As the NBA postseason is quickly approaching, it is an important time to take stock in who should be considered legitimate contenders to emerge from each conference. In the East, it’s relatively simple. Unless Derrick Rose can shake off years worth of rust and/or discover time travel, it’s looking like a mortal lock that either Atlanta or Cleveland will make a trip to the finals.
In the Western Conference, there are several teams who I can talk myself into winning the first three rounds. Obviously the Warriors, wrapping up one of the greatest NBA regular seasons of all time, are the favorite going in. San Antonio is peaking (or as future generations will call it, Popping) at the right time. Memphis, struggling of late, still presents a matchup nightmare to all possible opponents. The Clippers boast the league’s best offensive efficiency. The Rockets, while plagued by injuries, shouldn’t be too devastated despite losing their starting point guard and emerging big man Donatas Motiejunas; they still have James Harden.
The one team currently with a top-six record in the West that I do not consider a true contender is the Portland Trail Blazers. After an incredible start to the season, Portland is just 15-11 since the All-Star break 10-9 since Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles on March 5th. While the wheels have not completely fallen off for the Trail Blazers, the loss of Matthews has seen their surprisingly excellent defense crumble.
The Trail Blazers currently score 105.9 points per 100 possessions and give up 101.1, per NBA.com. Those rates are good for 8th and 10th, respectively, in the NBA. Teams that can hover around the top-10 in each categories are typically thought of as powerhouse contenders in the postseason. But Portland’s defensive rating is not as good as it seems.
Through 60 games, the Blazers were surrendering only 99.3 points per 100 possessions, the third stingiest unit in the league. Only the Warriors and the long armed monsters in Milwaukee were allowing fewer points per possession. But with Wes Matthews on the shelf, the defense has fallen apart. In the 19 games since March fifth, Portland has allowed 106.8 points per 100 possessions, a defensive rating that would have them sandwiched between Sacramento and the Knicks for fourth worst in the league.
Is it possible that the absence of one man can have this large of an impact on a squad that was playing such great team defense? It’s not as though the Blazers, armed with two All-Stars in Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, don’t have the talent to keep the ship afloat. Taking a look at the numbers, it appears that Matthews, while perhaps overshadowed in the national spotlight by Aldridge and Lilliard, played as big if not a bigger part in the Trail Blazers success.
Looking at Matthews’ on/off splits in games he’s played doesn’t give you the full story of his impact on defense.. When he’s on the court, Portland’s defense gives up 99.4 points per 100 possessions, the lowest rating for any Blazer who has logged 1000 minutes this season. But in the 60 games Wes has played in, Portland’s defense has actually played a tad bit better, allowing just 99.2 points per 100 possessions. So why has the defense suddenly taken a Wile E. Coyote run off a cliff?
Last week, Zach Lowe highlighted a lone bright spot to have come out of this situation. In his article, he discussed the possibility that Portland’s poor defense could potentially be a run of bad luck. Portland is still running its conservative scheme and forcing opponents into the same shots it was before Matthews’ injury. Lately, they’ve just been going in. But I think that line of thinking minimizes Matthews’ huge impact on the team.
Since joining Portland in 2010, Matthews has played in every game three of the last four years. The only time Portland had played without him was after he sprained his ankle during the disastrous 2013 season. He’s been the definition of consistency, averaging between 33.8 and 34.8 minutes in every season with the team. His scoring has stayed as steady as his minutes, the only notable trend in his offense being an increase in his three point attempts. On the other side of the ball, his defensive win shares have climbed from 1.0 in 2013 to 2.3 this season, according to Basketball Reference.
Damian Lillard has been a sensational offensive player since he came into the NBA, but his defense is terrible. Some of Dame’s poor defense is covered up by the fact he plays so frequently next to Matthews. Lillard averages just under 36 minutes a game, 26 of which typically come with Matthews also on the court. Matthews, a versatile defender who is not limited to only checking wing players, has the ability to handle opposing point guards on nights the Blazers opponent doesn’t boast a strong shooting guard. With Matthews on the mend, teams have been abusing Lillard on defense. According to RotoGrinders, in the last three weeks Portland’s point guards have surrendered the second most points per game in the league, trailing only the undersized Aaron Brooks in futility.
When Portland grabbed Arron Afflalo from Denver at the trade deadline, it seemed like he would be a luxury off the bench in a deep playoff run. Now, with Afflalo nursing an injury of his own, the Trail Blazers will be lucky to even emerge from the first round of the playoffs.