Assessing Nicolas Batum’s season isn’t easy. In hindsight, it was almost certainly destined for disappointment the minute he signed the 5-year, $120 million contract last summer. Living up to the expectations of it were next to impossible, which is why I often deemed the contract unnecessary or unfair when evaluating Batum’s play this season. That said, convincing myself and others that it shouldn’t be factored in was a bit hypocritical when I’d be quick to point out how the team got a a great deal with Cody Zeller’s extension. Can’t praise the good ones and disregard the bad.
But for the moment, let’s put contracts aside. From a strictly basketball perspective, Batum performed erratic and inconsistently this season. This isn’t to say he had a bad season, and in fact there were stretches where he was very good, but the numbers suggest he struggled at both ends of the court at various points as well.
Averaging 15.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game, Batum nearly replicated his averages from a season ago. The downward shift came shooting the ball, however, where Batum shot just 40.3 percent from the field, and 33.3 percent from beyond the arc, numbers representative of Kemba Walker’s few first seasons in the league. And more surprising, is while we praise Batum for his offensive play in 2015-16, his shooting percentages weren’t a whole lot better.
But Batum is one of the better wing scorers in the league, he just doesn’t score or shoot the ball well enough to be a legitimate second scoring option. He can carry the scoring load some nights, but not nearly enough that is required of him.
That said, Batum remains an invaluable, and a near irreplaceable player as a distributor. In fact, Batum helped nearly all players offensively this season. Look at almost every 2, 3, 4, or 5-man lineup with Batum, and they scored more points than their opponent. Aside from when Spencer Hawes was on the floor, Batum made his teammates better offensive players.
Two players though, — Walker and Zeller — benefited most from Batum in 2015-16, and that was true again this past season. Batum’s most effective 2-man lineup was with Zeller, as the two finished +5.7 in points scored over their opponent. The two have nice chemistry in pick-and-roll situations, as shown from this (successful!!) out of bounds play that ends in with Zeller drawing a foul and converting the layup.
Among the many things lost when Zeller went out was this facet to the offense. No other Hornets big man could replicate this kind of pick-and-roll action, leaving Batum to work with Frank Kaminsky, who tended to pop out to the perimeter rather than roll to the hoop. While the results were fairly positive, it didn’t have the impact of Batum and Zeller.
While Batum continued a nice partnership with Zeller, Walker remained his go-to target, as 31.8 percent of his passes went to the All-Star guard, which was far more than any other player. Batum often found Walker coming off screens, but in other situations, like below, Batum looked for Walker while attacking the hoop, and when the defense collapsed on him, he’d find Walker open from the perimeter:
2.1 of Walker’s 7.6 attempted 3-pointer’s a game came from passes made by Batum, and he shot 40.6 percent off them, suggesting that not only did Batum look for him, but found him for high percentage looks.
Instances like these in halfcourt settings show how valuable he is as a distributor, but he also excelled bringing the ball up off made baskets and in the fast break. Now keep in mind that a Batum lead fast break isn’t exactly “fast” by most standards, but that’s part of what makes it work. Instead of quickly pushing the ball ahead, Batum often slowed things down, assessed how and where defenders were tracking back, and found trailing teammates for easy shots. Here are just a few examples:
Kaminsky is the trail man in this clip, and the Bucks forget to pick him up, which leaves him open for the easy pass and finish.
In this second clip, the defense is already back, but as Batum moves the ball up he catches Malcom Brogdon ball-watching and finds Brian Roberts cutting back-door.
On this final clip, Batum exploits Wayne Ellington for not getting back in transition, finding Marvin Williams cutting weak side.
Batum’s decision making is what makes him effective at leading fast breaks, but its important to note that each of these plays came when Walker was off the floor. While Batum’s slower approach works, nothing can replace Walker’s ability to go end-to-end with the ball. That said, when the numbers on the break are more even, or when Walker isn’t on the floor, Batum should handle the ball on the break more often. Hopefully we see more of this next season.
Defensively, however, Batum was sub-par, often getting beat by defenders because he wasn’t in proper defensive stance. If this sounds familiar, its because it was an issue last season as well, as our own Reinis Lacis wrote roughly a year ago:
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.
Its important to point out that Batum wasn’t always in poor defensive stance or position, but this bad habit identified a year ago carried into this season. Lacis pointed out that the grind of the long season, combined with Batum’s career high usage rate in 2015-16, may have contributed to this. In other words, being an effective two-way player is really difficult, especially if you are exerting a lot of energy on one end. This season, Batum set a new career high usage rate of 22.3. Before joining the Hornets, he had only recorded a usage rate over 20 percent once in his first seven seasons. Maybe I’m making an excuse for why Batum lacked the needed energy and focus on the defensive end, but effective two-way players logging 30+ minutes a night are harder to come by, which makes the ones that are that much more valuable.
All this said, Batum should’ve been a better defender this season. His defensive rating was just 108, which is the highest its been since 2012-13. Given that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was healthy, Batum didn’t guard the opposing team’s best wing as often. Even if he isn’t the defender many expected him to be when he arrived two seasons ago, he has to be more consistent on that end. His role and importance on the offensive end is too important for him to be a liability on defense.
This makes the upcoming offseason important, and Batum indicated as much, deciding to not join the French National Team and instead spend most of his summer in Charlotte to prepare for next season. While we can’t expect him to unearth untapped potential, a full summer in the gym could give him more time to improve his overall fitness, which could help hone out the inconsistencies. When looking at the areas he struggled — shot percentage, poor defensive tendencies — both areas could be improved by simply being in better shape. We’ve already seen what getting in incredible shape did for Williams two seasons ago, and so there’s little reason to doubt Batum could be more productive if his fitness levels increased.
These subtle improvements could help make his $120 million contract look a little more worth the price and years remaining. It will always be an overpay, but the Hornets had little option but to extend him. If it looks worse now, its because the team’s cap situation is much tighter after a few other decisions to sign and/or trade for other players. I also think that as more of these monster contracts are offered this summer, Batum’s deal will look better by comparison.
Nonetheless, Batum does have an obligation to improve after a down season. Charlotte didn’t extend him because he put together one above average season, they wanted that play to continue. They will need him to be better in 2017-18, or the Hornets could be in for another frustrating season.