Portland’s $11 Million Man


January 15, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Portland Trailblazers forward Nicolas Batum (88) during the first half against the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center. The Nuggets won 115-111 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Nicolas Batum. While he has always been an enigma to me, I’ll start by saying, yes, I am glad that he is on the Blazers. As I was sifting through his data, though, I took a look at his contract and was stunned to see that the Blazers paid him approximately $11 million this season, and are on the books for about the same amount each of the next three seasons. I had been aware that he signed a hefty contract during the offseason, but I hadn’t realized it was that hefty.

In my original thought process, I looked at the current salary cap of roughly $58 million, and thought that allotting nearly a fifth of it to Batum this year was far too high.

And if you look at it like that, I think that yes, based on production, Batum was overpaid last year.

According to ESPN’s salary database, Batum was the 11th highest paid small forward in the league last season. Production wise, John Hollonger’s PER pegged him as the 16th most productive three who played at least 20 minutes, and with striking consistency, Basketball-Reference estimated that out of all small forwards, he contributed the 16th highest amount of wins.

We don’t have to rely on statistics though. You can see his consistency struggles with your own eyes. There are nights when you just think “Wow, Batum is awesome!” (Nov. 16th game against the Rockets: 13-19, 35 points, 5 blocks, 6 rebounds), and then there are some games you think about afterwards and realize, “Wait, where was Batum?” (Feb. 4th against the Timberwolves: 2-4, 4 points, 2 blocks, 3 rebounds).

The disappearing act is concerning – as an example, he made three or less field goals during 21 games this season, or nearly 30% of the games in which he played in. While not everyone can be a superstar, consistency, especially among starters, is necessary.

This is all easy for me to say while merrily sitting here and critiquing someone else’s livelihood. If you look hard enough, you can find flaws in any player. If this was all you focused on, no player would ever seem worthy of signing a contract. A team doesn’t gain anything by saving their cap money. It is meant to be spent, and the Blazers spent it on a player that they felt was worth it. I think it was obvious they were looking towards the future.

This business of working the future is just part of the NBA game. A team has to trust their scouts and judgment, and to get or keep a player they want, sometimes they just have to suck it up and pay a player based on their future potential. Without taking this risk, a team would severely limit their growth opportunities, so I am happy to see the Blazers take the chance, even if it appears that last season they overpaid Batum. This will all be a moot point if in the next three years Batum’s growth and value skyrocket. It’s all part of the unpredictable nature of the league.

Now that I’ve allayed my concerns with the contract itself, the question then becomes can Batum grow, and if so, how?

First, the good: there is a strong precedent for Batum improving in certain areas. Look no further than this season and his assist numbers. From last season to this season, Batum increased his assists by 170% (1.7 to 4.6 per 36 minutes). That’s astounding – an almost unbelievable jump in production. A player can rarely alter a fundamental statistic that drastically, and it says a lot about Batum. Namely, that despite some worrying trends I’ll outline below, he can continue to evolve his game and grow as a player. More than that though, this is an extremely elite skill – his assists per game were the highest out of any non-guard in the NBA other than LeBron James. It is apparent that he was called upon to act as more of a facilitator this season, and he more than answered that call.

Hopefully this can explain some of his other developmental shortcomings.

Other than that statistical assist outburst, Batum’s growth has not looked so rosy. His per minute production this season in points, rebounds, blocks and free throws earned was all lower than the previous season, and turnovers were up. His field goal percentage dipped nearly 2.8%.

For a player’s fifth season, these are bothersome regressions. Normally this is when you’d like to see a player start hitting his peak, not declining. It makes the Blazers’ gamble on the future with him look a bit riskier. Yes, adding facilitating to his skill set is fantastic, but it can’t come at the cost of nearly every other area of production.

We can always play the context game, and note that without a competent bench, Batum’s playing time spiked by almost eight minutes this season. That’s a lot of extra fatigue coming into play, and could be part of the reason he had difficulty maintaining production. Ideally, you would like to see players rise above such obstacles, but for one who is still settling into his changing role on the team, it is reasonable to expect an adjustment period.

When it’s all said and done, Batum still remains a bit of a mystery in my eyes. For the time being, yes, I am happy the Blazers have him. That could really be the bottom line, but where’s the fun in that? I also want him to be more assertive on the offensive end and achieve consistency.

We all want things in life. Will I get my “Batum wishlist”? I might, I might not; he is only 24. There is still plenty of time for him to develop further, and with the new role, new contract, and new point guard, this could happen rather quickly.