I’m Not Buying The Nicolas Batum Talk

I made a terrible mistake in judgment yesterday whilst driving home from work. I turned on sports talk radio. I came in right in the middle of some kind of quick hitting debate, and missed the opening question, but I did happen to hear two unnamed but well-known local hosts speculating on the recent behavior of Nicolas Batum.

What I heard, to paraphrase because I was driving and transcribing behind the wheel is definitely not a good idea, was that they were unimpressed by how Nic had taken to his new limited role. One individual went as far as to say that Nic seemed to be moping and was behaving in a way that was, well you know, French.

Interesting. This brief cheap shot was left to hang. In case you didn’t know the Rose Bowl is Monday, so that was the thrust of this specific radio show—or at least the few minutes I heard before I decided to turn it off. Sports radio didn’t elaborate, or discuss Nicolas Batum any further, but I’m going to.

This issue exists at all because of this piece, which appeared following Portland’s first big win of the season Thursday night against the Denver Nuggets. I don’t take issue with much in the original piece. I believe whole-heartedly that Nicolas Batum and his fading importance on this team is going to be probably the biggest story of this season.

Right now Nic is not a starter, a place he hasn’t been very often in his short NBA career. As a Blazer, Batum has appeared in 199 games, and has started 168 of those, meaning his been a starter 84% of his time as a professional. Adjusting to coming off the bench takes some time. As an optimist, I’m going to chalk up any issues that we might see from Nic to the fact that he’s in the midst of becoming comfortable in his new role.

And that brings me to the real issue I have with this whole debate. I’m not sure I believe that there are problems with Nic. Beginning with his rookie season, Batum has always carried himself as a consummate team player, deferring to his teammates when he had a good game—he was one of the biggest supporters in the locker room of Brandon Roy when it started to become clear that Brandon’s knees were starting to go for real—and maintaining that what was most important to him was helping the team get wins.

But more than being just a professional, Nicolas has always been a very clear and matter-of-fact speaker. He speaks his mind, and he’s incredibly intelligent. In the last few days he has told members of the media that he wants to play, and be in the game to close, because it’s true, he wants to be in the game. That doesn’t mean that he’s unhappy.

Let’s be honest, every guy on every team in the NBA thinks they should be on the court at all times. And that’s good. It’s that competitive drive that got them to the very top of one of the most competitive professional leagues in the world.

I can almost guarantee that it would a bigger story if Nicolas, when asked about his playing time, said that he’s fine not playing as much. Then we would probably be reading about how Nic was being complacent and not willing to challenge for more minutes.

It’s hard to have it both ways. He says he wants to play, and he’s vilified for feeling sorry for himself about his diminished role; he doesn’t say anything, and he’s likely to get the same treatment for not sticking up for himself.

I hate to say it, but the damned if you do damned if you don’t element of this issue, not the Oregonian piece or the radio broadcast but the thing as a whole, makes it feel a bit like manufactured news. Portland is 3-0, the new additions to the roster have played well and made the team better, losing Brandon Roy and Greg Oden has had almost zero lasting impact. Right now, there isn’t anything to talk about. That’s great for fans, but not great for the talking heads industry.

I have no doubt that the Nicolas Batum situation will have to be addressed at some point. With Gerald Wallace and Jamal Crawford playing on one-year deals, signing Nic for the long-term is elemental for this team to continue to make the Playoffs over the next few years. But that’s a long-term issue.

Right now the team is winning, and—although it’s early and I have no mandate to be objective—there’s a chance they could compete for the top spots in the Western Conference. I guarantee you that there wasn’t a single guy in the home locker room Thursday that would have given up that win for a couple more minutes on the court or a few more shots on the stat sheet.

This team can win now. Some things are going to have to be sacrificed over this season to get those wins. Nicolas Batum understands that, and he’s said as much. My suggestion is, let him complain first, then report on it.

But there’s another side to this debate too, a side that’s a little more sinister, and was made incredibly clear during yesterday afternoon’s radio broadcast. The Blazers used to be an international team.

In 2008-09, Nic’s rookie year, Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriquez were his teammates—in case you’ve forgotten they’re both from Spain.  Sergio was gone by the next season, but Rudy stayed, and Sergio’s place was taken Aussie Patty Mills.

2010-11 was a banner year for foreigners in Portland; last season included at one time or another Sean Marks (New Zealand), Patty (Australia), Nicolas (France), Rudy (Spain), and Fabricio Oberto (Argentina). That’s five countries and three continents on one roster.

By opening day 2011-12, Nicolas was the last one left. The international corner of the locker room is now his alone. Attributing his behavior to his nationality is probably not the best way to go in the future. Nicolas was, and by all indications still is, good friends with Rudy. I’m sure he saw that way Rudy was run out of town—a citywide about-face that was cemented by booing on Thursday night—and might start to worry that he could face the same fate.

Rudy’s failures in a Blazer jersey were never directly attributed to his being Spanish. But some of the shots taken at his manhood at the beginning of the last season read as thinly veiled attempts to highlight his otherness.

I’m not excusing anybody of xenophobia, I just think that should the discussion of Nicolas Batum’s future with regards to his dwindling playing time actually become a real thing (for example if he pulls a Rudy or a Sergio and has his European agent take to the press to demand their client get more minutes), his nationality should play little to no role.

The Rudy situation turned ugly in a hurry when personal opinions got involved. I wanted Rudy to work out I really did, but by the end he was under too much pressure to succeed in Portland, he’d become a liability on the court, and the front office basically had no choice but to trade him.

If that kind of thing happens to Nic, and if it comes about because somebody feels the need to concoct a story so as not to sound too positive about these current Blazers, that would be a real shame.

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Twitter: @mikeacker | @ripcityproject

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