The Portland Trail Blazers are this season's most pleasant surprise. They lead the NBA with 26 wins, a few notable ones coming against the Oklahoma City Thunder (twice), Los Angeles Clippers, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs, as of January 3rd.
No offense in the league has been better, and Wesley Matthews is one of the biggest reasons why.
Now 27 years old, Matthews has remodeled himself into an absolutely terrifying offensive weapon, shooting the ball as well as any player in the league. Only three guys have knocked in more than his 90 three-pointers, and only nine have been more accurate than his 44.3 percent.
Matthews has the third-highest true shooting percentage league-wide, is making an ungodly 49.7 of all his field goal attempts and, according to Basketball-Reference.com, leads the NBA with an offensive rating of 127.2.
Matthews has always been a solid role player—and above average for his position on defense—but this season, his fifth in the league, he's blossoming into something more. His opportunities have been the same (he is attempting the exact same number of shots per game from the floor and behind the arc as last season, and his usage percentage is actually 1.0 percent lower), but his skill set is more balanced.
The result has been career-high numbers across the board, including points (16.8 per game) and rebounds (4.3). His PER is comfortably above average for the first time in his career.
Take a look at Matthews' shot chart from last year.
Now compare it with his production so far this season.
Matthews is slightly redistributing more of his three-point attempts to the corner this season, with two percent fewer coming above the break than last year. But most of his improvement can be attributed to Portland head coach Terry Stotts, who uses several plays every game that are designed to get Matthews open.
It may sound obvious, but a good shooter who is by himself will make more threes than a good shooter who has a hand in his face. The following three screen shots show how one of Portland's favorite plays typically unfolds.
It begins with Matthews using a pindown screen set by LaMarcus Aldridge to catch a pass on the strong side wing.
Once he has the ball, Robin Lopez sets a similar pindown screen over on the weak side for Nicolas Batum, who curls up to receive a pass from Matthews.
As Batum catches the ball, Damian Lillard clears his man from the weak side by running along the baseline. Aldridge comes up to set a back screen for Matthews right as he hits the space Lillard previously occupied. Batum floats a pass over the top, and Portland has themselves a wide open three-pointer.
Here's the same play being used against the Charlotte Bobcats. It's actually read nicely by Gerald Henderson, but Matthews makes the shot anyway.
Looking back at Matthews' shot charts for a second, the above-average production he's providing in the restricted area and mid-range is particularly astounding. Matthews was below average in both areas last year, but he's made strides because he's improved with his back to the basket.
Matthews is posting up twice as often this season compared to last, according to mySynergySports. The decision has paid off for everyone involved: He’s the 11th most efficient post scorer in the league, averaging 1.05 points per possession and shooting 55.1 percent on 45 attempts.
(He had 51 attempts all of last year and shot 43.1 percent.)
Matthews is also running fewer pick-and-rolls this year, a good thing since doing so transforms him into a turnover machine. He’s always been an above-average defender across the board, and this season is no different. According to mySynergySports, Matthews has been the league’s best defender of handoffs this season, allowing 0.79 points per possession. He's tenacious on the ball and fantastic rotating back to his man from help position.
Whether he can keep his insanely high numbers up the rest of the year is tough to say. Before this season only one player in NBA history was as accurate behind the line while staying comparable to Matthews' crazy volume (6.2 attempted threes per game).
If he does keep this up, it'll go down as one of the best shooting seasons in league history, and he'd be perceived differently the rest of his career, especially by opposing defenses who are already petrified of leaving him alone on the perimeter.
Even if he cools off behind the three-point line, Matthews can stab the defense in other ways from different areas.
When you take Matthews' marksmanship and mix it with his improving post play, you get one of the most potent fourth options in the league.
Sprinkle in his stony defense, and he's more than a contender for Most Improved Player.
Thanks to one of the most impressive and surprising individual advancements any player has made this season, Matthews is now an integral ingredient on a legitimate championship contender.
Michael Pina has bylines at Bleacher Report, Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Sports On Earth and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.