Adapt or perish.
That has been an all-too-familiar saying for over a century. It can be applied to anything in life that comes somebody’s way, whether it’s by a change of circumstance, an unexpected curveball out of nowhere or a new challenge ahead somebody did expect to happen.
Wesley Matthews makes a living out of adjusting.
Just this time last year, the veteran guard was playing in his third season for the middling Dallas Mavericks. One month into 2019, he was traded to the New York Knicks when his old ball club decided to strike a massive trade to create the future international duo of Kristaps Porzings and Luka Doncic.
Matthews’ stay in the Big Apple was short-lived — two games, to be precise. From that point, the Knicks agreed to buy him out so he could sign with a competing playoff team. Looking for a solution to fill the void left by Victor Oladipo, the Indiana Pacers came calling, and he got his wish. He finished the year and postseason in Indianapolis before becoming a free agent in the summer.
In discussing those crazy last few months, Matthews downplayed any sort of difficulty it had on him as a player.
“It’s just basketball,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “Obviously, different organizations, different schemes, different technical things just as far as on-court. But at the end of the day, it’s basketball. There’s two baskets. There’s 10 people playing at a time. Three refs. One ball. The basket’s 10 feet high. Same rules. [We’ve] been playing this game since we were three, four years old.”
The 2019 offseason brought about a fresh start. In search of a way to build around Giannis Antetokounmpo with some old pieces gone elsewhere, the Milwaukee Bucks came to terms with Matthews on a two-year contract, including a player option for next year.
Considering his past as a standout athlete at James Madison Memorial High School about 90 minutes down the road in Wisconsin, the decision was easy.
“I put in the work in the offseason, trained to be ready for any kind of situation I may face,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “As far as coming back home, coming back to Milwaukee — the opportunity just presented itself. There was a role and a need on both sides, and I’m happy to be home.”
For the Bucks, the feeling is mutual. Sporting an 18-3 record and outscoring their opponents by over 12 points per game, they are off to the hottest start among their peers.
According to Cleaning The Glass, they boast the top net rating (plus-11.7) and effective field goal percentage (55.8), plus the second-best offensive (114.3) and defensive rating (102.6) in the entire NBA. That’s what happens when you consistently get stops and get out in transition the way they have.
But even with all the success that Milwaukee has had in the first quarter of the season, Matthews sees something different standing out.
“Honestly, the ones that we let go, that we let get away,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “This team is obviously built to succeed on both ends of the court. Obviously, having Giannis is a tremendous asset to us. But a lot of ups and a lot of downs, even within the wins. [There are] ways to get better and an opportunity to continue to get better as the season goes on.”
Despite the point differential they’ve established, Matthews is referring to the losses — and even the victories — where the Bucks have had slippage. Whether it’s a few lackadaisical possessions in a row or a whole quarter, there have been a number of instances in which the team has allowed its opposition to make big runs and crack into a lead that should have left no doubt.
Take a recent trip to Northeast Ohio as an example. Going into halftime, Milwaukee had a commanding 20-point lead on the Cleveland Cavaliers, and it wasn’t a particularly close game as the score indicated. But the home squad responded loudly in the third quarter, nailing 10 threes en route to 42 points.
It was a comfortable advantage that was cut down to a single possession game in the final period. Still, the Bucks maintained their composure and found a way to win in a raucous Friday night environment on the road.
Milwaukee head coach Mike Budenholzer sees situations like these as teaching moments.
“We’ve had more close games,” Budenholzer said. “Last year, it felt like at times we were going long stretches without a close game. So hopefully, we’re learning how to execute down the stretch, play smarter down the stretch. Sometimes we haven’t, but you learn when you don’t.
“I’ve been impressed with the guys coming back. I think there’s a focus in wanting to get better, improve and I think you’re seeing it on the court.”
Speaking of improving, Matthews fits that bill. After an initial month of ups and downs on the offensive end of the floor, including an unusual night of zero attempts from the floor in Chicago, the decade-long vet has found his footing.
Since Nov. 20, Matthews has registered double-digit scoring efforts in six of eight games. During that stretch, he’s averaging 11.3 points per game on 45.2 percent from distance. Per NBA.com, the Bucks have been scoring 120.6 points per 100 possessions in that time, which is an increase of 10 before then.
Budenholzer figures that some of the slow start had to do with getting used to a new environment, but that’s not the only reason. More opportunities to get involved have been there as of late because his teammates are starting to understand where he’s going to be.
“I think he’s getting a little more comfortable finding some opportunities to cut, slash and backdoor people for some easy layups,” Budenholzer said. “Getting some free throws and he’s shooting the three-ball better. So you do those things and all of a sudden you’re getting to double figures quickly.”
Matthews chalks it up to the spacing of Budenholzer’s system that allows him to operate. However, again, he didn’t make much of the shooting woes due to the team’s success.
“It’s the early part of the season, you know? Obviously, it’s just getting familiar with a new team,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “Guys getting familiar with me, me getting familiar with them. Different positions, different areas.
“I mean, sports is like life. Everything changes, always. You have to adapt. You have to evolve. You have to grow. You have to get comfortable. So if shooting from the three is the thing that I’m struggling with…I’m comfortable with those going up.”
Matthews hangs his hat on the defensive end. He’s savvy in guarding his assignment and has been for quite some time. While he doesn’t defend many isolations, opponents are scoring just 0.27 points per possession on such occasions. He does an excellent job shutting down ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll too, ranking in the 98th percentile in the league, per NBA.com.
And yet, Matthews always desires more.
“Doing everything. Slashing, getting to the paint, making the right plays,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “If three-point shooting is what’s going down, then it’s just a matter of time before those start to fall.”
Matthews has been a staple in the Association for a while now. Most recall his breakout with the Portland Trail Blazers, where he spent half of his career defining what an ideal three-and-D wing should be. Unfortunately, that final season came to a crashing halt when he sustained a season-ending torn left Achilles in March 2015. The Pacific Northwest’s favorite “Iron Man” who played through the majority of his injuries could no longer do so.
That was the end of Matthews’ tenure with the Blazers. From that point on, he had to rehab and battle to get back to form. He admits that it took time to do so returning quickly from the setback, but when asked by Basketball Insiders if he feels the same physically now as he did then, he didn’t hesitate to answer.
“Yeah. Absolutely,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “I feel great. I feel like [I’m] defending like the old me, moving like the old me. Feel good.”
There you have it. Whether it’s been coming back from a major injury, switching teams or getting acclimated to a new system, Matthews has always been able to handle it.
Not many players are able to stick around in the NBA for 10 years. In spite of the obstacles thrown his way, Matthews has done more than that.
“I’m adaptable,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “I’ve been playing this game for a long time. As long as they don’t change the shape of the ball and the rim, I’ll be fine.”
After all, it’s just basketball.