To call this a make-or-break season for Nicolas Batum would be wrong. Batum has under performed the past two seasons, but a third consecutive underwhelming season wouldn’t change much because with three years and $72 million remaining on his contract, there’s not a lot that could. If anyone is “breaking” this season, it’s us, the fans who must continue coming to terms with what currently looks like one of the worst contracts in the NBA.
But that’s unfair. After all, “worst contract” titles go to players who can’t even make the floor. Batum is a starting caliber forward who just happened to become a free agent during the summer in which NBA executives handed out bad contracts seemingly every hour. If we look back on that summer, though, Batum’s bad contract may not even break that top five.
I’ve said in the past that we can’t look at Batum’s contract when evaluating his play, but that was before the Hornets cap situation became a black hole that sucked the hopes of Hornets fans in with it. Charlotte’s future is now inherently linked with it’s payroll and will continue to be until the bad contracts are moved, expired, or if the players’ themselves raise their own value.
However you feel about Batum and his contract, rooting for nothing other than a good season from him is the equivalent of jumping into the black hole. The Hornets need Batum to play well because he’s arguably the second or third most important player on the roster. Even if you want him out of Charlotte before the 2021-22 season (when he would become a free agent), you have to root for him now or that dream will never be realized. Batum will never live up to his contract, but a strong season not only means the Hornets play well this season, but it makes his contract look slightly less awful. While the summer of ‘16 is behind us, bad front office decision making will exist for eternity. All it takes is for one general manager to get enticed enough by Batum’s versatility, and suddenly the Hornets will find themselves with $24 million plus in cap space for next season.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Batum will almost certainly not be moved. That’s all but guaranteed by James Borrego and the coaching staff, who are high on Batum’s skillset and fit with this roster.
And why wouldn’t they be? His versatility on offense is unique, and for the first time since his first season in Charlotte, he may have enough scorers around him to take full advantage of it. Batum will play with three other starters who can hit from the perimeter, along with a starting center that he’s gelled well with in the past. Off the bench, he has a dynamic 3-point shooter, his long-time French teammate, a hybrid power forward that can score well in transition, an athletically gifted rookie, and an emerging offensively minded center to work with (I realize how rose-colored that just sounded). Batum needs options, and it certainly looks like he has them now. Plus, he’ll be working in an offense that thrives on ball movement and quick decision making.
Batum is, in many ways, well suited for this team, which means there’s little excuse for another poor season. He’s healthy and in shape, and he can’t use Dwight Howard as an excuse for why the ball isn’t moving enough. The onus is on him to show us that he isn’t a one season wonder, and that he’s worth keeping around despite taking up the biggest portion of the team’s payroll.
So far, I’m encouraged. He’s played with purpose throughout the preseason, and even when the shot hasn’t fallen, he’s actively looked for teammates and made sure the ball keeps moving. With Lamb in the starting lineup, there should be less pressure on him to score first and instead look to get Lamb and Walker going early in games. It’s a role reminiscent of his Portland days, and I think it could make the Hornets a better team overall even if his scoring numbers remain relatively similar.
On media day, Kemba Walker essentially said that we should demand more of Nic Batum. Putting aside Batum’s contract, Walker is right. It’s no coincidence that Batum and the Hornets have gone through two consecutive sub-par seasons. A return to form could change a lot of perception surround him, and it could mean a return to the playoffs for the Hornets.