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NBA Saturday: Moving Forward Without Wes Matthews

Can the Portland Trail Blazers keep up the pace in the West after losing Wesley Matthews for the season?

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On Thursday night, shooting guard Wesley Matthews made a routine cut toward the basket when he suddenly crumpled to the ground. We’ve seen this sort of non-contact injury a few times in recent seasons, with players like Chauncey Billups, Kobe Bryant and Brandon Jennings all falling to the floor in a similar way. Before the night was over, it was reported that Matthews, just like the aforementioned players, suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon, which will require surgery and keep him sidelined for at least six months.

The loss of Matthews is a devastating blow for the 41-19 Portland Trail Blazers, who currently hold the third seed in the Western Conference. Matthews, who entered the NBA in 2009 as an undrafted rookie, has established himself as one of the best overall shooting guards in the league. He isn’t known for putting up monster individual performances like James Harden, but he is great at what he does, which is playing tough perimeter defense and knocking down three-pointers.

This season, Matthews averaged 15.9 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 38.8 percent from beyond-the-arc. These are solid numbers, but they don’t really illustrate just how big of an impact Matthews had each night for Portland. On the season, the Trail Blazers score 104.5 points per 100 possessions, while holding opponents to 99.3 points, which is good for a 5.2 net rating. But when Matthew is on the court, the Trail Blazers score 105.9 points per 100 possessions, while holding opponents to 99.4 points, which is a good for a 6.5 net rating, according to NBA.com. The Trail Blazers are better on both ends of the court with Matthews (unsurprisingly), especially on offense.

On the offensive end, Matthews is a lethal three-point shooter, which is very important for the Trail Blazers, whose overall offense is comprised of 32.2 percent three-point attempts (which is the third highest rate in the league). Matthews is currently second in the league in three-pointers taken (446) and fourth overall in three-pointers made this season (173), behind only Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kyle Korver. In addition, Matthews is second in the league in three-pointers made off of catch and shoot opportunities (2.3), trailing only Kyle Korver in that category, according to NBA.com. For a Trail Blazers team that relies so heavily on three-pointers, the loss of Matthews is huge.

Fortunately for the Trail Blazers, general manager Neil Olshey traded for shooting guard Arron Afflalo right before last month’s trade deadline. Afflalo, who has earned a reputation for being one of the best two-way shooting guards in the league, was acquired from the Denver Nuggets to add some punch to Portland’s second unit, which has struggled throughout the season. Now, Afflalo will likely step into Matthews’ starting role and will be tasked with spacing the floor and defending opposing wings the way Matthews was able to. Afflalo is certainly capable of doing those things, but the main concerns are whether he can maintain the level of play Matthews was playing at and how much losing Afflalo to the starting unit will hurt the bench (which was ranked 28th in the NBA prior to the Afflalo trade).

Through 59 games played (with the Nuggets and Trail Blazers combined), Afflalo is averaging 13.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 0.6 steals while shooting 34 percent from the three-point line. Afflalo averages 1.4 three-pointers per game on catch and shooting opportunities at a 36.2 percent clip, whereas Matthews averaged 2.3 at a 39.4 percent rate. As we can see, Afflalo isn’t putting up quite the same numbers as Matthews, but he is a more than capable replacement. Afflalo is a well-respected shooter who can also punish smaller wing-players in the post, similar to Matthews.

However, Afflalo is shooting below his 38.8 percent career average from beyond-the-arc and takes far fewer three-pointers per game than Matthews (4.4 compared to 7.4). Afflalo may not shoot the ball as well as Matthews, but his shooting efficiency certainly stands to improve in Portland, which has been a much better offensive team this season than the Nuggets. In Matthews’ role, Afflalo should see his fair share of open three-pointers.

What is unclear at this point is to what extent Afflalo will adopt Matthews’ role, or instead continue to play his usual game. Both players are good shooters, but their shooting habits have been very different this season. Here are both players’ shooting charts to compare how they have shot the ball this season.

 Wesley Matthews 2014-15 Shooting Chart

Wesley Matthews’ 2014-15 Shooting Chart

Arron Afflalo 2014-15 Shooting ChartArron Afflalo’s 2014-15 Shooting Chart
Courtesy of statmuse.com/nba

As we can see from these charts, Afflalo has taken a lot more field goals from midrange than Matthews has and he has been less accurate from distance. The Trail Blazers as a team try to take as many shots at the rim and from the three-point line as possible (similar to the Houston Rockets), so Afflalo will need to adjust his shooting habits in order to maintain continuity in Portland’s offense.

Afflalo is a capable wing-defender as well, but he is not quite as stingy as Matthews. According to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus metric (RPM), Matthews ranks 15th among shooting guards in defensive RPM (0.83), whereas Afflalo ranks 46th (-0.54). Like all advanced metrics, RPM does not perfectly represent how effective a player has been on either end of the court, but it does have value and offers insight. Nevertheless, Afflalo is a capable wing-defender and is just about as good of a fill in for Matthews as a team could hope for in this situation. The Trail Blazers have the third best defensive rating in the NBA this season and that doesn’t figure to change drastically with Afflalo standing in for Matthews.

But with Afflalo likely taking over as the starter, the remaining issue is Portland’s second unit. Afflalo has only played in six games with the Trail Blazers, but his value was supposed to come as a two-way player off the bench. Now, players like Dorell Wright, C.J. McCollum, Alonzo Gee and Allen Crabbe will have to step in and take on a bigger role.

McCollum, selected 10th overall in the 2013 NBA Draft, is probably Portland’s most talented reserve. However, this is just McCollum’s second season in the league, he has a career average of just 12.4 minutes per game and he has only shown flashes of the solid player he may one day be. With a bigger role, McCollum could rise to the occasion, but it’s not certain that will happen.

Wright, 29, is a good three-point shooter and has more experience than McCollum. Wright’s best season was in 2010-11 with the Golden State Warriors, when he averaged 16.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, three assists and 1.5 steals per game, while shooting 37.6 percent from distance. For whatever reason, Wright is averaging just 10.9 minutes this season. But Wright has shown in the past that he is a capable wing, and he could end up being a pleasant surprise with a bigger role moving forward (though that remains to be seen).

It is unfortunate that Matthews’ season came to such an abrupt and disappointing end on Thursday (especially considering this is a contract year for him). Matthews is one of the toughest players in the league and has worked hard to get to this point in his career. There is no sugarcoating the fact that losing him for the season seriously jeopardizes Portland’s chances of making a deep postseason run. The upside is that the Trail Blazers are better situated than most teams to handle this loss. With a top-three defense, All-Star players in Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge and a solid two-way wing in Afflalo to fill in for Matthews, the Trail Blazers are still most likely in the championship conversation in the West. But there is no doubt that their chances were better before Matthews crumpled to the ground Thursday night.

Trail Blazers Reach Out to Ray Allen

A majority of NBA teams reached out to Ray Allen this season to see if he would be willing to make one more run at a championship. On Wednesday, Allen’s representatives announced that the 10-time All-Star would sit this season out while leaving the door open for a return next season.

However, with the season ending injury to Wesley Matthews, the Trail Blazers reached out to Allen’s representatives to see if he would reconsider his decision, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports. Allen rebuffed Portland and remains intent on sitting this season out, according to Wojnarowksi.

Allen could have potentially plugged into Matthews’ starting role and allowed Arron Afflalo to play with the second unit, which is in need of all the help it can get. Allen is the NBA’s all-time leader in three-point shooting with 2,973 made three-pointers. In addition, last season Allen made 1.5 three-pointers per game in catch and shoot opportunities at a 39.9 percent rate. Allen’s per game numbers have been declining each season since 2010-11, but he is still a dangerous shooter and has experience hitting clutch shots in the postseason, which is a valuable addition to any contending team.

Despite the opportunity to step into a role tailor-made for Allen in Portland, it appears as though he will stay on the sideline this season.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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