Pressure Is Back on Portland Trail Blazers Bench After Wesley Matthews' Injury

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 6, 2015

USA Today

The questions surrounding the Portland Trail Blazers' depth are back and carrying a more ominous tone than ever in the wake of Wesley Matthews' season-ending injury.

The recently acquired Arron Afflalo gives Portland a relatively similar option to plug into coach Terry Stotts' starting five. But that promotion will bring back the same second-team issues that pushed Portland to part with a future first-round pick so Afflalo could fill the club's vacant sixth-man role.

Move up Afflalo, and that moves up inconsistent contributors like C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Dorell Wright and Alonzo Gee behind him. Considering none of those four reserves has a career player efficiency rating at the league average 15.0—Wright's is 14.4, the others are all below 11.5—calling upon any of them carries significant risk.

But these are gambles the Blazers have to take with Matthews lost for the year to a ruptured Achilles tendon, as the team announced Thursday. There's enough talent on the roster for Portland to avoid a complete collapse, but losing a franchise fixture like this is a brutal blow.

Losing a Leader

The Blazers have other options on the perimeter, but what they don't have is another Wesley Matthews.

"It definitely doesn’t hurt to have those guys but you can’t replace who he is and what he’s meant to this organization," LaMarcus Aldridge said, per ForwardCenter.net's Casey Holdahl. "With those guys, they’re going to help us, but they can’t be him."

That's not a knock on the team's reserve ranks, but rather an appreciation of Matthews' impact on and off the floor.

Inside the lines, he's a prolific perimeter marksman (career 39.3 three-point percentage, 2.9 treys per game this season) and tough-as-nails defender. He handles some of the NBA's toughest defensive assignments on a nightly basis and holds them 3.9 field-goal percentage points below their season average.

And that toughness extends well beyond the confines of the court. He suffered an excruciating injury Thursday night and still took time after Portland's 94-75 win over the Dallas Mavericks to discuss what had transpired.

"It's disbelief, you know?" he told reporters. "I'm sitting up there in that tube having an MRI, and I don't hear noise, I don't feel my Achilles, I'm just ... . I can't believe I'm up there while my team's battling."

That quote cuts right to his core.

Think about the physical pain he's enduring while he says this; the emotional war his mind is waging with a body that failed him on a season-ending noncontact injury—just months before he'll hit unrestricted free agency.

And yet, his biggest concern has nothing to do with himself. He's simply disappointed that he can't be there for his teammates.

As Aldridge reiterated after the game, that's the type of player Portland lost, per Joe Freeman of The Oregonian:

Joe Freeman @BlazerFreeman

Aldridge on Matthews: "He’s the heart and soul of this team. ...You can’t replace who he is and what he’s meant to this organization ..."

"Wes plays harder than anybody on our team," Damian Lillard said, per Anne M. Peterson of The Associated Press. "It's hard for our team to think about not having out there because of everything he brings to this team and the person that he is."

As far as the starters are concerned, the hardest hurdle to clear will be handling the loss of Matthews' leadership. In terms of production, Afflalo has what he needs to fill Matthews' shoes.

Similar Skill Sets

Matthews is a relentless defender and a knockdown shooter from distance. When Afflalo is at his best, his scouting report reads almost identical.

"Afflalo fits seamlessly in to replace Matthews for Portland," wrote CBS Sports' Matt Moore. "He can function as a spot-up shooter. ... He's also a lanky and active defender when engaged."

Those last two words are critical in assessing Afflalo. Spending the majority of this season with the dysfunctional Denver Nuggets really plagued his production.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

In 2013-14, he averaged 18.2 points on 45.9 percent shooting and buried 42.7 percent of his three-point attempts for the Orlando Magic. His 16.0 PER and 57.4 true shooting percentage from that season are almost identical to Matthews' marks this year.

But Afflalo's stats have tailed off considerably from where they were. He's scoring over four fewer points per game and shooting significantly worse from the field and perimeter. His 11.4 PER is below his career average (12.8) and less than 72 percent of what it was just last season.

Landing in Portland should help clean up those numbers, as the structure and offensive firepower are both much improved over what he had in Denver. Getting back into the starting lineup, where he's opened 413 of his 558 career games, should get him more comfortable, too.

"I’m probably more ready for that (starting) than I was to come off the bench," he said, per Stephen Alexander of the Portland Tribune. "[Starting] is something I’ve been accustomed to doing for years. ... It’s not going to be an adjustment for me to get back to that role."

The sooner Afflalo can get himself up to speed, the quicker he'll close the gap between his numbers and Matthews'. And that's critical because of the canyon that sits between these two players and the four who could be pressed into expanded roles along the wings.

Question Marks Behind Afflalo

The second team doesn't lack potential, but all of it is shrouded by uncertainty. The Blazers will be turning either to players still coming into their own or those whose best days are behind them.

The hope is that McCollum, the 10th overall pick in 2013, will pounce on this opportunity to reclaim a prominent role. He's mostly disappeared from the rotation since Afflalo joined the team, but McCollum had produced when given the call earlier this season. In the seven games he played at least 20 minutes, he posted 12.9 points on .517/.500 shooting, 2.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 22.3 minutes.

If the defensive matchups will allow it, the Blazers will likely try to lean on McCollum and Steve Blake as much as possible. Both can be quantity-plus-quality shooters from distance, and each is capable of creating scores for himself and his teammates.

Crabbe, Wright and Gee have more size, but none of the three has carved out a permanent place in Stotts' rotation.

Crabbe has only played in eight of the team's last 24 games and hasn't logged double-digit minutes since early January. Wright has made 34 appearances on the season and only seen 10.9 minutes a night. Gee has played 17 minutes total since arriving with Afflalo at the deadline.

These aren't the most trustworthy options, and Stotts knows that all too well.

The Blazers bench has been one of the NBA's least productive, ranking 29th in scoring this season and 30th last year, per HoopsStats.com. But those numbers aren't at all surprising given how little floor time this group sees. Portland's reserves played a league-low 13.7 minutes per game last season and are getting only 15.8 this year (tied for 28th).

The opportunity isn't there for the Blazers' second-teamers to break out on the box score. But Stotts has his reasons for keeping these players on a short leash. They aren't showing whatever it is he needs to see from them.

But with no Matthews and a slumping Nicolas Batum (career-worst 12.6 PER), Stotts has no choice but to put some faith in players he's overlooked in the past. And these former part-timers have to pick up the slack quickly for Portland to avoid any slippage in the overcrowded Western Conference.

Feb 8, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum (3) controls the ball during the third quarter as Houston Rockets guard Corey Brewer (33) defends at Toyota Center. The Trail Blazers defeated the Rockets 109-98. Mandatory Credit:

The Blazers still have the chance to do something special this season. Only three teams have a higher winning percentage than Portland's .683, and only four have a better net efficiency rating than its plus-5.2.

But the bench has to better support what should still be one of the league's better starting fives, and Stotts has to give these reserves the chance to do so.

It's the same challenge Portland faced before Afflalo's arrival, only the pressure is even greater now that this team has lost its invaluable emotional leader.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.