TrueHoop: Wes Matthews
November, 27, 2013
By Daniel Nowell
Special to ESPN.com
Special to ESPN.com
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsPortland has an NBA-high 13 wins, and, more importantly, has figured out a game plan to win more.It’s been three weeks since the Trail Blazers lost a game. That’s not much time, but it’s enough to obscure the many questions that Portland seemed to carry into the early season. New players, middling attendance, a defense that seemed like a work in progress -- even as the Blazers squeezed out wins against a few overmatched bottom-feeders, their unknown variables seemed about equal to their known quantities. This was a season, it seemed, when the Blazers would test the timber of their core before deciding whether they had a collection of assets or a functioning and coherent team.
General manager Neil Olshey said as much before opening night to ESPN.com: “Upon conclusion of the 2014 season, we will know whether or not we have reached the fork in the road,” Olshey said. This season was to be an evaluative foray, a fact-finding mission, an effort to determine whether the Blazers were in transition or had staked themselves to a present tense. Three weeks has been enough time to answer that question. These Blazers are no starter kit for tomorrow’s franchise: They are a competitor unto themselves.
The shape of that competitor is a testament to the flexibility that seems to infuse the organization from Olshey down. The Blazers have a roster full of jump-shooters; they are second in the league in field goal attempts beyond 15 feet. Their frontcourt features willing but somewhat slow-footed defenders; coach Terry Stotts restructured pick-and-roll defense to allow the bigs to drop into the paint against penetration. They are bombing away without reserve, sticking to their principles on defense and showcasing the potency of a team that refuses to get hung up on potential limitations.
In fact, let me cut to the chase here and say that what is most striking about the Blazers’ current success is the way it reflects the team’s embrace of its own character. The differences between this team and the team that last season won 33 games are differences of degree, not kind. Those Blazers also bombed away in a free-flowing offense. Those Blazers, too, were marked by a kind of quiet, self-possessed locker room character. The veterans added this past offseason -- Robin Lopez, Dorell Wright, Earl Watson, Mo Williams -- were brought in less to reimagine the team than to fill in the gaps and serve as an extension of how Nic Batum, Wes Matthews, Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge were already playing. With that kind of support, the core of the team is able to embrace its own style, play without anxiety and carry itself without defensiveness.
AP Photo/Ben MargotThe Trail Blazers have successfully stood their ground against top-tier teams like the Warriors.
I’ve spent a lot of time this season trying to draw admissions of epiphany from various Blazers, to get some quote describing a collective realization that this team is taking a step forward for the franchise. That’s a bit of a sucker’s bet in any locker room, and doubly so among this group. The players offer brief acknowledgements of the team’s maturity, of the infusion of veteran habits into a locker room dominated by youth and inexperience. These acknowledgements hover somewhere between standard lip service and conference-room-poster copy. Implicit in the Blazers’ unwillingness to explain themselves is a plea to let their play talk for them, but still they occasionally slip up and reveal themselves in front of a microphone.
On Saturday, the Blazers traveled to Golden State and salvaged a win out of what was shaping up to be a listless performance. Trailing by 14, Portland was ignited when an altercation between Andrew Bogut and Joel Freeland turned into a full-team scrum, resulting in the ejection of Matthews, several fines and the suspension of Williams. The Blazers stormed back after the shoving match behind a 15-point, nine-rebound fourth quarter from Aldridge. After the game, the power forward offered the following: “This team has a different feeling” than previous teams. “I wouldn’t say easier, but we just blend better.”
I hold it as a rule that any time a person prefaces a statement with “I wouldn’t say,” he would indeed say. And “easier” is a telling word for a player who has spent so much of his time in Portland under scrutiny. Last season, Aldridge fended off constant inquiries about whether he takes too many jump shots. Over the summer, rumors about his desire to stay with the Blazers swirled until Olshey put them to bed with no small amount of exasperation. Being scrutinized in a small, demanding market has not always been easy for Aldridge, and he wouldn’t say that it’s easier this season, except that it plainly is.
And so he’s free to play his game, doing his damage from midrange and mixing in bullish post-ups. He’s leading the league in attempts from 15-19 feet while making a mockery of any doubts about his toughness with 35 rebounds in his past two games. With license to blend strength and finesse in whatever proportion he sees fit, Aldridge played himself into Western Conference Player of the Week honors this past week. And when you dig into the statistics, it appears that each of Portland’s key contributors has been similarly liberated.
Batum has been allowed to fully indulge his preference to make plays for teammates, and he’s averaging more assists (five) than any forward not named Kevin Durant or LeBron James. Matthews likes to get his shots within the flow of a game rather than from stricter play calls -- he’s seventh on the team in usage rate, but second among guards leaguewide in effective field goal percentage. Lillard trails only Stephen Curry in attempts from 3. At every position, there is statistical evidence that the Blazers have been empowered to play to their strengths. If they want their play to speak for them, the message is clear: They know who they are, and they won’t be pressured out of playing their game.
The only question is whether that comfort bred success or vice versa -- after all, it’s easy to be vindicated in your habits when the result is 11 straight wins. But that tautology works both ways, and the Blazers now know that sticking to their game as individuals can translate into sustained team success, which is powerful knowledge, indeed. There will be regression, and injuries and other obstacles that will test the Blazers in ways they haven’t yet been tested, but three weeks of winning has confirmed that being themselves is a winning recipe. That’s a valuable lesson to learn this early and one that will matter a great deal more than hot shooting come playoffs.
October, 24, 2012
By Kevin Arnovitz
LaMarcus Aldridge, Carmelo Anthony and Stephen Curry: Gridlock or glory?
Think about your favorite team then ask yourself, "What are things going to look like for the next three to five seasons?"
A degree of uncertainty will find its way into every situation, but smart teams have plans. They might be in championship-or-bust mode like Miami, Oklahoma City or the Los Angeles Lakers. They might be straight-up rebuilding like Detroit or New Orleans.
Some teams pursue a more targeted plan. The Clippers want to perform well enough to maintain Chris Paul's faith in the organization, lock him up on July 1, 2013, then keep building from there. Others, like Phoenix, lost the flash drive with the PowerPoint on the way to the presentation.
Then there are those NBA teams standing at the junction, examining the map and looking at the routes. Do they stay on course? Take the scenic route, or the practical one? Get cute and try a shortcut? Slow down and move more deliberately and keep their options open?
Such is the challenge for several NBA teams entering the 2012-13 season, with some facing a better set of options than others.
New York Knicks
The Knicks' crossroads are grander and better paved than most teams in their predicament, by virtue of playing in one of the league's two premier markets. It certainly ain't the cooking in the front office, which has prepared a roster slated for another quick April ouster from the postseason.
Let's rewind: Two years ago, New Yorkers were giddy and comparatively patient. The Knicks didn't bag LeBron James in 2010, but it wasn't for a lack of trying or bad bookkeeping. They signed Amare Stoudemire and, that winter, the Garden was alive for the first time in ages. The acquisition of Carmelo Anthony midseason signaled the Knicks' official return to relevance (even if the team was playing well prior to his arrival and forked over a king's ransom to get him). Aware that the 22nd-ranked team defense would be a train wreck, the Knicks anchored the middle with Tyson Chandler in the summer of 2011.
Despite the defensive improvement last season, the Knicks couldn't score and the old dysfunction returned, pausing for only a seven-week hiatus when Jeremy Lin single-handedly thawed winter.
That brings us to the 2012-13 season. Lin is in Houston, Stoudemire is sidelined and the Knicks are indisputably Anthony's team, which was always the design in New York. If nothing else, perhaps Stoudemire's injury coupled with the success Anthony had as a power forward in Olympic competition will finally convince Melo that he's a new-wave 4. Improving the Knicks will require some innovation, because Anthony, Chandler and a band of reclamation projects, post-prime players and question marks in the backcourt won't make much noise in the playoffs. If they fail to play into May, the Knicks would begin to look a lot like Mike Woodson's Atlanta Hawks -- a team with discernible talent, but no championship aspirations.
What happens then?
The Knicks could resign themselves to a nice house in the East's upper-middle class district or, much like the Lakers did in sheer defiance of what was thought possible, they could trade on the allure of their market and coax a game-changer to New York. It won't be easy. They'd either have to part with Chandler, convince a team with cap room to absorb Stoudemire's outsized salary along with a few goodies, get a superstar approaching free agency to hold his existing team hostage in exchange for a ticket to New York -- and probably some combination of the above.
The Knicks wanted superstars to elevate their brand and incite championship aspirations among their beleaguered fans. Now it's time to manage those expectations and find an acceptable alternative should the team fall short of them.
Golden State Warriors
The new regime in the Bay is committed to a serious rebranding campaign. It's not just the smart new threads and the Sn°hetta-designed jewel box slated for downtown San Francisco. The Warriors finally seem primed to be more than the NBA's novelty act. They're practicing defense again in Oakland, using analytics for the first time to make personnel decisions and, aside from a hiccup or two on the cap-management side, forging something that looks like a future.
The Warriors traded roboshooter Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut, one of the five best defensive big men in the game ... when he can move on two feet. Stephen Curry has proven he's far more than a spot-up shooter ... when he can move on two feet. Add a little seasoning to Golden State's young wing tandem of Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes, and you can pencil them in for the opener across the bay. David Lee makes a mint, but he contributes consistently and the Warriors have virtually nothing else on the books in two years, so why worry?
But that's the thing about cap flexibility -- it's a luxury that can lure smart people into iffy decisions. When you're a front office strapped for cash, you have to be selective in your decision-making. But when you have clean books, you can be tempted to populate the ledger with all kinds of stuff that isn't good for you.
The biggest decision facing the Warriors over the next week is whether to extend Curry. If not for his wonky ankle, this is a no-brainer for Golden State and even with all the concern, still is. But the cap can be unforgiving, and paying max or near-max money to a chronically-injured player can be devastating to a team's long-term ambitions. Bogut, the team's highest-paid player, has a bum left ankle and there's no timetable for his return.
The Warriors don't have to make a contractual call on Bogut for two more seasons, but it's hard for a team to forge a path without a vision of its future core. And, practically, it's difficult to achieve goals if there's $30 million worth of stars in street clothes -- just ask the Houston Rockets.
That's the gamble for the Warriors: Do they construct a team for the foreseeable future around the inside-out threat of Curry and Bogut, knowing it's very possible their two best players might not share a court for weeks, maybe seasons, on end?
Do the Warriors commit to Curry, then wait and see on Bogut once they have a clearer prognosis on his health, knowing they'll likely have some money to find an alternate big man? Do they look at their promising young wings as the guys who will usher in the new era, a Klay Thompson-Harrison Barnes ticket rather than Curry-Bogut? Can Golden State craft a clever contingency plan whereby there's some insurance in the backcourt should Curry's ankle be an indefinite concern?
Or do the Warriors act without prejudice, knowing that the revenue they'll generate in the most state-of-the-art arena in North America (with some of the most expensive seats in sports) can compensate for a lot of dead payroll?
Portland Trail Blazers
The rug was pulled from the Rose Garden floor some time ago. What was once the most tantalizing roster in the league has been stripped of its jewels, with Brandon Roy's retirement and relocation and Greg Oden's injuries.
Beyond those bad beats, the Trail Blazers no longer play the flavor of deliberate, possession-focused basketball they did under Nate McMillan, for better or worse. Last season, the Trail Blazers were adrift. They no longer controlled the rim -- on either end -- and many of those familiar patterns that were solidified during the Age of Promise went missing.
LaMarcus Aldridge is a refined, reliable power forward -- probably a Top 15 player -- but is he truly the centerpiece of a contending team? What if the best blueprint of the team going forward has him at center in a more agile offense? Is he flexible and resolute enough to not only tolerate that adjustment, but embrace it?
The first question is a difficult one, though one that can be answered more optimistically if Damian Lillard can evolve into a lead guard who can simplify the game for Aldridge. The Trail Blazers' big man has spoken glowingly about how easy the game came to him after being paired with Andre Miller in Portland. It's unfair to expect Lillard to find that kind of command before he gets a couple of years of NBA basketball under his belt -- and right now he's more of a pick-and-roll scorer than a manager or distributor -- but Aldridge can screen-and-pop with the best shooting big men in the game and should be able to make ample use of Lillard's talent.
The Trail Blazers also re-upped Nicolas Batum long term, defensible given the spreadsheet. Throw in Wes Matthews -- probably a better third guard than a fixture at the 2, but the team's third or fourth best player -- a raw rookie center, and a couple of imports. Is that a foundation that can grow into legitimate power in the West? If you're a Trail Blazers fan or executive, how many teams would you happily exchange futures with? Three years ago, that number was minuscule. Today, you're making a lot of outgoing calls.
A creative Terry Stotts will work hard to develop the Lillard-Aldridge tandem to its full potential, and it could be something special. But if the chemistry doesn't translate into a winning combination, and Aldridge grows uncomfortable as Banana No. 1, do you reshuffle the deck? And, if so, is Aldridge an asset you'd discard if the right offer came along? Could you afford not to?
The Trail Blazers don't figure to win much in 2012-13, and will likely have another high pick in June to add more young talent -- as well as some money to throw around -- but it's going to be a painstaking process.
Entering the offseason, the Sixers' crossroads looked something like a busy London roundabout. The team could take any number of routes, and there was an intelligent case to be made for each of them.
Hard-bitten realists argued it was time to blow up a core that was unlikely to finish higher than a Hawkish No. 4 or 5 seed. Romantics felt that the Sixers' young talent had finally cracked the code on Doug Collins' safety-first system. If the versatile roster could come back largely intact in 2012-13 and buy in for a full season, they could take what was already a Top 3 defense, win the Atlantic then, come spring, play with the elite.
Instead, the Sixers made a lateral move in trading Andre Iguodala, their best defender and ball-mover, for a true inside threat in Andrew Bynum. They also lost Lou Williams, one of their few creators outside of Iguodala.
So who are the Sixers now and what can we reasonably expect them to become, especially with Bynum playing out the final year of his contract?
Performance will dictate everything. With Bynum anchoring the post, Philadelphia will no longer need a cab to get to the rim. For a team that relied on an unhealthy diet of midrange jumpers, that's no small thing. But indispensable defenders like Iguodala don't come around every day. Systems matter, but you can't just plug Evan Turner into the small forward slot and expect the same results. Bynum is not exactly Collins' idea of a big-man defender. On pick-and-roll coverage, Bynum is a chronic dropper (in fairness, that has generally been the scheme employed by the Lakers), and he'll be pressed rather persistently by Collins to put some more bite into his defensive game.
Let's say the Sixers drop a few of spots defensively, rise a few offensively and their final tally looks a lot like previous seasons. What then? You probably try to lock up Bynum long-term, but is there anyone else on the roster who you'd automatically wave through the door? Do you punt on Turner? What do you need to see from Jrue Holiday to warrant handing him the reins for the next five years? Does all that add up to contention?
Philadelphia will have plenty of flexibility going forward, but cap room isn't an end unto itself. At some point, the Sixers need to figure out what the plan is along the perimeter, and whether their existing platoon of curios and vets can do the job around Bynum.
Head coach Dwane Casey got the hard work out of the way in Season 1, taking a team ranked dead last in team defense and catapulting it to 12th by installing some conservative principles and demanding full effort from the entire roster.
There were other bright spots, with more on the way. When Andrea Bargnani was healthy, he played some of the best basketball of his career. Once Jonas Valanciunas gets a feel for the NBA game, he'll demand attention down low. New acquisition Kyle Lowry can generate instant offense, which should also help.
There's a lot to like here, but still a ton of work to do to improve upon a 25th-ranked offense. The Raptors desperately need to open up some space in the half court to prevent the rigor mortis that bogged them down last season. Bargnani, when he's out there, helps inordinately, and Lowry can hit a shot from the perimeter and break down defenses off the bounce. But the Raptors simply can't build the kind of offense they want with their current supply of wings -- and that sober reality starts and ends with DeMar DeRozan, who enters the final guaranteed year of his rookie deal.
DeRozan, the Raptors' leader in minutes played each of the past two seasons, has never posted a player efficiency rating (PER) above the league average and it's not as if he's making up for it as a defender. He's not a proficient outside shooter, makes iffy reads on the pick-and-roll and is a ball-stopper in isolation with a less-than-stellar track record of converting those opportunities into anything -- a creator without much creativity.
To put it bluntly, there are very few things DeRozan is doing to help the Toronto Raptors win basketball games and it's hard to imagine an efficient offense that relies on him for a significant chunk of possessions.
The Raptors raised eyebrows by selecting Terrence Ross with the No. 8 pick in June. While Ross is no polished product on the offensive end, he's a Casey type of player, with quick feet on defense and a heady awareness of what's happening on the floor. Ross could watch tape of Tony Allen and craft a career as a stopper with a few offensive tricks. He'd be a natural replacement for DeRozan, provided he can find his shot or, at the very least, recognize his limitations and minimize mistakes. That would be an easier proposition if there was another wing on the floor who could create.
If the Raptors let DeRozan walk, they'd have some dough to find someone -- anyone -- who can score efficiently at the wing. Once that happens, the ball will start to move again in Toronto, this time with a stalwart defense to complement it.
- J.A. Adande joined Baron Davis on the campus of UCLA, where the Cavs point guard will try to maintain a GPA, not a PER. At Hardwood Paroxysm, Holly MacKenzie shares a story about how, several seasons back, Davis blew her off in a locker room in Seattle, only to track her down later on in the tunnel to make amends: "[Davis] taught me a lesson: players can be cranky, and sometimes you’ll approach them after a bad loss or performance when they’re angry or bitter or caught up in something. But often times, how someone treats you on that single occasion isn’t a fair representation of who that person is."
- Davis coached LeBron James in a Drew League game on Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles. Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports: "[Drew League director Dino] Smiley said many fans tweeted and sent text messages about James’ arrival. 'Every edge' of the court in the tiny gym, Smiley said, was packed. Smiley said the gym doors were eventually closed shut during James’ game by law enforcement officers, who told fans if they left they couldn’t return"
- Thunderground Radio evaluates how Sam Presti fared in 2010-11. Was the Perkins-Green trade necessary? Can Reggie Jackson make an impact in the backcourt?
- Blake Griffin is a monster and, barring injury, projects to be a indomitable franchise player. For the Clippers, that's the easy part. The more elastic variable for the team is Eric Gordon. If the Clippers aren't able to land a marquee superstar, could they still be a force in the West with Gordon as their featured perimeter threat with Griffin down low, provided DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe continue to grow? Nick Flynt of ClipperBlog takes a look.
- What happened to the Trail Blazers after they broke up their Finals core in 1993? A retrospective from Blazers Edge.
- I'm a sucker for any basketball post that prominently features Bob Walk, who pitched for the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates. A pitcher named Walk would the equivalent of a hoopster named Travel. But the thrust of the Negative Dunkalectics' post by Chris George is not the dubiously-named Walk, but the playing career of Warriors head coach Mark Jackson: "Mark Jackson was a comparatively small and non-athletic man, largely informed by a street game, who managed to use a few moves over and over again to put up much better numbers than he 'should' have. The combination of the back down, the baby hook, the no-look passes, the teardrop, and the push shot made him one of the most frustrating point guards of his era, even if he never had the ability to be a true star."
- Jason Terry delivered the first pitch at Sunday's Texas Rangers game to Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler. Dirk Nowitzki via Twitter: "Was jet's first pitch at rangers game better than mine? Didn't anyone see it? Let me know."
- Who is Manuel Velez Pangilinan? He's the very wealthy, very influential guy behind the pair of exhibition games at Araneta Coliseum in Manila between a slew of NBA stars and standouts from the Philippine Basketball Association. The two games were standing room only and tickets on the secondary market ran as much as four times face value.
- The WNBA named its 15 best players ever. Ball in Europe follows with its 15 best Euroleague women players in history.
- Hakeem Olajuwon, Marco Belinelli and Hedo Turkoglu: Each initially excited Raps fans when he signed on the dotted line, only to fall way short of expectations. For good measure, five Raptors draft picks that raised eyebrows.
- Six years prior to putting on a Raptors jersey, Olajuwon logged 39 points and 17 rebounds in the Game 6 clincher of the 1995 Western Conference finals against the Spurs. NBA Off-Season presents another in their Lockout Classics series.
- If Kobe Bryant is Derek Jeter, then Derek Fisher is Jorge Posada. Does that make Robert Horry Scott Brosius?
- Look out, Monday. Wes Matthews is in mission mode.
- Kings big man Jason Thompson: "Congrats to the NFL on ending their Lockout....NOW its OUR TURN!!!!"