In 2010 the Utah Jazz failed to match an offer sheet for Wesley Matthews. What would have happened if Utah kept him for the long term?
They never made it back to the conference finals, and their supporting cast around Williams was starting to wane. Boozer was a unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2010, and was seeking a max contract. Mehmet Okur had suffered a devastating achilles tear in the opening round of the playoffs, and Andrei Kirilenko only had one year left on his max contract that he never lived up to.
The Jazz were starting to move in a new direction, matching an offer sheet the Portland Trail-Blazers made for Paul Millsap the summer of 2009. One year later, the Trail-Blazers would be successful in poaching young Jazz talent.
A big part of why the Jazz were able to get back to the semi-finals of the playoffs in 2010 was the emergence of Wesley Matthews. Initially undrafted, he earned an invite from Jerry Sloan to the Utah Jazz training camp roster and began his ascent.
By the trade deadline, Matthews had proved his worth as a valuable role player in the NBA. The Jazz were comfortable trading away Ronnie Brewer to avoid getting hit with the luxury tax, because they knew they had other options to fall back on. In essence, Matthews replaced Brewer as the starting shooting guard and backcourt partner with Deron Williams.
This was a big deal, as Brewer was a fan favorite, a favorite teammate of Deron Williams, and a perfect fit for Jerry Sloan’s hard-nosed style of coaching. But his rookie deal was expiring, and he would start to get expensive without having a reliable jump shot.
Matthews was the better option, but also had an impending restricted free agency. Any team would be able to offer him a contract, but the Jazz had the power to match and retain him. Portland offered him a 5 year/$34 million contract which seemed bullish on only a rookie year of sample size. That in addition to the Jazz already being low on cap space caused Utah to let Matthews walk away.
They also didn’t have the space to bring back Kyle Korver, so Kevin O’Connor replaced Matthews by signing former Jazzmen Raja Bell on a cheap contract, and replaced Korver by drafting Gordon Hayward with the Knicks pick acquired in 2004.
As we all know, this team was on good pace to finish high in the west. On January 14th after a blowout win over the Cavaliers and a career high 40 points from CJ Miles, the Jazz were on pace for 55 wins. Deron Williams was having a career year, and Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson were filling the void left by Carlos Boozer’s departure and Mehmet Okur’s career-ending injury, and things were looking optimistic for the revamped Jazz roster.
The next 14 games however, they went 4-10 including losses to lottery teams in the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. The frustration boiled up enough over those 14 games to cause a falling out between Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan. Two weeks later Sloan was retired, and Williams was traded to New Jersey.
What went wrong those 14 games?
Part of it had to do with the brutal five game road trip on the East coast. Utah didn’t have time to practice in-between games and they played away from Energy Solutions Arena for 12 straight days. Part of it had to do with minor injuries to Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko. But the one obvious sore I picked from those 12 games was a lack of three point shooting, especially from the wing positions.
For most of that 14 game stretch, the Utah Jazz never exceeded 15 three point attempts in a game. Their opponents on the other hand, lit up the Jazz with impressive nights from the likes of Lou Williams, Nick Young, Paul Pierce, and the young Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry.
In other words, they were badly needing a knockdown three point shooter that could defend perimeter players well.
In the midst of the Utah Jazz struggles and eventual fracture of the locker room and playoff hopes, Wesley Matthews was having the season of his life in Portland. He was the second highest scorer on the Portland Trail-Blazers, who went on to earn the sixth seed in the Western Conference and steal two games from the eventual NBA champions in the first round of the playoffs.
Here’s what it looks like when you compare Wesley Matthews side-by-side with Raja Bell in the 2010-11 season:
Matthews: 15.9 points, 44.9 percent FG%, 40.7 percent 3pt FG% on 4.6 attempts per game
Raja Bell: 8 points, 40.9 percent FG%, 35.2 3pt FG% on 2.8 attempts per game
Is it safe to assume that Wesley Matthews could have saved the Jazz’s season in 2010-11? Probably not, given that the Jazz were missing not just Matthews, but the shooting touch of Okur and Kyle Korver. Deron Williams had already notified the Jazz front office that he didn’t intend on re-signing in Utah when his contract was up. Jerry Sloan had been coaching for 21 years and time was running out for him.
But it is fun to imagine what that team could have been if they kept their momentum they built up in the early season. Would it have equated to anything beyond the second round of the playoffs? Probably not given the strength of the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, and Los Angeles Lakers that year.
Keeping Matthews would have given Utah a better roster and more playoff minutes in 2012 and 2013. If Utah won just two more games in the lockout shortened season, they would have had the sixth seed in the playoffs.
The actual sixth seed in 2012 was the Denver Nuggets, which was mostly a mish-mash of pieces from the Carmelo Anthony trade. Denver was able to push the Lakers to seven games in the first round, giving some valuable playoff minutes for the development of Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, and Danilo Gallanari. The next year it was those same guys plus Andre Iguodala that pushed the Nuggets to a surprising 57 win season and a coach of the year award for George Karl.
If the Utah Jazz had Matthews starting at shooting guard as opposed to the committee of Raja Bell, Randy Foye and CJ Miles, I think the Jazz could have had more playoff time both years as opposed to the one embarrassing sweep in 2012. Perhaps that would have led to faster development of Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors and even Enes Kanter, and impacted Hayward’s 2017 free agency decision in favor of Utah.
Here’s the big question to all of this: would the Jazz have kept Matthews the year they renounced Jefferson and Millsap? He is only one year younger than those two, and would have eaten up playing time for Utah’s younger players. Would they have kept him to form a fearsome wing tandem with Gordon Hayward?
Even if they had kept him through the process of switching coaches and general managers, I don’t think the Jazz would have offered him the kind of money the Dallas Mavericks did in the summer of 2015. Utah had the impending free agency for Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors to prepare for, and the real need for upgrade was the point guard position.
In summary if the Jazz decided to match that offer sheet for Wesley Matthews, they would have been even deeper in the luxury tax in 2011. It would have been a bit nicer for the fans to see our team making three point shots and spending more time in the postseason; but in the grand scheme of things, Matthews would not have moved the needle enough to make the Jazz a serious contender.