First things first: There is no replacing Wesley Matthews.
His fire and competitive spirit are both crucial to the Portland Trail Blazers, inspiring his teammates to play harder and the fans to cheer louder. Whether he’s diving on the floor after a loose ball, checking his man up close or swishing through a long-range shot, Matthews will be sorely missed after a ruptured Achilles tendon ended his season per a tweet from Portland's PR team.
But the Blazers will be forced to press on, and they can still compete despite losing an integral part. It may not be at the precedent set for most of the past year, but it can still be at a high level for a few reasons.
Rigid Offensive Game Plan
While Matthews contributes a sizeable 15.9 points and 2.9 three-point field goals per game, Portland has a relatively concrete approach in terms of scoring that can make up for his absence.
The ball is often forced inside to LaMarcus Aldridge, who can go at his defender with single coverage or kick it out for an open three if he’s double-teamed. The main approach, however, is frequent screens on the perimeter, finding a rolling Robin Lopez or Aldridge, a driving lane for Damian Lillard or Nicolas Batum, or a good look from beyond the arc.
While Matthews is extremely proficient as a spot-up shooter, with 271 possessions and ranking in the 87.9th percentile per NBA.com, some of that is a byproduct of the Blazers’ offense.
That isn’t to take anything away from his ability or hard work to improve as a shooter, but Portland ranks No. 2 in catch-and-shoot points at 30.5 per contest and No. 5 in made catch-and-shoot three-point field goals at 7.2 per game courtesy of NBA.com.
He has a lot to do with those numbers, but the biggest takeaway is that Matthews exists within the game plan. A total of 66.8 percent of his scoring, per NBA.com, comes off assists from his teammates, meaning that the offense can run similarly.
Installing a spot-up shooter in the backcourt can have the same floor spacing. It may not yield the same results or a matching level of efficiency, but the Blazers at least ease into a comfortable approach without Matthews.
A lot of what Portland does defensively revolves around the three-point line. The team ranks No. 2 in opponent three-point field-goal percentage and is tied for No. 1 for opponent three-point field goals made at just 6.1 per game.
The Blazers excel from beyond the arc offensively and look to take that away from the opposing team defensively. Makes sense.
With the plethora of backcourt players that know the system, replacing Matthews should be possible, given that Portland put up a defensive rating of 99.4 with him on the court compared to 99.2 with him on the bench, per NBA.com.
That isn’t the true issue though, as it will be Matthews’ on-ball defense that’ll be missed the most.
He has held opponents to just 40.5 percent shooting this season, and they've managed to convert only 32.8 of their three-point attempts with Matthews hounding them, resulting in a -3.8 field-goal percentage differential than their average conversion rate, per NBA.com.
Other players on the Blazers’ roster have similar numbers, such as Arron Afflalo’s 43.8 percent rating or Batum’s 44.7 percent mark, but it’s Matthews’ mere presence that makes this replacement the most difficult.
He’s feisty to say the least, and having a player that’ll get in an opponent’s face every time they have the ball or hustle to keep possessions alive isn’t easily replicated.
But from a pure numbers standpoint, Portland can rest a little easier knowing it’s possible the defense can remain strong with Matthews sidelined.
The Blazers’ decisions around the trade deadline were wonderfully timed to say the least.
With the arrival of Afflalo and swingman Alonzo Gee, it provided Portland with two additional experienced wing players to support the bench. The former will undoubtedly act as the starting shooting guard with Matthews out, given his almost synonymous skills and play style.
Both are accurate and confident shooters, can take the ball in the post and play engaged defense.
Per NBA.com, Matthews has converted 37.8 percent of his jumpers compared to Afflalo’s 37.4 percent clip. The former is a more accurate three-point shooter on the season (38.9 percent over 34.5 percent), but the latter has knocked down 41.7 percent of his threes since arriving in Portland.
It’s clear that being in a different team culture has been good for Afflalo, despite only playing seven games thus far. He’ll have to get accustomed to things much quicker now, but it’s encouraging to see this level of play so early.
The offensive preferences of these two guards are very similar, which makes preparing sets for Afflalo that much easier. He can be used in the same plays as Matthews, though maybe not to the same productivity.
Below are the respective shooting percentages of each guard in certain spots, per NBA.com:
Afflalo is much more prolific in the mid-range area, having knocked down 109 field goals compared to Matthews’ 51. It will give the Blazers a new element offensively, in that it’s usually Lillard or Batum driving to the middle and kicking it outside for open shots.
Afflalo will almost exclusively work in the same capacity as Matthews, but a simple pump fake and dribble to the mid-range should result in either a field goal or an open three-point attempt for another teammate as the defense works to recover.
In the End?
It won’t be easy, and it certainly won’t be the same, but Portland can remain competitive with Afflalo in the lineup. The Blazers’ 121-113 loss at the hands of the Minnesota Timberwolves on March 7 was their first game without Matthews, and his absence was clear.
He alone couldn’t have prohibited the 70-point second half his team gave up, but Wolves guards Kevin Martin and Gary Neal combining to shoot 19-of-32 wasn’t usual on Matthews’ watch.
It’ll take time for Portland to adjust to Afflalo’s tendencies on both ends, as well as for a new backcourt rotation to sink in. It’ll mean more PT for McCollum, Gee and Dorell Wright to come in and contribute, but there’s very little room for error.
God speed Wes.