By JARED DUBIN
It's tempting at times like these to analyze an injury based on how it will affect the player's team in the postseason race. The Portland Trail Blazers are in the thick of the Western Conference playoff hunt, and like any team in the top half of the West, they fancy themselves a title contender. The loss of Matthews for the rest of the season -- and likely beyond -- puts a damper on that.
It's important that we also consider the impact on Matthews himself. A torn Achilles is maybe the most painful possible injury, and also one that historically has had a very strong negative affect on players' future production. Most who have suffered a torn Achilles have taken nine to 12 months (the average player to suffer the injury since 1990 has returned in 9.95 months, per data compiled by ESPN's Kevin Pelton) to return to the court, and when they did return, they hardly resembled the player they were pre-injury.
Matthews doesn't depend on pure athleticism to create his own shot and generate free throws as much as some other players who have suffered Achilles tears, so it's possible he won't experience quite as large a dropoff, but there almost definitely will be a significant decline. As Deadspin's Kyle Wagner wrote back in April of 2013:
The average age for injured players was 29.7, with seven years of playing experience (Kobe's in his 17th year); in the first year back from injury, players played 5.21 fewer minutes per game. That number dropped to 4.42 in the second year back. More tellingly, player efficiency rating (PER) dropped by 4.64 the first year back and 4.28 the second. To understand how severe that drop is, consider: This year, a difference of 4.64 PER is the difference between Kobe Bryant and Ersan Ilyasova.
On a per 40-minute basis, "athletic" stats like blocks, rebounds, and steals actually held steady post-injury. The same is true for field goal and free throw shooting percentages. Given players' dropoffs in overall efficiency, that was surprising, so I dug a little deeper and looked at rebound rates, free throw attempts, and other areas that might affect a player's PER. There is a general decline in FTA in post-injury years (which would pose a problem for Kobe, given how many shots he takes), with rebound rates actually holding more or less steady. The dropoffs showed up in any number of categories. Some players shot abysmally once they came back; for others, usage rates plummeted, suggesting they were no longer capable of creating their own offense. But taken as a whole, there was an obvious and expected drop in efficiency for nearly everyone.
Given that history, it's reasonable to expect that we won't see full-strength Matthews again until the 2016–17 season, if ever, regardless of whether he returns in time to play during next season. That's a brutal, brutal truth to deal with for both Matthews and fans of his game, which had become increasingly large in number over the last few seasons.
That Matthews is scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency this July -- where he would likely have been the subject of a bidding war had he not re-signed with Portland immediately -- makes this doubly painful. Teams have begun to value players with Matthews' three-and-D skill set (plus more, given how his post game has become a dangerous weapon) more and more in recent years, and he likely was set to be the best unrestricted free agent who fit that mold this summer. Now, the market for his services immediately shrinks, negotiations become clouded by the specter of his injury and probable drop in future production, and his earning power is decreased as a result.
There will be some teams that are still willing to extend Matthews a contract knowing they'll get his services for three additional years after he works his way back from the injury, but some will simply drop out of the market and explore other options. That's good news for fellow unrestricted free agents like Danny Green, DeMarre Carroll and new teammate Arron Afflalo, who all likely move up a notch for teams looking to find a player who fits that skill archetype and who can pay immediate dividends.
The injury likely does help Portland's chances of retaining Matthews this summer, as they'll know significantly more about his injury and progress than any other team and will have already crafted a rehabilitation program to get him back on the court as quickly and healthily as possible. The Blazers know Matthews well as both a player and a person already, they wanted to keep him around anyway, and retaining him will probably help keep LaMarcus Aldridge in the Pacific Northwest long-term. They may now be able to do so at a slight discount, but they're also probably not getting the version of Matthews they thought they would re-sign.
In a more immediately pressing sense, Matthews' injury is a huge blow for the Blazers and whatever title hopes that may have had. It's very hard to see them winning three series to make it out of the West, let alone winning a title without Wes on the floor.
Matthews has made more threes this season than every player in the league except Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kyle Korver. His ability and gravity as a shooter is incredibly important to Portland's offensive balance. Matthews' perimeter prowess provides a counterpoint to Aldridge's post-up and mid-range-heavy game, as well as an outlet for Damian Lillard's pick-and-roll attack. There's a reason Portland's offense has been 4.8 points worse per 100 possessions without him on the court this season -- the equivalent of dropping from seventh to 21st in efficiency.
While Matthews' shooting is his greatest offensive asset, that's not nearly all he brought to the table. His post-up game, years in the making, had become an explosive weapon this season. Among the 53 players who have logged at least 100 post-up possessions (with a field goal attempt, free throw attempt or turnover) this season, Matthews ranks second in points per play, behind only Kevin Love, according to NBA.com's Synergy data. He was shooting 50 percent on post-ups, fourth-best in the league, while also drawing shooting fouls at the eighth-best rate and leading all qualifying post players in "and-ones."
Sending Matthews down into the post inverted the offense, forcing defensive players into unusual and uncomfortable positions. Guards aren't using to defending in the post -- though they do so far more often now than, say, a decade ago -- and bigs aren't necessarily used to guarding on the perimeter. Matthews in the post, with Lillard waiting for a kick-out on the wing or at the top of the key, Nic Batum in the weak side corner, and Aldridge at the opposite elbow was a losing proposition for the defense more often than not.
With Batum mired in a season-long slump -- he's only really come on in the last seven games or so -- on both ends, Matthews had emerged as Portland's best perimeter defender as well. He and Batum freely interchanged matchups on the wing, with Matthews clearly the more effective defender this season. He has the size to body up bigger wings and the lateral quickness to stay with the shiftier ones. Batum has the wingspan advantage, but Matthews had been far more steady.
The acquisition of Afflalo, considered a luxury at the time the deal was made, now becomes one of the most retroactively necessary moves of the season. Afflalo's skill set (three-and-D plus some post-up prowess, particularly against smaller guards) is similar to that of Matthews, and at his peak, Afflalo perfectly resembled the player Wes was for Portland this season. But Afflalo is no longer at his peak, and even if we can expect improvement in Portland over the performance he showed in Orlando and his second stint in Denver, there's no guarantee he can replicate what Matthews was bringing to the table.
Shifting Afflalo from a reserve role to the starting lineup also has a trickle-down effect. He was acquired to spell both Matthews and Batum at the wing spots, and the expected decline in usage seemed sure to bump his efficiency and give him extra energy to exert on the defensive end. That's gone now. He's pushed into the Matthews role, one that may be slightly too outsized to optimize Afflalo's skills.
The loss of Matthews also adversely affects Portland's bench. The Blazers made the Afflalo trade to add some perimeter oomph to the Steve Blake -- Chris Kaman -- Meyers Leonard -- Dorell Wright quartet. There are now 32–34 minutes of playing time that have to be redistributed between those five players, as well as C.J. McCollum and Alonzo Gee. Everyone is pushed into a bigger role than the team originally slated them for, and it's a steep drop from having those minutes go to Matthews.
There's also something to be said for continuity. Portland's starting lineup of Lillard, Matthews, Batum, Aldridge and Robin Lopez had played more minutes together (2,002) than any other five-man unit in the league over the last two seasons. They managed to outscore opponents by 9.2 points per 100 possessions while on the floor. When even one of those players came off the floor, Portland's per-100 possession scoring margin dropped to +2.3 points.
That's equivalent to a drop from a championship-level squad to a borderline fringe contender. That's fitting for an injury to a player of Matthews' caliber, and it likely spells the end of Portland's title contention this season unless Afflalo or another reserve makes an unexpected leap.
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