It's cliche to say a player makes the game look easy, but Nicolas Batum encompassed this in 2015-16. Where others perform through aggressive and explosive play, Batum excelled through fluidity and a bit of grace. Like many, the game came easy to him, but his style of play encapsulated it.
Players that can affect the game in multiple ways are highly sought, and the Charlotte Hornets needed one heading into the 2015-16 season. That player came to be Batum, acquired through a trade with the Portland Trailblazers days before the 2015 draft. The Hornets promised him an increased offensive role, one he had never quite received in Portland, believing he could increase his scoring while still remaining the well-rounded playmaker he had been known for as a Trailblazer.
The Hornets held true to their promise, as Batum's usage finished at a career high, and Batum delivered despite struggling with an reoccurring ankle injury. On the season, Batum averaged 14.9 points, 5.8 rebounds (both career highs), and 6.1 assists per game (most on the team). He shot 42.6 percent from the field, and 34.8 percent from the 3-point line, finishing with a True Shooting Percentage of 54.6.
None of these are necessarily eye-popping, but Batum's impact came from the way he helped the rest of the team. Batum assisted on 26.9 percent of his teammates' points -- his previous high 20.9 percent two seasons ago. Looking at the on/off numbers, the team's effective field goal percentage was 51.5 while he was on the court, versus 48.1 with him off, and the team's offensive rating was 4.6 points high (109.3 vs. 104.7) with him on the court. The most used five man lineup of Batum, Kemba Walker, Courtney Lee, Marvin Williams, and Cody Zeller scored 11.2 more points than their opponents, attempted 6.7 more 3-pointers per game, and shot the ball better both from the field and from beyond the arc. In almost every two, three, four, and five man lineup featuring Batum, the Hornets scored more points, and shot the ball better than their opponent. The numbers show Batum's impact offensively, but largely only reinforce the eye-test. What's remarkable about his game is how instinctive and how well he read the game.
The little things matter with Batum. If he can feel his defender trailing behind him off a screen, he'll suddenly pull up and attempt to draw a foul, which he did from the 3-point line a lot this season. He would often draw multiple defenders to him, which would create scoring opportunities for teammates off the ball. Zeller, who's movement off the ball was superb this season, benefited a lot from this.
Batum's start to the season was a something out of a dream. In November, he averaged 17.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game, shooting 43 percent from the field and 41.4 percent from the 3-point line. At this point, it was he, not Walker, that was making the strongest case of being an All-Star, but his shooting numbers would dip slightly in December, and then crash in January when he sprained his ankle. He'd miss eight games in January -- four straight early in the month, and three more towards the end. In between, his effectiveness dropped, averaging just 8.8 points for the month, and shooting a miserable 31.3 percent from the field and 28.3 percent from beyond the arc, numbers that mirrored He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named from a season ago. Of course, Batum's struggles were not the result of dribbling aimlessly around the court -- his ankle was never a 100 percent during that stretch of play, and it was only in the week before the All-Star break that the Batum from November re-emerged.
In March, Batum would be on an ultralight beam, as the Hornets cruised with one of the best records in the NBA. Batum averaged season highs of 18.5 points, 6.7 assists, and 6.4 rebounds per game in March, shooting 46.8 percent from the field, and 39.6 percent from 3. Batum's sprained ankle looked fully recovered, and his combination with Walker made for an exciting month of basketball.
Then, Batum re-injured the ankle a week before the playoffs started, and re-injured it again during the playoffs. His play was admirable, but he wasn't 100 percent at any point in the series, and it showed at times, as he lacked his usual quickness and rise when attempting jump shots. The Miami Heat did a great job of running the Hornets off the 3-point line, it's a wonder what a fully healthy Batum could have done to counter that. The what-if game will drive a person crazy, but it was clear that a healthy Batum meant good things for Charlotte all season.
Looking ahead, the Hornets now face the task of re-signing Batum. Further proving that time is a flat circle, Batum (or rather, a starting caliber wing-playmaker) was priority No. 1 for the Charlotte Hornets heading into last summer, and he will be so again heading into the upcoming offseason. Phrases like "max player", and "$20 million per season" have been uttered often in the past few months, and the debate over whether Batum is worth this much is kind of a moot point, frankly. The Hornets have made it clear that he is their top priority, he has publicly said he wants to return, and they're going to have the money to spend and cap space available to do it. Ultimately, whatever Batum ends up getting doesn't really matter, just so long as it's Charlotte that is giving it to him.
The Hornets sought a playmaker on the wing for two seasons. They had Gordon Hayward signed for about 48 hours until the Utah Jazz wisely matched the offer, which led to the signing of an ear-blower on a (fortunately) team friendly deal. After cutting their losses, Batum came available, and the Hornets wisely capitalized on the exodus in Portland. Batum improved the play of others and made Charlotte one of the surprisingly strong teams in the East. As long as things run smoothly this summer, Batum will be the Hornets playmaker for the long-term.