While Portland’s bench has drawn much of the national ire, and LaMarcus Aldridge’s sudden alleric reaction to the low block has been quick to follow, there’s a murmuring around Portland fans that Nicolas Batum may be the next in line. After signing a large RFA match from Portland via the Timberwolves, Batum now sits on the Portland roster as a de facto producer. Money necessitates numbers, and so far the opinion is that Batum isn’t giving the Blazers what they need.
In fact, Batum’s numbers are up in TS%, eFG%, PER, blocks, steals, points, rebounds, and assists. This is happening with increased minutes, up eight per game from last year, so it would make sense that most of these numbers would go up since their totals are destined to be higher. However, it would not be out of the ordinary to expect a player who was getting 27% more playing time to struggle in efficiency. At the moment, Batum has steadied.
Coupled with his advanced shooting percentages being up, this bodes well for gauging his performance. Batum is in the game for more minutes, and thus is taking three more field goal attempts per game. Somehow, he’s remained an equally efficient shooter despite more attempts. The same can be said for his advanced defensive numbers. While steals and blocks are sure to go up with increased playing time for a player like Nic, they haven’t trailed off in efficiency. He’s still producing at the same great rate with increased minutes. Portland fans should be careful not to discount the fact that overall, Batum’s efficiency hasn’t dropped despite heavily increased playing time.
I was asked on Twitter if LaMarcus Aldridge was getting enough shot attempts, and if Batum needed to share the ball more. My answer? He’s made significant increases in a key area we’re overlooking: assists.
Particularly, Batum’s AST% has shot up. Unlike other floor-time stats that would naturally increase due to increased minutes, AST% tells whether or not a player is directly assisting on a percentage of offensive possessions. Batum’s floor time has increased by 27%, meaning he is in on more posessions. Yet his AST% has shot up by 73%. Looking at his per 36 numbers, Nicolas Batum is producing at roughly the same rate as he was in previous years (save for assists) he’s just playing more minutes. That is excellent news.
That Batum has been able to be this steady, and add some passing to his game, is a wonder. From 2008 to 2012, Portland had a winning percentage of .577 and made the playoffs every year except last season. He played with considerably better bench talent, with a single system and coach (+Canales), with less rookies, and alongside Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. This year is a stark contrast. The Trail Blazers are a team of rookies, with a new coach and a new system. They’re constantly playing from behind and they have zero bench impact. They’re bad. Portland fans should be lucky that Batum has been able to remain as efficient as he has.
Fan expectation for Batum seems to be that he needs to increase his scoring load if he’s now getting paid $10.8 million, especially in the absence of Brandon Roy. As if remaining efficient for this year wasn’t enough, it seems as though fans in Portland want Batum to be some kind of scoring machine, creating his own shot and guaranteeing 25 points a night.
That’s the fatal flaw.
Expecting Batum to explode because of an absence on a bad roster is a fundamental misunderstanding of who he is. It’s a misunderstanding of his talent, attitude, skills, ceiling, the team makeup, offensive strategy, and perhaps most stark of all, why Portland paid him.
The Trail Blazers matched for Nic Batum not to mold him into a number one option, but to work alongside a future star player. He is not Brandon Roy’s replacement, he is Brandon Roy’s replacement’s co-star. Who that is has yet to be determined. It may be Damian Lillard, it may be a future draft pick. This league is about stars, there’s no doubt. But who you put around those stars matters just as much.
Portland will be good again if they stay on track. Part of that timeline was paying Nic Batum. He’s shown growth this year, just as he has every year since Rip City stole him for Joey Dorsey. Unfortunately for Blazers fans, they’re going to have to wait for their star player. Batum isn’t it. And they’ll learn that that’s okay.