Wesley Matthews’ hip injury has left the Blazers without one of their most reliable scoring weapons over the past three weeks. For a young team still figuring out its identity, an injury to such a key player has the potential to be a death blow. Rookie Victor Claver has started the majority of games in Matthews’ place, which on paper seems like it would prompt a massive downgrade to the starting lineup. But it’s been fascinating to watch over the past few games as the starting lineup’s production hasn’t dipped in any meaningful way, while the bench continues to struggle. Claver, while not a scorer, has found ways to contribute in the starting unit and looks more comfortable every game he plays in this increased role. Given the rest of the starters’ offensive potency, Claver seems closer to carving out a niche with the team after struggling to get on the floor in the early season. In the interests of using both players in ways that best maximize their abilities, there’s a strong case to be made that Terry Stotts has stumbled into a new way forward, with Claver starting and Matthews as a sixth man.
Keeping the starting lineup the way it is when Matthews returns to action could prove beneficial to both players. Claver has scored 28 points on the season on 11-for-38 shooting. But scoring was never supposed to be Claver’s strength, and it isn’t what he was brought over from Spain to do for the Blazers. It’s no secret that Portland’s bench has had problems scoring all season, and when Claver plays with other reserves, he’s just another guy who can’t score, something the Blazers’ second unit has more than enough of. When he’s on the floor with Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, and J.J. Hickson, however, he isn’t leaned on nearly as much for offensive production. Playing with four capable scorers allows him to concentrate on defense, making cuts to set up passes for teammates’ shots, and rebounding.
There are significant advantages to bringing Matthews off the bench as well. For one thing, it would finally give the Blazers’ bench a player capable of scoring consistently, something they’ve lacked all year. For another, it would put an end to the Lillard-Ronnie Price two-PG backcourts Stotts has often played this season, which have left a lot to be desired. In 105 minutes this season, lineups featuring both Lillard and Price have scored just 95.4 points per 100 possessions, while allowing 100.9. These lineups don’t particularly make sense for either player—Price doesn’t offer nearly enough as a scorer for you to feel comfortable playing him at shooting guard, and while Lillard is certainly a good shooter, it seems a waste to have by far the Blazers’ best floor manager on the court and not running the offense.
Price and Matthews make much more sense together. As a two-man unit, they have been in lineups together for 125 minutes this year. While these lineups have been slightly worse defensively than those with Price and Lillard (allowing 104.7 points per 100 possessions), they’ve been astronomically better offensively (105.5 points scored per 100 possessions). Matthews’ greatest strength is as a shooter, something he isn’t able to do nearly enough playing in lineups with three other high-usage scorers. Using Matthews as a sixth man puts him a position where his primary role can be as a catch-and-shoot player. As a distributor, Price represents a huge dropoff from Lillard, but the strides Nicolas Batum has made as a passer in recent weeks mitigate this somewhat. As long as either Lillard or Batum are on the floor with Matthews (a pretty safe bet, given how much Stotts likes to mix-and-match his lineups), there will be someone to feed him the ball when he’s open.
For as little scoring as Claver gives the Blazers, their starting lineups don’t fare much worse offensively with him on the floor than they do with Matthews. The lineups’ respective True Shooting Percentages are nearly identical, and while the team gives up a three-point threat with Matthews out of the lineup, they make up for it in other ways. They are 1.4 points per 100 possessions worse with Claver than with Matthews, but since they also allow 1.7 fewer points per 100 possessions on defense with Claver in the starting lineup, it’s more or less a wash. The two iterations of the starting unit have identical assist-turnover ratios, but the Lillard-Claver-Batum-Aldridge-Hickson version rebounds better, fouls less, and gets blocked less per 36 minutes.
None of this is to say Matthews is having a bad season, or that the idea of benching him should be viewed as a demotion. Before his injury, he was much improved in just about every offensive statistical category over last season. He’s been more comfortable shooting the ball, and especially shown more confidence (and effectiveness) attacking the rim. But given how much Lillard, Aldridge, and Batum offer as scorers, and how paltry and inconsistent their bench production can be, it might make sense for Stotts to try an arrangement similar to the one that has been so effective for the Oklahoma City Thunder. They are able to start relative offensive non-contributor Thabo Sefolosha at shooting guard because their starting lineup also features Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka. This allows a starting-caliber scorer like Kevin Martin (and before him, James Harden) to anchor the second unit and provide stability when the starters are off the floor. Obviously, the Lillard-Batum-Aldridge trio isn’t at the level of Westbrook-Durant-Ibaka, and nor is Matthews as good a player as Harden or Martin. But that’s completely beside the point—the Thunder are title contenders, and the Blazers are a lottery team, something that would be true regardless of who starts for Portland. What’s important for the Blazers in this rebuilding season is to make sure all of their players are being used in ways that play to their strengths and allow them to develop as players. Using Claver as the team’s Sefolosha and Matthews as their Martin/Harden may be just that.
All lineup data courtesy of NBA.com’s Media Central stats tool.