The Portland Trail Blazers had their eyes set on the Western Conference crown earlier in the season, and were capable of hanging with the league’s elite with a fully-healthy squad.
But once Wesley Matthews was lost for the year with a torn Achilles, the wheels fell off, and a first-round playoff elimination at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies was the season’s final, disappointing result.
The Blazers have a lot of uncertainty to deal with as free agency approaches this summer. LaMarcus Aldridge is the biggest name expected to test the market, and teams like the Spurs and the Mavericks will make compelling pitches in case he’s interested in a change of scenery. Robin Lopez is coming off of a stellar season, especially on the defensive end of the floor, and he, too is an unrestricted free agent.
But what Portland decides to do where Matthews is concerned might be among their most difficult decisions.
“As evidenced by our 11-15 record (actually 11-16) without Wesley and a first-round playoff exit for a team we thought had chance to compete for the Western Conference title, we know how important he is,” Olshey says. “We know his value to us; we also know he’s going to have market value around the league.”
Former Blazers coach P.J. Carlesimo — who served as ESPN television analyst for the third game of the Portland-Memphis series — says the loss of Matthews cost the Blazers a legitimate shot to beat the Grizzlies.
“He’s a fourth-quarter scorer like Damian Lillard,” Carlesimo says. “He’s an excellent 3-point shooter, especially in the fourth quarter. He makes the difference defensively. “He was also a spiritual leader. He’s as much or more than anybody the heart and soul of the team. It would be hard to exaggerate how important he was, how important his presence was. He was missed in so many ways.”
If what Carlesimo says has some merit, then Portland would be foolish to let Matthews go. The production of Damian Lillard was diminished once Matthews was sidelined, and defensively, the Blazers were unable to stop opposing teams’ guards from scoring at will with Matthews out of the lineup.
Jimmy Butler and Monta Ellis are in that two-guard group of free agents that Matthews will be a part of, though Butler is expected to re-up in Chicago, and Ellis’ moodiness in Dallas could make him a less-desirable prospect. That means teams may come hard after Matthews, and it’ll be interesting to see whether or not Portland is ready to step up in the very same way.