The previous installments of "Looking back at" have all been positive so far. That isn't the case with this article, which is devoted to Nicolas Batum's defense.
First, though, it's necessary to point out that Batum was huge for the Charlotte Hornets during the 2015-16 season. His skillset helped the coaching staff mightily and allowed them to completely rework the team's offense. The "Looking back at Batum - Zeller pick-and-rolls" almost works more as praise for Nic Batum, given his impact on Zeller's success in the pick-and-roll.
But, while some might not think it fair to the Frenchman, I still felt the need to use this opportunity to address his poor defense this season. It could have been a highlight reel and a write-up on his smooth passing. I could have gone back to his foul-drawing ingenuity and counted up what should be a massive number of drawn fouls on 3-point attempts for the season. Yet this topic seemed a bit more important and less trivial.
For Batum, the main factor causing his woes seems to be the habit of not being in a proper defensive stance. When you go through possessions not having bent your knees, it's just so much harder to readily read and react to things suddenly happening in front of you (or already behind you). Change of tempo and direction is hard to do in straight legs.
Because of this, Batum isn't particularly good at tracking players through screens. On some occasions he gets burnt by savvy offensive players and is left helplessly in their dust:
You know what else you can't do when playing defense with your legs almost fully extended? Stop the dudes who are semi-sprinting at you with the ball.
The times when Batum gets blown by on a closeout or a drive to the middle almost make him appear uninterested, even though the degree of the breakdown is mostly created by the fact that you can't keep up with a blazing LeBron James with such casual defense.
Furthermore, the downside of not being quite prepared on defense can be as dangerous off the ball as it can be on it. In a perfect world a head coach would prefer four bouncy off-ball defenders, ready to commit from the weak side (or the strong side) at any given moment but also dialed in enough that they can see their assignment on the periphery and are ready to return back to him.
Batum, unfortunately, has a tendency of not only spacing out, but also completely turning his back on his man. Once that happens to a straight-legged defender against a smart cutter you're toast. Such a poor defensive fundamentals resulted in backdoor cuts, lost 3-point shooters and missed box outs — the types of things James Harden would get blasted for on the internet.
One might argue that on some of these plays Batum wasn't that far off from positioning himself correctly, as far as the scheme is concerned. Nevertheless, I would point out that the negative end result is still created by his rather indifferent approach to weak-side defense and lack of court awareness.
All of this makes the occasional spurts of Nic Batum's pressure defense even more random. From time to time, he'll just completely get on someone, whether bringing the ball up in the back-court or coming off a screen, and devour him with his pressure. Yet it won't happen more than once or twice per game.
In addition, Batum pressuring Miami Heat's ball handlers, whenever they didn't have a true point guard on the court, seemed to be a pre-planned move in the playoffs as the small forward made life difficult for Joe Johnson and Dwyane Wade.
There's plenty to like about this strategy as wasting a few seconds of the nominal point guard's time can force a setback for the offense. All of the sudden they are getting into an action with only 12 seconds left on the shot clock:
With all of this in mind, I feel it's necessary to remind you that I'm not suggesting Batum is lackadaisical on defense every game. It came and went as the regular season progressed. The eight-year veteran had plenty of nights during where he was more engaged.
That makes you wonder how much of this is a sign of the grind of an NBA regular season. Playing for 70 games at the usage rate (21.4 percent, a career-high) that Batum had should be difficult. It's understandable that a guy simply has to conserve some energy on defense. There's a reason why coach Steve Clifford had the other wing (firstly P.J. Hairston, then Courtney Lee) taking the most dangerous opposing player on defense.
Even so, the three-minute long lowlight reel above is the result of bad habits. I would guess that you can also preserve stamina by playing smart and, let's say, not turning your back to your match-up so often.
All in all, thanks to Nicolas Batum for the season, but his defense is something that can be improved upon.