Worth it? Maybe. Photo: Jerome Miron-US PRESSWIRE
I read your piece on not judging Olympics performances too closely but I'm still disappointed with Nicolas Batum. There's no excuse here. He's one of the main pieces for France but he's still playing like the 7th man. I'm already getting buyer's remorse on that contract! Were the Blazers foolish? Did they bow to pressure or need and make a bad decision?
Let's say you have a pet duck. One day you take your duck into the local supermarket and let him peck the Quick Pick Powerball button with his beak. Voila! He wins $45 million dollars! What have you got now? A very wealthy duck. Nothing changed but the tax bracket.
Batum's Olympic performance so far hasn't altered my opinion of him one bit. He is who he always was. His new contract will not transform his game, nor should Trail Blazer fans expect it to. Make no mistake, he was not paid based on past performance. He was paid because the Blazers are hoping that in three years this salary will look like a bargain because he's flowered into that myth-level ceiling that the organization (and David Kahn) apparently hold faith in. Even if you buy into the theory, three years isn't going to happen overnight.
I'm always nervous when a team pays a player based on potential. In my experience big money tends to inhibit growth more than promote it. The most tangible incentive for getting better has already been granted and guaranteed. If I had to place odds, I'd go with a 70% chance or more that Batum ends up a good player but not a great one. I don't foresee him becoming an All-Star. I could easily see him starting the rest of his career. $11 million a year is expensive for a starter, but that's a price the Blazers are willing to pay for now.
In Batum's defense, I'm pretty sure the front office will say I'm underestimating him. He's 23. He has bankable skills. Also you have to remember that he's always been uncomfortable when getting used to any given situation. He stunk up the joint in Summer League his rookie year then stepped forward as the regular season commenced. His first go-around in the playoffs was completely forgettable. He got a little better his second time around. When he first shouldered more responsibility with the Blazers or with his national team he underwhelmed. Then he grew into his role and showed what he has. If you don't like his performance, just wait a while. It'll probably change. Maybe that'll lead to better performances overall as he matures.
You also have to remember that the alternative to signing Batum was pretty gruesome. If you dumped him you'd be starting at some extra cap space but you'd have left LaMarcus Aldridge on an island. The Blazers are already depending on a rookie point guard to buoy them this season even with Batum. The margin for error for Damian Lillard will be thin as it is. Take away Batum, leaving Lillard with Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, and a bunch of 9th-12th men, and this season was sunk. Portland practically had no choice if they wanted to keep any kind of straight face while looking their starters or their fans in the eye. Like it or not, Batum was the linchpin to their credibility this off-season.
Still, I can't shake the feeling that Batum would prosper on a team like San Antonio, Dallas, or Miami where he'll probably toodle on in nonchalant fashion with the Blazers. He needs other players to take the stress of winning and scoring while he contributes like a stealth assassin. Try to turn him into a tank to smash the enemy--a role Portland needs him to fill--and you're going to be disappointed.
But hey, worry not. Minnesota will be drooling over him for years to come. If the Blazers end up wanting to bail on him they'll have a willing partner. Let's hope it doesn't come to that. Just don't expect Batum to change to suit the Blazers' needs in the meantime. He'll walk like a duck and quack like a duck as long as he plays. Portland will have to decide whether they need a $45 million waterfowl or not. Right now the answer is yes. Two years down the road, who knows?