Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Until recently, Raja Bell wouldn't have known Wesley Matthews from Walter Matthau.
But after Matthews left Utah for Portland as a restricted free agent last offseason, paving the way for Bell to return for a second stint with the Jazz, the veteran swingman became curious.
"The few (Jazz) games I saw (last season), he wasn't fully in the rotation yet," Bell said. "I did get a peek at him in playoffs a little bit, and so, more than anything, I've asked a lot of people just how good he was, because he was a prized free agent his summer that I really didn't know about."
What Bell learned was that Matthews' loss last July was a painful one for the Jazz.
And with Matthews in town with the Trail Blazers for tonight's 2010-11 NBA preseason opener at EnergySolutions Arena, what was then bad news bears repeating now: Utah very much wanted to retain its prized undrafted rookie, one who became its starting shooting guard by season's end. But the Jazz deemed it neither wise nor financially feasible to match the five-year, $32.5 million offer sheet — with more than $9 million payable up front — that Matthews signed with the Blazers.
With a void to fill, then, Utah turned to lower-cost alternative Bell.
He's 34 years old, played just six games with stops at both Charlotte and Golden State last season, and has a surgically repaired left wrist.
But at slightly less than $10 million over three years, roughly half the annual cost of Matthews to Portland, the move made sense on multiple levels.
Like Matthews, Bell's defensive tenacity is his calling card.
Like Matthews, who had 20 points, four rebounds, and three assists while making three 3-pointers and hitting 9-for-10 from the free-throw line in Portland's exhibition win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday, Bell also is a bona fide long-distance threat.
And, a la Matthews, who averaged 9.4 points per game last season, the also-undrafted Bell had a successful first go-round in Utah, averaging 11.2 points while playing 145 games in the 2003-04 and 2004-05 seasons.
"We lost Wes, who was a good 3-point shooter and a great defender," point guard Deron Williams said. "And you come and fill in with (Bell), who is the same thing, but has more experience, and has been in the playoffs, has been on this team, knows Coach (Jerry) Sloan, knows this offense.
"So, it was a great pickup for us. ... Hopefully, his mentality will rub off on some of the younger guys — C.J. (Miles), (rookie) Gordon Hayward."
Sloan thinks much the same, though he does compliment Matthews for being a "good player" who transformed himself from an NBA hopeful to a marquee summer signee simply by "competing."
"Raja's a veteran player; Wes is only a second-year player. But he (Matthews) has great concentration on playing, and he's not afraid to work," Sloan said. "Raja had all those things when he was here (the first time).
"It makes you feel good," he added, "about guys that do it on their own, and get out and make themselves better by hard work."
As willing as Bell is to do whatever it takes to succeed, though, he feels no extra, particular need to prove the Jazz did the right thing by declining to match on Matthews and signing him instead.
"My body of work speaks for itself," said Bell, who has played for six teams over 10 seasons, including postseason appearances with Philadelphia, Dallas and Phoenix.
"I've been around the league for a while, and everywhere I've been able to help a team in one way or another," he added. "It will be no different here."
This season in Utah, Bell will be asked to contribute mostly at shooting guard — and could wind up starting, like he has for each of the five past seasons when healthy.
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