Everyone has heard the saying “all’s well that ends well.” The Portland Trail Blazers likely disagree with that age-old idiom after demolishing the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday night to extend their win streak to five games.
During the third quarter, Wesley Matthews went to the ground – clearly in pain – on an attempted drive to the basket. After the game, the Trail Blazers announced that Matthews will miss the rest of the season with a torn Achilles tendon in his left leg.
It’s a devastating injury both for Matthews and the Trail Blazers. By all accounts, Matthews is a consummate professional and a great locker room presence. On the court, he was perhaps the most predictable, steady player on the roster. The Blazers could count on him to produce every single night on both ends of the floor, and the equilibrium he helped the team maintain will be sorely missed.
Matthews is the Blazers’ best three-point specialist and premier perimeter defender, as well as the heart and soul of the roster. He’s averaging 16.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals this season. He has played more minutes than any Trail Blazer outside of Damian Lillard, and he has taken and made more three-pointers than anybody else on the roster. That’s certainly a lot of production that Portland must attempt to replace.
The first player the Trail Blazers will inevitably turn to is midseason trade acquisition Arron Afflalo. He was acquired to bolster the bench and provide an instant spark as the sixth man. Portland likely never envisioned him in the starting lineup as Matthews’s replacement, but he’s the obvious choice because his style of play is so similar to that of Matthews.
Like Matthews, Afflalo doesn’t need the ball a lot on offense to make his impact felt. Afflalo moves well off the ball, he’s exceptional at utilizing screens and he’s an above-average spot-up shooter.
Before his injury, Matthews was second in the NBA in total three-point attempts (446) this season, and he converted a lofty 38.8 percent of those attempts. Afflalo isn’t quite as good of a shooter as Matthews (34 percent from beyond the arc this season), but he’s good enough to allow the Trail Blazers to continue spacing the floor almost as well as they did with Matthews because defenses will respect Afflalo’s ability.
Opposing defenses are always keyed in on Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, and that’s where Afflalo’s ability as a catch-and-shoot player will pay off the most. Countless times this season, Matthews spotted up on the weakside and waited patiently for the ball to be kicked to him when the defense inevitably overplayed the two-man game with Lillard and Aldridge on the strong side.
Aside from simply filling the shooting void left by Matthews’s injury, Afflalo is versatile enough to play in the post. He’s big enough at 6’5”, 215 pounds to consistently exploit smaller defenders on the low block, much like Matthews was able to do.
Defensively, Afflalo is a solid replacement for Matthews. Matthews is likely the Trail Blazers’ best perimeter defender, and they’ll now need someone else to step up and lock down the best scorer on the opposing team every night. Nicolas Batum is a good defender and an excellent option to guard taller wing scorers, but Afflalo will likely draw his fair share of the tougher wing assignments from here on out, as well he should. His strength makes it tough for his man to simply blow by him, and his quickness allows him to stay with his man around screens, on isolation attempts, etc.
Young players like C.J. McCollum and Allen Crabbe will also be called on to fill some of Matthews’s minutes. McCollum has had efficiency struggles offensively this season, but his best, most consistent skill – three-point shooting – is the one the Trail Blazers will need most. McCollum isn’t nearly the one-on-one defender that Matthews is, but he has quick hands which could help him make up for some of the lost production in the steals category.
As for Crabbe, he should be able to slide right in as a sharpshooter to help the Trail Blazers remain one of the better three-point shooting teams in the NBA. Most of his shot attempts this season have come on catch-and-shoot opportunities, so his minute load, not his role, should be the only thing changing.
Outside of the three aforementioned potential replacements for Matthews, coach Terry Stotts could get creative and have guys like Steve Blake and Dorell Wright fill in on the wing. Neither is a shooting guard, but that doesn’t mean they can’t play spot minutes at the position and be fine.
The Trail Blazers are lucky that they have myriad wing players on the roster whose games can mesh together and mostly recreate what Matthews was able to do for this team, at least on the court. They couldn’t have asked for a better replacement for Matthews than Afflalo, who will be most responsible for stepping up and carrying more of the load. However, replacing Matthews’s production won’t make the Trail Blazers the same title contenders they were before he went down.
Rather than having what surely would have been a stronger bench over the long haul with Afflalo as the sixth man, now the Trail Blazers are back to having a pretty abysmal bench – at least scoring-wise – if data before Afflalo was acquired is any indication. No bench players can consistently create their own shot now, and that’s a problem.
Lillard and Aldridge give this squad a shot to take down any team on any given night, but either one or multiple players outside of those two must become a consistent rock in Matthews’s stead. Besides, Lillard and Batum are both streaky players who are prone to ups-and-downs more so than Matthews. In the playoffs, one of them having a bad game would hurt a great deal, and both of them having a bad game on the same night would likely result in a Trail Blazers loss. Matthews’s presence wouldn’t necessarily guarantee a win despite poor play from Lillard and/or Batum, but he would give them a better chance.
The Trail Blazers might be able to stay afloat and contend in the playoffs even with Matthews done for the season, but their chances have undoubtedly worsened. Matthews’s absence will probably be a substantial net loss for this team, as his production on the court and his spirit in the locker room will be incredibly tough to replace.