Assessing Nicolas Batum’s late season improvement


Portland Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum struggled this year. In fact, that may even be an understatement. His shot wasn’t falling, injuries seemed to nag him, and at times it simply looked like he could not contribute.

With that being said, Blazer fans can take solace in the fact that Batum had a noticeable bounce back toward the end of the season. To me, at least, he looked more like the Batum of old – more aggressive, more confident, and better able to knock down shots.

While most people seemed to share this opinion, now that the season is over and we can more closely pore over the data, let’s look at how Batum’s final statistics actually shook out. Did he improve that much, or was it just something that fans had tricked themselves into seeing?

Oftentimes I find the pre/post All-Star break split to be an arbitrary cutoff point, but in Batum’s case, post All-Star break seems to be exactly when he starting playing better, so let’s focus there. He spent his break relaxing in Mexico, which could have certainly rejuvenated him for his late-season push. Being a professional athlete is stressful, so an extended period of rest like that can work wonders for one’s psyche.

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Batum’s post All-Star break ascension turned out to be a very real thing, and it was significant. To put it succinctly, Batum improved after the break in nearly every way. His points per game improved (8.9 to 10.2), his assists per game improved (4.7 to 5.0), his rebounding improved (4.7 to 5.5), his made threes per game improved (1.2 to 1.8), his three-point shooting improved (27.1% to 42.5%), and his overall shooting percentage improved (37.4% to 45.2%).

It is those last two that I am most interested in. Those improvements are staggering – jumping 7.8% in overall shooting percentage, and even more astounding, jumping 15.4% in three-point shooting percentage. For a team that utilizes the three-point shot heavily, it was crucial for Batum to regain his confidence from beyond the arc.

Additionally, to keep things simple, scoring matters. Who wins a game comes down to who has more points at the end. As weird as it sounds, I think in today’s age of more and more advanced stats, the simple act of putting the ball in the basket sometimes gets overlooked. Having Batum rediscover his ability to do just that was a great shot in the arm for the Trail Blazers’ offense after the break (the team’s offensive rating rose nearly two points post All-Star break).

While these improvements are all well and good, I always find it interesting to compare players to their peers. If Batum had been playing at this post All-Star break level the entire season, he would have stacked up very favorably to his small forward brethren across the league.

His three-pointers per game would have seen him tied for 6th among small forwards, his three-point shooting percentage 4th, his overall shooting 11th, his rebounding 4th, and his assists 2nd (where he placed anyway). Simply put, when Batum is on, he is one of the better small forwards in the league. Knowing this made it all the more frustrating when his slump dragged on and on, because everyone had seen how much better he could be.

Thus, while his overall rough season was concerning, the improvement at the end was encouraging. It will be a tumultuous off-season for the Blazers, so if they can get a healthy, energized Batum back for the start of next season, it will go a long way toward smoothing any transitions. In peak form, he is a tremendous asset.

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