Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Dave answers a reader question about assessing Nicolas Batum's season so far and his eventual impact.
I understand your criticism of Nicolas Batum. I agree with some of it myself. But Batum is 23 years old, he's having the best season of his career, and he's been instrumental in many Portland wins. The Blazers are getting their money's worth out of his new contract. So how about a little more balance?
I agree in part with what you've said as the assertions you've made are mostly accurate, save that Batum is 24 and not 23. But this bears further examining.
Let's start with balance first. Batum has indeed helped the Blazers to wins this season and when he has, I've been unstinting in my praise. Recent examples include the Memphis and Minnesota games, in which he was brilliant. I say this to let you know that I think Batum is a good player and has potential to be a special player. I love many aspects of his game and I've enjoyed watching him play this year. I have absolutely nothing against him. In fact I'm glad he's a Trail Blazer and not in Minnesota right now.
To me "balance" means analyzing what I see on the court, good or bad...not leaning on one to the exclusion of the other based on personal feelings, predictions, or the like. That's what I try to do with my recaps.
I will freely admit that I have thought more critically about Batum's play this year than I have been with some other players. There are several reasons for this, the chief two of which are:
1. He has just passed into a new phase of his career where expectations are changing. Potential isn't sufficient anymore. Demonstration and repetition of talent matter now.
By comparison, Damian Lillard is a rookie. Even though his play is important, reading too much into a given performance for him would be a mistake. You'd be on a roller coaster ride all season as he learns the league. LaMarcus Aldridge is far more of a given. Most nights he doesn't leave that much to criticize or show that we haven't already seen. J.J. Hickson has been fairly consistent this year as well, really good at the things he does well and quite poor at the things he doesn't. We already know this. Most of the bench players are either too young or not significant enough to criticize every night. We hit the basic refrain with them early in the season and now just mention highlights or the unusual.
Among all the Blazers, Matthews and Batum are the most instructive players to examine as they're experienced enough to have developed some consistency, variable enough to prove interesting, and important enough to the team's fortune to provide a window into the reasons for Portland's performance. Of the two, Matthews is the more predictable performer. He also performs on a lower level than Batum most nights. While Matthews will have games here and there, he's not likely to become a break-out star in the future. Batum still could. His talent tantalizes, inspires, and frustrates in equal measure. Nobody else on the roster has that fascinating combination of variables.
Add all this up and you can see why he gets "criticized" more than most. Ironically it's not because he's worse than anybody else, empirically or in relation to expectations. To the contrary, it's because he could turn out to be better than most anybody else, thus his fortunes are critical to this team on a night-to-night and long-term basis.
Moving on to your other points...
As to whether Batum is having the best season of his career, it depends on which metrics you use. I tend to agree overall. Stats tell a less convincing story. Per minute assists are through the roof...no possible argument there. Points, shooting percentage, and several other stats are either down or static from last year. I'd describe this as, "He played plenty good last season and he's continuing it in general this year with more minutes and responsibility, which is to the good."
The "He's only 24" thing is a familiar counter to perceived criticism of Batum. I understand the thought process behind it but I find it unconvincing, in some ways even unintentionally disingenuous.
This is Nicolas Batum's 5th season in the league. He's closing in on 300 games played. He's in roughly the same ballpark as Derrick Rose and Marc Gasol. He has way more experience than Blake Griffin. I'm not saying he's the equal of those talents, rather that plenty of guys establish themselves just fine at younger ages or with the same or less experience than Batum has.
What's more, getting older doesn't necessarily mean getting better. Travis Outlaw was once 24 as well, with a world of potential in front of him. For whatever reason he didn't have the makeup to improve on that 23-year-old version of himself. "Only 24" tells us nothing about what the 27-year-old version will look like.
How long has Batum been playing professionally now? Since 2006 at least, right? This is what I mean by "unintentionally disingenuous". When a guy like Batum first comes into the NBA the popular sentiment runs, "This guy is not your normal rookie! He's had real, professional experience! Don't discount those European leagues!" When that guy is still making mistakes five years later it's, "He's only been playing for five years." In essence the new message is, "Don't count that European experience as experience at all!"
Any way you slice it, by your fifth season of NBA experience you should have your wits about you, be able to commit night to night, and be showing your true colors. Inconsistency is expected from inexperienced players. When it continues past the fifth season or so, you start to regard it as an inborn part of a guy's game or personality and not just a rite of passage through the learning curve. This certainly affects how you look at a player going forward. The ultimate goal of any team is post-season success. You have to know what you're going to get from a guy when you're in the crucible of NBA playoff basketball. You face too many games and the opponents are too good. If there's obvious wiggle-room towards the negative eventually that's where the player's performance will end up, either because the enemy forces him there or because of statistical probability over a potential 28-game run. The more variable your key players' games are, the less chance you'll see more than a fraction of those 28 potential games.
Developing consistency, commitment, and an eye for professional detail as you transition into the fifth season and beyond is important no matter what age you are when that fifth season comes. It's just as important when those veteran-transition seasons also involve taking on new roles, bigger minutes, more responsibility. These guys are professionals...the world's best at what they do. This is part of the job.
Taylor Swift is one heck of a concert performer. She is 23 years old, a year younger than Nic. I expect that she, like Batum, will continue to evolve as a performer as she ages. She'll know more and put on a more professional show at 30 than she does now. But that does not excuse her from putting on the best performance she's capable of as she learns those things. If I pay money for a 23-year-old Taylor Swift concert and her performing a brand new guitar lick causes her to forget the words to six of her other songs and sing off-key during her grand finale, I'm going to feel ripped off. This is exactly the kind of thing that seems to happen to Batum. He'll often pick up one thing then drop another. He's learning as he goes and will continue to do so, but he can't abandon all the things that got him here as he evolves. Those new things are supposed to add to his performance, not replace it. Therein lies much of the frustration.
Batum's old coaches were telling him that he needs to stay involved in the game, play the way he's capable of, even when he's not the featured guy in the offense and/or his shots aren't falling. 2012-13 has brought a new year, new system, and new role for Batum, yet his brand new coaches are still telling him the same old thing. At what point does that stop being an age/experience issue and become one of professionalism and fulfilling talent? If that point isn't here yet, it's knocking on the door. Parsing out whether this will ever change for Batum is one of the critical storylines of this season. Every game provides another example...pro or con.
These are not abstract matters. The answers to these questions over the next couple years will determine whether Batum becomes an integral part of Portland's next serious run, a prime candidate for the trading block, or something in between.
Finally we get to the matter of contract. I've found these debates unprofitable regardless of position. When you sign a new contract there's a basic expectation that your production won't tank. As long as you don't regress--i.e. look like you were playing hard just to get a new deal--financial issues go out the window when the ball tips.
I found it rather silly this summer when people said, "Batum just signed a big new deal so he should play at a higher level now!" The Blazers signed Nicolas Batum...whoever Nicolas Batum is. A different number on that contract was never going to make Batum a different player.
I find the argument, "He's producing relative to other people at his salary level and that's all that matters" equally uncompelling. Just as a certain number on a piece of people can't improve a guy's play, neither should that number diminish it. The question isn't, "How much is Batum giving relative to other players making $11 million per year?" The question is, "How much is Batum giving relative to Batum? What is he capable of producing on a nightly basis?" Whatever the number on that contract, the agreement when he inked it was that he'd give 100% of his ability. Anything less is cheating the team and his teammates no matter what the salary.
There shouldn't be another level of focus and commitment in Batum awaiting a $15 million deal and a guarantee that he's the first option instead of $11 million as 1 of 5. If Batum can outperform everybody else in the league making the same salary as he, then that's what he should be doing. In fact he should be doing everything possible every night to make sure that's true. If he's capable of better but we're not seeing it on a nightly basis--whether the roadblock is personal motivation, lack of attention to detail, not understanding the rigors of winning in the league, or whatever--then the Blazers are getting ripped off no matter what they're paying him.
It's perfectly possible to watch Batum play at the level of other $11 million players and still speculate that something is wrong here. Financial discussions have standing when a new contract is about to be negotiated. After it's signed, the play is the thing. "He should be better now that he's paid more" and "He's performing average relative to other people making the same salary" are two sides of the same coin, missing the point.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, my assessment is that Batum is doing well in general. Some nights he looks like an All-World player. Other nights he doesn't rise anywhere near that level. That in itself will become an issue as time marches on. I'm withholding judgment until we've seen more play from him with this combination of minutes and expectations. But this is something worth tracking and building upon as his season, and career, progress. If you want to call it criticism, fair enough. It's what his talent level, bequeathed responsibility, and his own proclamations about his eventual desires dictate.