Of all the Portland Trail Blazers starters, Nicolas Batum remains the most enigmatic. On one night he will pour in 21 points on 8-11 shooting, and on another he will deliver four points on 1-9. Luckily, scoring isn’t everything for Batum– it’s well established just how versatile Batum is. He can assist like a point guard and rebound like a power forward.
In fact, Batum was one of only eight players (and one of only four small forwards) in the entire league last year to average 10 points, five rebounds, and five assists. Batum has an incredibly unique skillset, and figuring out how to best harness it is one of the constant challenges surrounding the Blazers.
Most do not doubt Batum’s non-scoring contributions. In addition to the assists and rebounds, his lankiness also allows him to contribute fairly often via steals and blocks. Batum truly does a little of everything. Unfortunately, basketball games are, and always will be, decided by which team has scored more points. To that end, Batum’s consistency needs to improve.
His 2013-14 game log is an exercise in contradiction. Nine games with six points or fewer. Eleven games scoring over 20 points. Nine games attempting five field goals or fewer. Multiple games shooting 5-8 on three-pointers. A whopping 26 games with three field goals or fewer made.
This last fact stands out the most to me. Every player has bad games. It’s a fact of life. The good will come with the bad. However, it appears as if many of Batum’s so-called “bad games” are simply a matter of him not asserting himself in the offensive flow more. I have often heard the “he disappears during some games” criticism lobbed at Batum, and as much as a dislike conventional sound bites, I find this one to be rather true.
While considering Batum’s occasional lack of offensive assertiveness, it is worth noting that his 46.5% field goal percentage was the fourth highest on the entire Blazers team last season, and the highest for a non-post player. In fact, that level of shooting was good for eighth in the whole league among qualified small forwards, ahead of big names such as Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce, and Paul George.
Batum is no slouch on the offensive end, and the eye test seemed to indicate that when he wanted to score he could do so rather effectively. He was one of the few Blazers that could drive into the lane on his own, and his ability to effectively pull up from the wing was just another tool in his arsenal. This was all in addition to respectable three-point shooting.
Despite this offensive prowess, Batum didn’t always look to score as frequently as he probably should have. It often appeared as if he was trying too hard to pass the ball or get an assist. While certainly an admirable trait, if the best choice is for Batum to shoot, he needs to realize this. (Side note: an interview I read a while ago with Steve Nash’s college coach mentioned the same issue – it’s not uncommon for unselfish players).
This could certainly not be entirely on Batum – he very well may have been acting on coaches’ orders. Maybe after grinding through the tape, they came to the conclusion that Batum truly is more valuable while trying to act primarily as a facilitator and instructed him to act accordingly. Causes aside, getting Batum more involved in the offense would be in the best interests of the team.
On the whole, it seems as if Batum is not considered a key cog in the Blazers’ scoring efforts. While perusing his game log, though, I came across an interesting trend. During Batum’s 20 best shooting games (measured by single game field goal percentage), the Blazers were an incredible 19-1. During his 20 worst shooting games, the Blazers were a woeful 6-14.
While playing well against worse teams (and vice versa) is likely a part of this trend, it is worth noting that the first data set includes wins against the Thunder, the Clippers, and the Warriors (twice). The second set included losses against such bottom feeders as the 76ers, the Jazz, and the Magic.
Trying to read too much into what this means can get messy with cause and correlation – does the rest of the team elevate/drag down Batum, or does he elevate/drag down the rest of the team? Rather than try to navigate these tricky waters, it should simply be viewed as an indication that Batum’s role in the offense does actually appear to be a large part in the team’s collective offensive performance.
For a player that has the skillset, athleticism, and smarts to become an even better scorer than he currently is, it is time for Batum to make that leap. The Blazers offense was already deadly last year, so if Batum can simply keep his offensive production more consistent by weeding out his low-impact games, the offense could soar to new heights.