On the Inside: Wesley Matthews

Over the next several weeks, we will publish end-of-season breakdowns for some of the key Mavericks as part of our “On the Inside” series. Imagine never having seen the players before, and this is the scouting report. Read all of them here.

Wesley Matthews is many things: He’s tough, bold, and stubborn, all qualities that contribute directly to his success on the floor, particularly on defense. Those same traits, however, can create some big headlines because he’s always going to say what he means, and he’s always going to mean what he says.

As occasionally brash as Matthews can occasionally be as one of the key voices in the Mavericks’ locker room, his declaration at the beginning of his second season in Dallas that he wanted to be a better player than he’s ever been was perhaps the most eyebrow-raising thing he’s said.

Matthews is an optimist and is not a quitter, but he’s also realistic. He understands the public perception of his odds of overcoming a devastating Achilles injury in 2015 which cut short his best season and flung him into free agency as more of a question mark than an exclamation point.

He also fully understands fan frustration whenever he battles through a shooting slump or the Mavericks lose four out of five, events often connected to each other. He knows how they feel, because he feels it too. He sits at his locker in silence after close losses. When C.J. McCollum hit a back-breaker just before the buzzer at American Airlines Center in February, Matthews could only call it a good shot, offering no further thoughts.

2016-17 Exit Interview: Wesley Matthews

Mavs G Wesley Matthews addresses the media for exit interviews.

Undrafted out of college and now playing for his third team, the chip on Matthews’ shoulder grew even larger after his Achilles injury and bigger yet again following a slow start to the season, both for himself and his team. He plays with anger, an edge, an almost maniacal rage. It’s what keeps him going when he momentarily leaves games with bumps, bruises, or exhaustion-induced nausea. It’s what kept him going this season, the Mavs’ toughest in more than a decade.

He’s the kind of guy you root for as a fan because he’s seemingly one of the few athletes today who openly care more about the result of a February regular-season game than you. He plays through hip injuries, strained calves, and bum ankles because even the idea of missing a December game is enough to ruin his day. Rick Carlisle doesn’t even bother to consult him anymore about DNP-rests; he pawns off the job to someone else. All of this is to say when a guy like Matthews says he’s going to improve, you’re likely to believe him. As a fan, you certainly want him to be right.

And, while Matthews wasn’t totally right about being better than ever in 2016-17, at least in terms of offensive efficiency, he was correct in other areas. He set career-highs in assists and defensive rebounds per game, and both assist and rebound percentage. He posted the second-best defensive box plus-minus of his career. He remained an excellent one-on-one defender against at least three positions. And while his shooting percentages weren’t career-high marks, his field goal and 3-point percentages both improved from last season. That’s progress. Here’s where, and how, he performed for the Mavericks this season.

Making plays off the dribble

Matthews became a much more dynamic player off-the-dribble for the Mavericks in year two of his four-year deal, and it seemed to directly correlate to his almost-permanent move to small forward and Yogi Ferrell’s arrival to the scene at point guard. Beginning Feb. 1, Matthews’ assist rate — the percentage of teammates’ baskets which he assisted — was 18.9 percent. That mark is higher than Seth Curry’s 15.7, and it was higher than everyone else on the Mavs’ roster outside of Ferrell, J.J. Barea, and Devin Harris.

For the season, he assisted on 13.8 percent of his teammates’ buckets when he was on the floor, topping his previous career-best mark of 11.8 percent in 2012-13. Last year, Matthews assisted on only 8.9 percent of his teammates’ makes.

Many factors converged to make this the case. First, Matthews was another year removed from his Achilles injury, which gave him an extra burst off the bounce. But, perhaps more importantly, Matthews played small forward almost exclusively for the Mavs’ most meaningful stretch of the season, beginning Jan. 12. He shared more floor time with multiple guards who could shoot 3s at an above-average rate, and either Dirk Nowitzki or Nerlens Noel played center a majority of the time. That resulted in loads of extra space for Matthews to attack off the dribble, and he was doing it against bigger small forwards and sometimes power forwards, against whom he could create better driving lanes.

Matthews drove the lane 3.7 times per game this season, per SportVU, up from 2.6 last season. Following the lineup change on Jan. 12, that number rose to 4.1. When you tick up the pace and play in more space, you force the stretched defense to make some crazy rotations. Suddenly you’ll have centers leaping to close out against small forwards, and point guards will be protecting the rim. If you move quickly enough, you’ll find some great looks.

Beginning Jan. 12, teammates hit 45.3 percent of their 3-point shots following a Matthews pass, per NBA Stats, which is a blistering number. Seth Curry’s impact there cannot be understated, and he certainly had a hand as the receiving end of plenty of Matthews’ assists, but that’s the point of having an off-guard who can shoot the 3-ball. If Curry is making all the plays, no one can pass it to him. But when you have a 1 and 3 who can attack the basket and find shooters, you can better utilize your players’ best abilities.

The Mavericks seemed to use more flare screens than most other teams in the NBA this season, particularly when the ball entered the post. Dallas pushed more off misses following the mid-season lineup change, and that tricked defenses into some awkward cross-matches. Matthews frequently benefited from the ability to post up against smaller 1s and 2s who scrambled to defend him in transition. That commanded attention from other defenders, which let small Mavs shooters sneak around flare screens for open 3s. Mavericks spot-up shooters were 19 of 35 from the field following a Matthews pass out of the post, per Synergy Sports.

Notice how Julius Randle is slowly creeping closer and closer to Matthews, not even noticing the action going on right next to him. Harrison Barnes’ screen frees up Curry for a wide-open shot, and Matthews delivers the ball on the money for 3.

He was also effective in the pick-and-roll, particularly when finding shooters. (More than 48 percent of his assists went for 3s this year, per NBA.com.) Nowitzki as the center forces opponents to pull their rim protector far away from the rim, leaving all sorts of space underneath for the ball-handler to exploit. Matthews often craftily found those pockets of space, attracted attention, and passed out to the shooter.

And this is something we didn’t see much of, but Matthews and Barnes teamed up for a 3-4 pick-and-roll with Nowitzki in the corner. Watch what it did to the defense.

Matthews also found Nerlens Noel 10 times for an assist this season, per NBA Stats. Only Barea and Harris found him for more. If you’re going to play spread-out small-ball, your guards are under a lot of pressure to attack and make plays for everyone. Having a wing who can read the floor and move the ball takes a load off their shoulders, though, and that added dynamic makes an offense even more difficult to defend.

Shooting and attacking

He didn’t always settle for making a pass, though. Matthews showed he can attack slow, off-balance closeouts and get all the way to the basket and finish, a huge step forward from last season.

The Mavericks space the floor too well — even with a traditional big man in the lineup — for defenders to lackadaisically close out against a shooter. The rotation simply has to be perfect, or else there’s nothing but wide-open pavement between the ball-handler and the rim. As previously stated, Matthews found the lane much more often this season, and he was also more efficient the closer he got to the rim than he was one season ago. See the chart below, with percentages by zone (and attempts in parentheses) from last season to this one.

Matthews did take a step back in the mid-range, but he improved in the restricted and non-restricted paint areas, as well as from above the break. He was also blocked fewer times at the rim this season (14 times) than last season (20), indicating that he had better lift and, perhaps more importantly, the Mavs’ small-ball tendencies drew rim protectors too far from the basket to offer help against wing drives.

Attacks like this, though, give confidence that his improvement in the lane wasn’t completely due to teammates.

It wasn’t always this smooth. There were some possessions that would end with too much dribbling or late heaves to beat the shot clock, especially at the beginning of the season when the Mavs played the slowest pace in the league. But that play above happened on March 31, when his 3-point shooting dropped off and the banged-up Mavs were suffering through a losing streak. He didn’t settle for anything there and he didn’t pound the ball into oblivion. He made a move and got downhill. There’s something to be said for that, and if he can make that play in late March, he should be able to do the same thing after an offseason of rest and further recovery.

About the shooting. Matthews has hit 36.2 percent from deep through two seasons with Dallas, down from 39.3 percent for his career before coming here. But to say he’s failed as a shooter is a little bit a stretch, given he’s still one of just five players in the NBA to have hit 160+ 3s five straight seasons, including the last two. During one 44-game stretch in the middle of the season, he shot 41.9 percent from deep: That’s converting at an elite rate for more than half a season. In his final 22 games, however, he shot 27.4 percent. Is that related to health? Fatigue? Rotating team personnel and fewer minutes shared with the resting Nowitzki and the injured Curry? It could be a combination. But there’s 44 games’ worth of evidence to suggest he can return to the high-volume, high-efficiency 3-point form that’s made him one of the league’s most prolific shooters.

You would like to see him back up closer to 38 or 39 next season, which is certainly possible. If he’d made just 13 more 3s of his 479 attempts this season, he would’ve shot better than 39 percent from deep and we’d be talking about how great a season he had. The margin between average and very good shooting is incredibly slim.

In the right situations, he was still an excellent marksmen, percentages considered. He ranked in the 81st percentile league-wide in spot-up shooting out of a pick-and-roll, per Syngery, hitting 43.1 percent of his shots when ball-handlers kicked out a pass his way. He hit just 20.8 percent, meanwhile, as a spot-up shooter out of isolation. It’s more difficult to get clean looks against a set defense, and much easier to get them against scramblers. Matthews and the Mavs paid the price in that regard, particularly earlier in the season when injury-plagued Dallas’ offense slowed to a crawl. As a spot-up shooter getting a look out of all non-iso plays against man-to-man defense, he shot exactly 40.0 percent. That’s much closer to the rate you’d expect to see him hit.

And even if he remains at 36 percent another season, still a league-average conversion rate, that will be fine if he can continue to attack the rim and make plays both for himself and his teammates. That stuff opens up the offense for everyone else.

“I want to be able to do everything,” Matthews said during his exit interview. “I want to be the most complete player that I can be. With the shooting slump that I had, there were still ways I had to be effective on the court — energy, leadership, defense, that’s always gonna be a part of it. But being able to get other guys shots, get other guys open, I take pride in that as well. I take pride in being a basketball player.”

Elite one-on-one defense

An inclusive term like “complete player” also takes defense into consideration, and when discussing Matthews the truth is it’s almost blasphemous to admire his contributions on the defensive end after watching him play with the ball in his hands. After two seasons in Dallas, the “Good Matthews Defense” mixtape is already pretty long, and below is one of his greatest hits.

He remains a devastating one-on-one defender. Among the 58 guards who defended at least 50 isolation possessions this season, Matthews ranked 19th in points per possession allowed, per Synergy. When he’s on an island, he can get up into your space, make you uncomfortable, knock you off your spot, and most importantly he can do all of that without fouling. Even defending the best perimeter players in the league, guys like James Harden and Russell Westbrook who live at the free throw line, Matthews averaged just 2.2 fouls per game this season.

One of his secrets: Make players go to their weak hand. Harden is left-handed, but in the play above Matthews is camped out on his left hand, forcing him to go back to the right even after Harden beats him to his preferred side. In the play below, he forces Dion Waiters so far left that by the time Nowitzki grabs hold of the air ball, Waiters is out of bounds.

And then there’s this one, slowed down to make it easier to see. Watch as Matthews sticks to Kawhi Leonard’s hip, pushing him uncomfortably low toward the baseline and steering him directly into his help defender, Salah Mejri.

Generally, opponents had a bad time when they put it on the floor out of isolation against Matthews. Going left, they shot just 7 of 21 from the field with a whopping 11 turnovers. They didn’t fare much better going right, either, shooting just 7 of 24 from the field with five turnovers. If you can’t get all the way past him, there’s no way you’re getting a good shot.

There’s really nothing sexy about any of those plays, but that’s the way defense is supposed to be. You hear coaches and players say the same thing: Defense is desire, want-to, effort, pride, attitude, whatever you want to call it. It’s all of those things. It’s about willpower, the irrational belief in your ability to stop someone else with world-class talent from doing what they want to do in a game where new rules have made good defense become more and more difficult to perform. For a guy like Matthews, playing one-on-one against the best scorers in the league for 36 minutes a night is an opportunity, not a sentence. It’s a challenge, not an obstacle.

For the season, opponents shot just 34.3 percent against him on off-the-dribble jump shots. And when he closed out against spot-up shooters well enough to force them to put the ball on the floor and drive toward the basket, they scored just 43 total points on 84 possessions, turning it over 19 times. Sometimes, as Mavs owner Mark Cuban said, you can tell how good a defender someone is by the shots opponents don’t take against him. Matthews might not be the single-best perimeter defender in the NBA — it’s difficult to quantify that, anyway — but he certainly is one of them.

Moving Matthews to 3 while still giving him the freedom to defend the other team’s best player on a nightly basis unlocked new compartments of his game while also helping him continue to do what he’s always done best. This isn’t to say he should never play shooting guard again, because he still certainly can. But as the league continues to get smaller, he’s a very valuable player to have because of his ability to play 2-3 and defend 1-3, and occasionally even 4.

And one thing’s for sure about Matthews: He is never, ever going to be satisfied with how he’s playing, good or bad. It will never be enough. That trait, above all others, is why he’s survived in this league for so long, and it’s what will help him continue to play at a high level in seasons to come.

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