent. (Quick refresher course on his background: Matthews broke in with the Jazz in 2009 as an undrafted free agent, so he got just one year on his rookie deal. He hit the restricted market in 2010 and got five years and $27ish million from the Blazers. He's been here since.)

Pre-injury, we were anticipating that this summer would be Matthews' big chance to cash in for the prime of his career. Get a big contract - max years, with a price tag of $10 million or maybe more. Then two things happened. One was the injury, and the other was the announcement of the NBA's new TV contract and the massive pay raises to come with it.

How does Matthews play it from here? Does he try to get a long-term contract anyway, hoping that the Blazers (or someone else) are willing to make a risky investment in an injured player? Or (and I'd argue this scenario is more likely, but I could be wrong) does he re-up for one season, showcase his talents in 2015-16, then aim to hit the open market in 2016 as a 29-year-old healthy star with real earning potential?

We'll have to wait and see. The Matthews situation is just one of many reasons we're headed for a fascinating summer in Portland.

Closing thoughts:

Personally, I'll be the first to admit - I didn't totally get Wes Matthews before this season. He struck me as a middling NBA starting shooting guard, not much more. I liked him as a player, didn't love him. Over the course of that season, my perception changed dramatically.

Matthews proved himself to be an adept two-way wing player, an emotional team leader and an underratedly crucial piece on a title contender. That's a lot for a guy who wasn't drafted and has never even sniffed an All-Star conversation. To say I walked away from this season with newfound respect for Matthews would be an understatement. I love the guy, and I can't wait to see him bounce back next season. If you're reading this site, I imagine you feel just the same way.