This past offseason the Dallas Mavericks made a few low-risk moves to try and stay relevant in the dogfight that is the Western Conference playoff chase. While they missed out on a big name player, they did reel in a max contract player with the signing of Wesley Matthews.
Dallas brought in the former Blazer to be a franchise cornerstone, along with Chandler Parsons and, they hoped, DeAndre Jordan. When Matthews signed, he took a variable deal with Dallas. If Jordan were to sign with the Mavs, Matthews would earn $57M. If the Clippers center returned to LA, Matthews would get $70 million. Even with $13M on the line, Matthews showed his will to win as he heavily pushed for Jordan to sign in Dallas. Alas, it was not to be. So while the Jordan drama may have been a downer for Dallas, Matthews’ pockets were lined just a little bit thicker. So what did the Mavs get for $70M? Let’s take a look.
Before suffering an Achilles injury last March, Matthews was well on his way to another plus season for the Blazers. The 6’5” guard finished the season with 15.9 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.3 steals, and 2.9 three-pointers per game. Even after playing only 60 games, Matthews still ranked in the top 10 of three-pointers made. With a 16.1 PER and a 105 Defensive Rating, Matthews was having the finest all-around season of his career.
Keyed by Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Matthews, Portland was charging up the West standings with a 41-19 record. After Matthews was injured, the Blazers were, for all intents and purposes, done for the year. They finished the remainder of the season 10-12 and dropped four of five to Memphis in the first-round of the playoffs. Matthews being on the sidelines effectively sparked the rebuild in Portland that eventually found him, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez, and Aldridge leaving town.
For the last two seasons, Monta Ellis manned the two spot for Dallas. His decision to opt out and sign with Indiana left an 18.9 points per game hole in the Mavericks offense. While Matthews is not lead-scorer material like Ellis, he will be able to fill some of the scoring gap left with Ellis’ departure.
Even with 60 percent of his shots last season coming from behind the arc, Matthews is more than a one-dimensional shooter. In Portland’s offense, he was constantly on the move. Whether cutting towards the basket, sliding around the three-point line, or posting up on the block, Matthews puts himself in the best position to score. He doesn’t simply camp out behind the three point line waiting for a pass.
Matthews is particularly efficient when posting up. Last season, Matthews ranked fourth in points per possession as he averaged 0.99 points every time he posted up, per NBA.com. This ability will cause headaches and mismatches for defenses, especially with a power forward in Dirk Nowitzki so comfortable around the three point line.
While Matthews does not excel at creating his own shot off the dribble, he will not need to in Dallas. With Deron Williams, Chandler Parsons, and to a lesser extent J.J. Barea facilitating the offense, Matthews can slide into his role as a complementary scorer. His familiarity with the scheme run in Dallas will help his transition as well. Portland’s head coach Terry Stotts was an assistant in Dallas under Rick Carlisle from 2008 to 2012.
Dallas did not bring Matthews in for his offense only. The big difference between Matthews and the man he is replacing at shooting guard is defense. While Ellis was not a big fan of playing any, Matthews is one of the league’s best perimeter defenders. He harasses and closes out well for someone who is not an above average athlete. His intensity and focus make him a substantial upgrade in the backcourt on that end of the floor.
Of course, all these expectations assume Matthews will be able to come back fully from his Achilles injury. Matthews is soon to be 29-years-old and is in the prime of his career. History is not on Matthews’ side, however. In the past 20-plus years, only Dominque Wilkins in 1993 came back to perform anywhere close to the same level as he had before tearing his Achilles. Other notable players who have suffered the same injury, Kobe Bryant, Chauncey Billups, and Elton Brand, all saw a drop in minutes and production when they returned. While Bryant and Billups were both significantly older than Matthews when they suffered their injury, Elton Brand was the same age, 28. After averaging 20.3 points and 38.3 minutes per game before his injury, Brand managed only 13.3 points in 31.5 minutes per game in the four years following his recovery.
The most common aspect of a player’s game lost after an Achilles injury is quickness or explosiveness. Thankfully for Matthews, the two biggest aspects of his offensive game, perimeter shooting and post up play, do not require a lot of explosiveness. While he should be able to maintain those parts of his game, his harassing defense and quick cuts to the basket may never be the same.
While Matthews is a heavy favorite to become one of the outliers when it comes to Achilles tear recovery, it will still take a Herculean effort to buck the trend and return to his previous form. In Dallas, the franchise is prepared to bring Matthews back slowly. Since they signed him to a four-year deal, they are more concerned about his health in the back-end of the contract. Coach Carlisle said of Matthews, “He’s definitely on track for a full recovery, but we’re going to be erring on the side of being conservative and cautioned.”
Obviously Dallas was fully aware of the dangers involved in signing Matthews to a max contract. They would not have moved forward with a deal if they did not believe the six-year veteran was worth the substantial risk. Weighed with the fact of the increasing salary cap in 2016, if Matthews returns close to his previous form, the $17.5M per year he will earn could seem like a bargain.
While the dollar amounts may seem shocking now, in tomorrow’s NBA those exorbitant figures will become common place. While Matthews may not be ‘worth’ that much money, his addition to Dallas looks to be a smart gamble as the upside of securing a cornerstone of the franchise outweighs the financial risk given these increasingly expensive NBA contracts.