Blazers prepared for life without Wes Matthews, but title chances shrink
When I spoke to Wesley Matthews last month on his past and future in basketball, he discussed his favorite individual matchup as a matter of empathy. Kobe Bryant, he said, was one of his favorite players ever. Both Matthews and Bryant have NBA careers born of a certain relentlessness, as much a function of approach as skill. Yet when the Blazers and Lakers would meet on the floor this season, Bryant would be absent—removed from his competition with Matthews by a third season-ending injury.
"I'm mad about his injuries," Matthews said. "I'm hurting for him."
And now we all hurt for Matthews. On Thursday night, the veteran guard planted his foot in transition and felt it give out. There was no turn of the ankle or slip on the floor. The support was simply there and then it wasn't, as Matthews reflexively grasped at his ankle while falling to the ground in pain. Overnight it was confirmed what many had initially feared: Matthews had suffered a torn Achilles tendon. On his feet were the Kobe 9s – sneakers engineered as tribute to the fact that Bryant suffered the exact same injury just two years ago.
"I’ve made that same cut hundreds of thousands of times in my life," Matthews said after the game. "I felt the initial pop. You guys could probably tell on replay [that] I looked back. You’ve heard it feels like someone’s kicked you. And I was praying – praying that someone was back there. No one was back there. And I heard Ron [Garretson], the ref, he actually says, ‘Oh no.’ Like he knew it."
To this point, Matthews has missed just 13 games in his six-year career. He will now sit the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs regardless of whether he pursues surgical options for his Achilles' repair. There is no shortcut here; Matthews is due an extended stretch of rest and rehabilitation, likely to extend throughout the offseason and his own free agency. How, exactly, this unfortunate break will shape the market for Matthews' services can't yet be known. Though given the value of Matthews' shooting and defense when healthy, it seems safe to assume that he'll still draw significant interest with long-term guarantees.
It helps that Matthews is a worker and regarded as such. There won't be much question of whether he's pushing himself in rehab, as Matthews can't seem to help but commit fully to whatever basketball endeavor is placed in front of him. Whether his body cooperates is another matter entirely. As discouraging as the case studies of NBA players fighting back from this particular injury might be, a return to something approximating full form is still possible given Matthews' age (28) and role. That the fact is even in question, however, is a crime in itself.
"They say everything happens for a reason," Matthews said. "I was just thinking ‘What was this reason? What was it?’ I can’t find it right now, but y’know, it’s bigger than me. This team’s got something special still. I believe in that. I feel that they do too. And we’ll all weather this. I’ll do what I need to do and this team will do what this team needs to do and hopefully we’ll meet again."
Portland has indeed been a special team this season, but going without Matthews will test its execution. It's here that serendipity might pay off; although no one knew it at the time, the Blazers' deadline deal to acquire Arron Afflalo seems to have secured the team's place as a contender through this brutal injury. Afflalo functions similarly enough to Matthews on offense, where he can be trusted to balance the floor as a spot-up option. Leave Afflalo open and he'll snipe from outside, if not with the consistency of Matthews. Chase him off the line and Afflalo can put the ball on the floor to attack a rotating defense.
The fit of replacement is simple enough, though Afflalo is not Matthews' peer in terms of defensive commitment. Afflalo's best defensive seasons are behind him. The days of doing dedicated, hard-nosed work in coverage gave way to other priorities, and his interest in defense since could be described as lukewarm. There's always a chance that an opportunity to start on a team with a realistic shot at the title might rekindle that part of Afflalo's game, though that much can't be assumed.
These distinctions between Matthews and Afflalo could come to define Portland's season. Losing the depth that comes in having both guards available is painful in itself. To also deal with the specific deficits in Afflalo's game relative to Matthews stretches the Blazers even further. Portland draws so much of its power from continuity that the exchange of Matthews for Afflalo is more than that of an elite marksman for a slightly shakier shooter, that of a dogged defender for a less committed one. It's the replacement of a player intimately familiar with the precise ways in which the Blazers operate for one acquired two weeks ago.
That comes at a cost – one Portland can only hope to bear through chemistry while pushing through series after series. A championship shouldn't be ruled out, but the Blazers' probabilities just got unquestionably tighter.