When Nicolas Batum signed his current 4 year, $46.5 million deal, it was with the expectation the Batum, then 23, would improve. He was coming off a season in which he averaged 13.9/4.6/1.4 and started only 34 out of a possible 66 games. Portland (and Minnesota, who gave Batum the offer sheet) was paying for potential. We are halfway through that deal, so now is a good time to evaluate it.
Batum’s usage rate climbed every year until 2012, when it peaked at 20.5%. That was his first and last time with an above-average usage rate. Neil Olshey and the rest of the front office probably assumed that that’s the sort of improvement they were getting: steady (and above-average) efficiency despite rising usage.
What they didn’t realize–or at least couldn’t count on–was the impact of Damian Lillard. They had already drafted him, granted, but he was still a relative unknown. There was no way of knowing for certain that they were getting a future all-star and someone who could take up 24.6% of the team’s possessions over his first two years on above-average efficiency.
This development might have shoved Batum to the side, and indeed his usage rate has dropped from 20.5 to 18.2 to 16.5 this year. That’s not what the Blazers paid $46.5 million for. What they have ended up paying for is a different player entirely. More than any other player on the team, Batum changed his game to fit Lillard and Terry Stotts. Wesley Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge, the other core players from the 2012 squad, have seen their usage rates go up and their shot distributions remain roughly the same (Aldridge has moved his shots outside, but he likes to do that). Batum, on the other hand, has radically reinvented his game.
His %3PA (the percentage of his shots that come from 3-point range) has shot up, from 44% over the first four years of his career to 51% in the two seasons since. The percentage of his two-pointers that were assisted during his rookie deal was 71%–since then, 54%. Assisted three-pointers follow a similar trend, going from 97% to 91%. The Blazers essentially got lucky with him. He’s had to dramatically change the way he plays in the last two years, and it’s extremely fortunate that he’s a player who could 1) adjust to those changes and 2) compensate for lower usage with other parts of his game. The new Batum averages 13.0/7.5/5.1 on very few shots and very few missed shots. He’s tripled his assist rate since 2012. There was no indication before the 2013 season that he would thrive as a secondary ball-handler and assist man. Batum as a sexy jack-of-all-trades type is a recent phenomenon. If that weren’t the case, the Blazers could easily be saddled with the massive contract of a mediocre scorer who doesn’t do much else.
Look closer, and it seems like a huge amount of Batum’s value goes largely unrecorded because it comes in the form of bailing out others. He’s played the second-most minutes for the Blazers in the last two years, limiting the damage done by an otherwise awful small forward lineup. He spends quite a bit of his time guarding the point so the Blazers can hide Lillard’s poor defense. According to Synergy Sports, Batum allows .73 points per possession when guarding the pick and roll ball handler, which ranks 61st in the league. This looks even better when compared to Lillard’s .87 PPP (181st). There is no easy way to tell how many of those possessions include Batum shadowing the opposing point guard, but the Blazers use it whenever they can.
The league’s contracts between $10 and $12 million are a bit of a mess. There are a few hilarious overpays–Kris Humphries, Andrea Bargnani, Richard Jefferson–and there are a few bargains–Rajon Rondo (assuming health), Joakim Noah, Stephen Curry. It’s also a range for players of somewhat inscrutable value, a group that includes Batum, Tyreke Evans, Danilo Gallinari, and Tiago Splitter. Batum, at the very least, doesn’t stand out as overpaid.
When the Blazers matched the Timberwolves offer for Batum in 2012, Ben Golliver wrote “There’s no question, given those circumstances, that the Blazers need Batum to emerge into the top-level small forward his new salary demands.” It’s pretty clear that Batum is a few cuts below the likes of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Andre Iguodala, and Kawhi Leonard. Batum isn’t a star, and it’s not likely he ever will be. But there aren’t many players in the league who could have adapted like he did. With rising salaries and a rising cap, it’s hard to say whether his production merits his contract. Players making eight figures on usage rates so low are usually either special defenders or wildly overpayed. But the Blazers aren’t just paying for Batum’s production. The Blazers don’t need $11 million worth of players. They need Batum, the high-minutes small forward who fits perfectly into Stotts’s offense and who constitutes much of the spit and duct tape holding the defense together. He might not be worth the money on any other team, but the Blazers would be lost without him.