It’s time for a heart-to-heart talk about Nicolas Batum. I’m going to play a little ‘good guy,’ play a little ‘bad guy,’ but mostly provide some perspective for his recent success. Let’s start there—“recent success.” How many times have we heard that in the past few seasons? 10 times? 50 times? A peak is no more sustainable than a valley with regard to Batum. For all the reliability of his averages, he is far and away Portland’s least consistent player. Averaging 13 points per game is largely a byproduct of sporadic fluctuations between 5ish and 20ish. The same can be said for his rebounding.
Fortunately, these fluctuations have trended toward a higher median as Batum has evolved as a player. While his scoring has hovered in the low teens since his sophomore season, he has averaged a new career high in rebounds per game every year since entering the league in 2008. He’s climbed to more than seven a pop these days, which is cause for restrained excitement. His growing role as a facilitator often dictates that he stick around for the defensive board in order to help the primary ball handler up the floor. He’s long, athletic, and has good instincts (and help from Robin Lopez) for positioning.
Lately, his production has seen a spike. Since the All-Star break, Batum has had three career rebounding nights; setting a new high of 16 against Denver, breaking it with 18 against Atlanta four nights later, and tying it with a repeat 18 in New Orleans last night. He’s tallied double-digit rebounds six times and scored 15 points or more five times. All this is very encouraging, except for one thing: circumstance. I cannot discredit Batum entirely, nor would I want to, but these outlier spurts are correlated with the absences or restricted minutes of 3x NBA All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge.
The wonky lineups have pushed Batum to power forward for extended stretches and he has unsurprisingly responded with a big man’s stat-line on more than one occasion (granted, he’s outdone himself). But let’s not forget his trademark tribulations either. He has still sprinkled in a few nights of struggles, the worst of which came against Utah for 3 points and 3 rebounds in 25 minutes. We have to have realistic expectations of him moving forward. A few exceptional outings do not raise the bar for all future ones unless there is good reason to believe the level of production is sustainable.
On the plus side, there are certainly positive takeaways to be had. Batum is a viable option in a small-ball lineup, Batum is capable of carrying a shorthanded team, Batum is still improving yearly six seasons deep, Batum can be even more versatile than we thought, and so on. He is not, however, going to be rock steady from here on out. Search your feelings. You know it to be true. Heck, many of you were probably nodding along this whole time, or even brandishing your internet pitchforks because this isn’t groundbreaking stuff. Yet it needs to be said from time to time so we don’t get caught up in ceiling inflation for the 10th (or is it the 50th?) time.