Mavs' $70 million question: Can Wesley Matthews return to form?

ORLANDO -- Whether it was wise for the Dallas Mavericks to give shooting guard Wesley Matthews a max contract months after he ruptured his left Achilles tendon is debatable, to put it politely.

The Mavs certainly aren’t getting their money’s worth right now. They must get much better bang for the buck from their highest-paid player to have any hope of being more than first-round fodder -- and perhaps even to make the playoffs.

The fact that the 29-year-old Matthews is struggling through the worst season of his career can’t be considered surprising. The history of players coming back from torn Achilles tendons, if they come back at all, is frighteningly poor.

The Mavs were well aware of that when they made their massive investment in Matthews this summer, signing him to a four-year, $70 million contract, making good on owner Mark Cuban’s promise to pay him as much as possible depending on whether DeAndre Jordan joined the Mavs. (It would have been a $57 million deal if Jordan followed through on his commitment to come to Dallas.)

It was an expensive vote of confidence from Cuban in Matthews’ remarkable will and work ethic. It was also a vote of confidence in the Mavs’ support staff -- specifically head athletic trainer Casey Smith and athletic performance director Jeremy Holsopple -- and the new medical technology that wasn’t available to players whose careers were ruined by a ruptured Achilles in the past.

And it was a decision made with the long term in mind.

“We didn’t sign him for this year,” Cuban said recently when asked if Matthews’ extended slump concerned him.

Not that Matthews, who surprised many by making good on his vow to play in the season opener less than eight months after suffering his injury, is looking for excuses for his struggles. Nor does he expect Mavs fans to have much patience in him if he doesn’t perform well.

“I’ve got to play better,” Matthews said after scoring only five points on 2-of-10 shooting in Friday’s overtime loss to the Orlando Magic. “I take that onus up. I take that ownership. I will.”

Matthews’ value to the Mavs can’t be measured simply by his stats. He’s a tremendous teammate who leads the Mavs in minutes played, a respected voice in the locker room and a proud defender who readily accepts the challenge of guarding the opponent’s best perimeter scorer on a nightly basis.

But Dallas desperately needs Matthews, who established himself as one of the NBA’s premier perimeter shooters the previous five seasons in Portland, to snap out of his offensive funk.

Matthews gave the Mavs one really good offensive month. He averaged 15 points and hit 42.5 percent of his 3-point attempts in December, numbers that were pretty close to the norm during his five-year tenure with the Trail Blazers. Matthews was plus-89 in those 14 games. Not coincidentally, the Mavs had their best month of the season, going 9-5.

The Mavs are 9-13 in games in which Matthews has played since the calendar flipped to 2016. He has averaged only 10.7 points during that time, shooting 37.4 percent from the floor and 30.5 percent from 3-point range. He is minus-69 in those 22 games.

It’s not trending in the right direction, either. Matthews is minus-55 in six February games, averaging only 8.8 points per game. Not coincidentally, the Mavs are 1-5 this month, sliding to 29-27 overall, putting them four games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for fifth in the Western Conference and giving them only a 1 1/2-game cushion before falling out of the playoff pack.

“This is not a Wes thing. This is a team thing,” coach Rick Carlisle said, downplaying concerns about Matthews’ slump. “We’ve got to stick together, and we’ve got to make a stand. We’re struggling, we’re struggling. We’ve won one out of the last [six games]. We’ve got to stick together and we’ve got to finish games.”

It’s reached the point where Matthews, who has earned a reputation for being a clutch player, frequently isn’t part of the Mavs’ closing five. Carlisle has opted to play reserve guard Raymond Felton instead of Matthews for much or all of crunch time in the last three games.

Matthews sat down the stretch of regulation Friday night. He played the entire overtime, missing both of his shot attempts -- a driving layup and an open corner 3 that both would have tied the score.

“I’m not going to hang my head,” Matthews said. “I’m not going to stop talking, leading, hustling, taking the best offensive player on the defensive end. I’m not going to shy away from shots. I’m not going to shy away from going to the paint.

“I’m still going to continue to be me. It’s a long season. We’re in the sprint part of it now. Percentages will always kick back. I’m staying confident, trusting my team, trusting myself and playing basketball as hard as I can.

“I’ve been making those shots since I’ve been in the league. As soon as I get frustrated, it takes away from everything else that I can do on the court. When I start doing that, then I’m selfish. I’ve just got to continue being me [and] stay confident, which I am. I’m not worried about it. The team trusts me. Coaches trust me, and I’m going to work my ass off.”