Nicolas Batum does so many unique things for the Portland Trail Blazers that his contributions are often summarily grouped under the umbrella of “versatility.” And why not? It is a convenient catchall term for the skill set of a player that can give you a 15-5-5 stat line with any real degree of regularity while playing both sides of the ball. He is commonly referred to as the Trail Blazers’ “Swiss army knife” because Head Coach Terry Stotts has pressed him into unorthodox utility.
This is fantastic for Portland because if they need someone to help facilitate the offense, Batum is there. If they need someone to mask Damian Lillard’s defensive shortcomings, Batum is there. If they need someone to sky in for the board, Batum is there. Three-point shooting? There. Perimeter defense? There. Transition defense? There. Batum is the rare resin that can seal the shortcomings of his teammates, even if his own are critically apparent at times.
So what if Batum is not there? In the two seasons that Stotts has coached the Trail Blazers, Batum has missed just nine games out of 164. Stotts has crafted the offense and defense around utilizing a player that he has never had to go without for any substantial length of time. Despite recent fortune, it is not as if Batum is immune to injury (right shoulder is always a concern). The Trail Blazers need a game plan in case their glue guy comes undone.
In theory, Dorell Wright is next in line to start in place of Batum should circumstances necessitate. Though a crafty veteran, his only real overlap in specialty is three-point shooting. He possesses no eminent skills as a distributor, is not a marked defensive asset (nor distinct liability, in fairness), and has never been known to crash the boards. A simple plug-in would not do.
As it stands, the Trail Blazers’ other options in an injury situation at small forward are Victor Claver, maybe Will Barton, maaaybe Allen Crabbe, and maaaaaaaaaybe Thomas Robinson. Each of these players can either rebound, shoot the three, or defend within reason, but none of them have experience running an offense.
A pseudo-workaround for this would be swinging Wesley Matthews to small forward and starting C.J. McCollum at shooting guard since McCollum knows how to facilitate. The lineup would be too small to be sustainable in every matchup, but is worth exploring under the right circumstances. Most likely, Stotts would try a variety of combinations on a game-to-game basis.
Batum is skilled enough that expecting a 1:1 replacement from any member of the Trail Blazers’ bench would be impossibly greedy, but Stotts still needs a fallback plan. This is where I would like to see him take the opportunity in upcoming training camp to train someone like Claver or Barton beyond the boundaries of their niche. Sometimes a Swiss army spork will do in a pinch.
I hope your knuckles are not splintered from knocking on wood at this point, because hopefully none of this will be necessary. Sometimes being the best just comes down to being the best prepared. If the Trail Blazers begin designing a failsafe now, the least they will have accomplished is improvement to lesser used players that are waiting in the wings.