Nicolas Batum used to be the most divisive player on the Blazers, and it wasn’t especially close. We used to think that the team’s potential was as far as Batum’s development could take them. Was he Scottie Pippen? Was he Travis Outlaw? Was he Lola Bunny? The war lasted years, each battle bloodier than the last, with no end was in sight.
Then Terry Stotts arrived, and pretty quickly found what seemed to be the answer to the Nicolas Batum question. Batum’s complaints about Coach McMillan sticking him in the corner to spot up were, unlike many parting shots at old coaches, totally valid. A player doesn’t triple his assist rate by working hard over the summer. When a player takes that huge a leap in playmaking, there is always some systemic factor that was holding him back. Anyway, things quieted down soon after that as narratives about Lillard’s rise and Aldridge’s development took hold.
And despite that, I would argue that his success is just as integral to Portland’s success as it’s ever been. Back before the season started (in my very first post here, in fact) I wrote that Batum’s playmaking ability or lack thereof would be the difference between a beautiful, efficient offense and one with too much shooting for its own good. Batum has surpassed everyone’s expectations, averaging 5.7 assists per game to co-lead the Blazers. From an on-off perspective, Nicolas Batum’s absence hurts the Blazers on offense more than anyone besides LaMarcus Aldridge, and the gap between them is practically nil. Like last year, over half of his shots are threes, and his impressive efficiency has come despite a down year shooting from deep.
The same goes for Batum and LA on defense, although the +/- gap is larger. Batum’s defense is often sloppy. The complaints that he lacks focus and aggressiveness aren’t unfounded. If you put Matthews’ effort in Batum’s body, you’d have–well, you’d have Paul George, almost. But Batum is athletic and smart enough to make up for some of his shortcomings. He’s one of the only players on the team who is even remotely liable to steal the ball. He can also cover elite point guards for stretches, which I expect Stotts to make full use of in the playoffs. He and Aldridge are probably the only ones keeping the team’s defense from exploding and taking its playoff hopes with it.
So Batum is basically everything. The triple-doubles and the five-by-fives aren’t a statistical quirk; he actually can do everything pretty well. He’s a rangy, playmaking three-point shooter who can credibly defend three positions (kinda) and handle the ball (kinda). He’s very stealthily one of the most important players on the team.
Batum continues to have a massive impact on the Blazers’ success, despite the lowest usage rate that he’s had since his sophomore year. He’s been shoved to the side to an extent by the emergence of Damian Lillard and the Aldridge midrange-sanity. He seems to have settled into a role for the time being–his stats haven’t changed a huge amount from last year, and while his stats fluctuate quite a bit from day to day, he seems to have mostly eliminated the long useless stretches he used to have. I won’t rule out future development; he’s already proven himself to be a way better passer than anyone suspected. But I think what we have now is who Batum is. The Batum Wars are over, and no one noticed the end.