As the 2021-22 NBA season progresses closer and closer toward a conclusion, avenues for the Philadelphia 76ers to enhance their roster draw near. Among those avenues is NBA Free Agency, which kicks off July 1 at midnight. As that date approaches, Liberty Ballers will be breaking down some free agents who might make sense in a Sixers uniform.
- 2021-22 statistical profile: 49 games, 20.4 minutes, 5.1 points, 1.9 rebounds, 53.6 percent true shooting (.395/.338/.786 split)
- Playoff statistics: 12 games, 28.8 minutes, 6.2 points, 3.1 rebounds, 54.4 percent true shooting (.391/.400/.667 split)
- Advanced metrics: -1.1 Estimated Plus-Minus (237th), -2.2 O-EPM (355th), +1.1 D-EPM (80th)
After spending the first six weeks of the season at home, the 35-year-old wing joined the Milwaukee Bucks in early December and immediately entered the rotation. By late March, he supplanted Grayson Allen in the starting lineup and held that mantle throughout the playoffs.
Absent Brook Lopez much of the year, Milwaukee lacked the requisite number of capable perimeter defenders to soundly enforce its no-paint defensive approach. Matthews was among the few who could help remedy that ailment and showcased his versatile, hounding on-ball defense during his five-month, 2021-22 stint.
The defensive fit in Philadelphia for Matthews is evident. The Sixers are short on trustworthy perimeter stoppers, especially in a postseason context. Regardless of what transpires this summer, it’s obvious Matisse Thybulle’s offensive limitations prohibit him from being Philadelphia’s top wing defender. Matthews’ offense has its own warts (more on that side of the ball later), but he’s certainly better offensively than Thybulle and plays some seriously menacing on-ball defense.
His truncated 2021-22 campaign and smaller workload likely kept him out of All-Defensive discussions. But on a per-minute basis, both this past year and in 2019-20, he’s played defense of that stature. He wields incredibly fluid lateral movement, wiggles over screens comfortably and excels icing them as well.
With his burly, 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame, his center of gravity renders him tough to push off of spots and allow him to really tuck himself into ball-handler’s airspace. He operates with active hands to deter shots or muddy passes, and his closeouts are disciplined to prevent threatening dribble penetration. The Bucks entrusted him with numerous daunting initiators last season, and he often proved up to the task.
Just look at the spectrum of stars in that montage: Trae Young, Kevin Durant, Luka Dončić, Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell and Kyrie Irving. He can even guard up at times, causing headaches for Christian Wood and Jaren Jackson Jr. aiming to establish post supremacy. The Sixers didn’t roster much switch-ability in their rotation. Matthews brings it. Scheme flexibility is an important trait for playoff success. Joel Embiid offers it in spades defensively, Matthews would further enhance that concept.
His exploits are not confined to the regular season either. He was vital to Milwaukee slowing DeMar DeRozan in the first round and flustered Jayson Tatum in the Eastern Conference Semifinals for stretches. Eventually, Tatum began to solve Matthews, but he retained significant defensive value in a 16-game setting. That’s an essential quality in building a title contender, which is, of course, Philadelphia’s aim around Embiid.
Matthews’ off-ball defense isn’t as sterling as his on-ball contributions. He’s prone to overhelping — though loading the paint is a pillar of Mike Budenholzer’s defense — and his middling straight-line speed leaves him susceptible to being shook free. Conversely, he’s attentive executing interior rotations. There’s much to enjoy about his defense, even if it’s not entirely flawless. If the Sixers landed him, he’d be their most impactful perimeter janitor.
So, we’ve hit on all the highly enticing components of Matthews’ game. His offense is, well, much less laudatory, but still offers positives. He’s a career 37.7 percent 3-point shooter (33.6 percent the last two years), knows how to relocate into openings and is a heady cutter.
Although he’s not a fly-and-hoist movement shooter, he can do a little bit of work on the move. Functioning as a floor-spacer for Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey, his volume (.732 3-point rate since 2019) and perceptiveness would complement that lead trio well.
Moments of record-scratch hesitancy occur, but they’re not a dominating factor of his shooting and he holsters a snappy release most often. If he can inch closer to his career 3-point efficiency, his offensive value perks up by a notable amount.
On a couple of those plays, note how he tells Bobby Portis to fill the lane and create more space for his jumper on a potential kickout pass. High-feel offense is good!
Beyond stationary outside shooting, the scope of Matthews’ offense is rather narrow. Since 2015-16, he’s netted just 44.2 percent of his 2-pointers (league average is low 50s over that span). He is not much of a connective passer. Sometimes, he embarks on a dribble or two (or three) more than necessary and wanders himself into trouble.
If the 2021-22 defense maintains, it is likely good enough to carve out a prominent rotation spot — or fringe starter, in the proper lineup. Again, his 3-ball returning to 37-38 percent rather than 33ish percent would really help. The last couple years are a concerning trend as he eyes a 36th birthday in October, though.
Nonetheless, Matthews is a borderline elite on-ball defender comfortable assuming an array of assignments. He’s a willing shooter who moves shrewdly off the ball. However, as someone who spent many of his formative years in Madison, Wisconsin, attended Marquette collegiately and reportedly waited for the Bucks to offer him a spot last season, odds he departs from his Midwestern digs seem slim.
Yet if he does, the Sixers should aggressively pursue his services. He’s exactly the type of wing they needed more of last year and one who could absolutely enhance their championship hopes.