In a 94-75 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday night, the Portland Trail Blazers inched a game closer to the apex of the Western Conference standings. However, in the process, the team lost starting shooting guard Wesley Matthews for the season to a ruptured Achilles tendon. Since 2013, Matthews has missed just six games; he’s the team’s Iron Man and often its spark.
The 28-year-old is an important cog in head coach Terry Stotts’ system: Matthews was projected to set career highs in usage rate and player efficiency rating. He had connected on 173 three-point field goals this season – three fewer than acclaimed marksman Kyle Korver, and fourth-most in the league.
After hearing the news, Portland power forward LaMarcus Aldridge called him “the heart and soul of (the) team.” His loss certainly extends beyond the confines of the court, but on the hardwood, Portland will be comprehensively altered the rest of the season, specifically on the offensive end. The Lillard-Matthews-Batum-Aldridge-Lopez lineup averaged the most minutes played per game of any in the NBA.
Injuries and trades act as vehicles for teams, moving offensive and defensive sets to cater to the proficiencies of the newly configured lineups. As far as Portland’s situation is concerned, there are vastly less malleable players to infuse into a system than Arron Afflalo.
Two weeks ago, Afflalo was part of the 10 percent of players dealt on the NBA’s trade deadline. After spending two seasons aboard dreary Orlando teams, Afflalo meandered through a few months in Denver (they’re hiring, by the way!) before coming to Portland. In short: Afflalo hasn’t been on a competitive roster in years, and as a result, had been tasked with a perennial green light. In the weeks since, his field goal attempts have been halved and he has yet to start, despite starting more than 60 games in each of the past five seasons. Now, it’s almost guaranteed that Afflalo will be swapped into Portland’s starting lineup.
Since Stotts arrived in August 2012, Portland has been infatuated with the three-point arc. The team hasn’t ranked lower than sixth in the league in three-point-shooting volume; this season, three of every 10 trips down court end in one.
As aforementioned, a preponderance of Matthews’ offensive game comes from outside the arc: He was averaging a career-high 7.4 attempts per game and generating 54.3 percent of his points from behind the three-point line. Afflalo, however, doesn’t live on the same island: 32.4 percent of his points this season come from beyond the arc and he has never averaged more than five three-point field goal attempts in any season of his career.
The two have comparable career field goal percentages and are both above the league shooting median.
Typically, Portland works in half-court sets. The team scores 10.6 fast-break points per game (No. 20) and falls around the middle of the pack in terms of pace. Afflalo is even less of a fast-break concern than Matthews, and will ostensibly align with team’s offensive cadence in the way he has since the trade.
This season, Afflalo generates 16 percent more points from the midrange area than Matthews. Portland doesn’t have a robust offensive game from 15-19 feet – Aldridge shoots 40 percent from the area but is a team outlier in that regard – attempting an average of 13.3 field goals from the area. But Afflalo could certainly bolster one. Not only does Afflalo’s midrange game transcend Matthews’ but he also attacks the rim at a higher rate, and both attempt comparable rates from the free throw line. The two also pose similar figures in facilitation and rebounding.
Spot-up shooting is a staple of Portland’s schemes, as well. More than 20 percent of the team’s executed plays are spot-up jumpers. As of Friday, Matthews was six points shy of the league lead in spot-up points generated this season, and although Afflalo ranks in the 75th percentile in the category, the swap still provides a regression in a staple of the team’s offense.
The Trail Blazers fall in the upper echelon of most of the league’s offensive categories. Losing Matthews isn’t a death knell to their season and Afflalo won’t have any problem playing third fiddle to Aldridge and Lillard. But what the team looks for on a given possession will change if for no other reason than Afflalo doesn’t always have to sidle the three-point line. A midrange game could develop into a point of emphasis for Stotts, too. Every injury causes a coach to recalibrate lineups, and as long as Afflalo can mesh with the preexisting ball-movement-crazy starting four, Portland won’t throw away what has been a remarkably successful season.