Wesley Matthews‘ stellar defense has allowed him to take on high profile matchups, and to take pressure away from the Milwaukee Bucks’ stars.
When the Milwaukee Bucks decided to move on from Malcolm Brogdon last offseason, it became immediately apparent that his role in the rotation was set to be replaced by committee.
The Bucks didn’t have the cap space and financial flexibility to seek out a like for like replacement, and so they were going to be required to pick up the best backcourt player they could, along with looking for the wings already on their roster to step up.
Landing Wesley Matthews on a veteran minimum deal gave the Bucks the kind of profile of player they could be comfortable slotting into what used to be Brogdon’s spot in the starting lineup, but it also gave them a little extra in some departments.
Matthews isn’t capable of creating offense for himself or others quite like the former Rookie of the Year can, but his vast experience and physical defense allow him to give Milwaukee something they didn’t previously have at their disposal.
Continuing a trend that has been present through the majority of Matthews’ career, the veteran has embraced the challenge of picking up some of the league’s very best players this season, and in the process he has freed up Milwaukee’s star players to focus in on playing their own games.
With incredible lower body strength in spite of his size, Matthews is remarkably versatile as a defender even though his foot speed may not be quite what it once was.
Against Harden, who is similarly sized, Matthews was able to adopt and even improve upon the approach that Eric Bledsoe famously implemented against him, staying glued to Harden’s side and preventing him from going to his left hand and stepping back at the rate he’d like to. The result of that, in Matthews’ first regular season game as a Buck, was to hold the former MVP to just 19 points on a horrid 2-of-13 shooting.
Guarding a guard or wing of Harden’s size is one thing, but Matthews’ resistance to being backed down or simply barreled through by bigger and stronger opponents has also allowed him to lock in on James in Milwaukee’s two previous matchups with the Lakers.
The results of that may have been mixed across that span, which is not unusual even for great defenders when tasked with stopping James, but Matthews’ ability to take on that matchup is significant to begin with.
In years past, the Bucks would have had no option other than to put Bledsoe on Harden, and one of Giannis Antetokounmpo or Khris Middleton on LeBron. For key possessions, or in a potential playoff matchup, they may still be the first choice looks, but Matthews’ defensive versatility frees up the Bucks’ most important offensive players from possession to possession.
In other words, the physical toll of defending the NBA’s best players doesn’t necessarily need to translate to a more weary and less effective effort offensively.
Matthews has done a great job of slotting into Brogdon’s spot and spurring the Bucks on this season, but his defense really shouldn’t be overlooked, and could yet prove to be crucial in a postseason setting.