One of the "big picture" story lines from the past six seasons has been Nicolas Batum. "Of course a member of the Blazers' core has been a story line," you might say. But Batum as been a story line in a way Wesley Matthews is not. Matthews was an undrafted free agent, and a good story because he has pretty much lived up to his contract with his shooting and defense. He only gets talked about, really, in the context of a trade and if he would be a starter or bench player if the Blazers ever get good (spoiler alter: it doesn't really matter). But he is what he is, and we don't expect much more from him than what he currently gives the Blazers. Batum, on the other hand, has been a story line we have discussed and debated over the years, much like the Blazers' search for a POTF and a COTF. Let's go on a somewhat short journey...
He started out as a fairly unknown Euro player with promise, and KP got him from Houston for the rights to Darrell Arthur (a pick we got from New Orleans for...wait for it...cash considerations! Ladies and Gentlemen...George Shinn!!) and Joey Dorsey. Batum turned out to be the best of those three players, so KP won that trade. While he has been a starter for most of his time in Portland, the journey has not been entirely smooth. He came to the NBA with a ton of promise, and we as fans have largely been waiting for him to fulfill that promise since he stepped off the plane.
The first challenge he has faced in his time as a Blazer is finding a defined role. He started as part of the Roy-Oden-Aldridge core, where he wasn't asked to be a star or anything of the like. Those teams also had Rudy Fernandez as a creative spark off the bench. Either due to circumstance or philosophy, Nate McMillan's offense was slow, conventional, and featured a ton of iso sets for Roy. There was very little ball movement and flow, and if the shot clock got under 10 you could take it to the bank the team would clear out for a Roy one-on-one look. He was to be, at most, the Blazers' fourth option after Roy, Oden and Aldridge. It wasn't a great environment for him to come into his own as a star player.
His second season in the league was a tough one, as he only played 37 games due to a bad shoulder injury. He was only 21 though, and still had plenty of years left to develop into a starter in the league.
His third season brought more turbulence, as Portland executed a trade-deadline deal that sent Joel Pryzbilla, Dante Cunningham, and two first round picks to Charlotte in exchange for SF Gerald Wallace. Wallace was made a starter only a few games after arriving in Portland, moving Batum to the bench as an odd hybrid backup SG/SF/PF. Needless to say, though apparently I'm going to anyway, that experiment didn't end well.
The 2011-2012 campaign was nothing short of a complete and utter disaster. The team quit on McMillan, everyone was shipped out of town, and it was, for all intents and purposes, a lost season. The problem was the team had a big decision on what to do with Batum. He was a restricted free agent who was probably going to get a huge offer from someone based on his promise, so the question facing the Blazers was if it would be worth it to match the huge offer he would get based only on the promise?
Complicating this question was the Blazers' front-office situation. They had gone through 2 GM's in the span of 10 months, and had been largely GM-less for most of the preceding year before hiring Neal Olshey as GM in June of last year. One of his first decisions (after the draft) was what to do with Batum. Not an easy first major decision on the job. As you know, Olshey publicly maintained the Blazers would match any offer Batum was tendered, and refused to engage in negotiations on a sign-and-trade with the Timberwolves for him.
That's how Batum ended up with his $46 mil contact, and a crucial cog of the next Blazer era. His problem is no longer finding his role on, that much is clear to him: he is to be a capable third banana to Lillard and Aldridge, someone who puts up numbers worthy of his $12 mil/year contract.
This year started out with a lot of promise. The team was playing well, and the fans who shouted that Batum would never be able to live up to his contract were quiet. Batum was playing well. In fact, he was playing better than he had his entire career. Finally given a starting role without having to look over his shoulder, in a system that fit his skill set far better than McMillans, Batum was thriving. Then came the inevitable injury, because this is the Blazers.
The Portland Trail Blazers played the Dallas Mavericks in Portland on January 29th, a 106-104 Blazer victory. It was one of the most exciting games of the year, with Portland coming back from a 21-point third quarter deficit and Aldridge nailing a trey with five seconds left on the clock, then nailing a game-winning buzzer-beater. None of that mattered in the big scheme of things, because the most important tidbit from the game came at the end of the Media Row Report:
Batum finished with 10 points, six assists and four rebounds in 40 minutes on four-for-14 shooting. He said his right wrist is bothering him and has been an issue for about ten days. He aggravated it during the first quarter and he said that it was affecting his shot.
His right wrist is bother him and has been an issue for about ten days. And that became the major story line for Batum the rest of the year. Any discussion of Batum for the rest of the season revolved around his wrist, specifically how much his injury affected his play, and what he would be worth in any theoretical trade based on his play last season with his contract. But did his wrist injury actually affect his style of play? Using the timeline that the Blazers and Mavs played on Jan 29, "about 10 days" would mean he injured it sometime around Jan. 19. So we'll use teh Blazers' Jan 16th game against the Cavaliers as his last healthy game, and the Blazers' Jan. 19 game against the Bucks as his first injured game. So let's go straight to his stats to see how much his game was affected:
Pre-Injury: 17.1 pts, 5.9 rbd, 4.3 ast, 1.5 stl, 1.1 blk
Post-Injury: 11.4 pts, 5.4 rbd, 5.6 ast, 1.0 stl, 1.2 blk
Pre-Injury: 5.6-13.1 FGM-A, .429 FG%, 2.6-7.2 3PM-A, .357 3P%, 3.3-3.8 FTM-A, .862 FT%,.
Post-Injury: 4.0-9.6 FGM-A, .414 FG%, 1.9-4.9 3PM-A, .395 3P%, 1.5-1.9 FTM-A, .815 FT%.
First impression: the wrist injury definitely affected him. He scored about 5.5 pts/g less after the injury, passed more (over one more ast/g), and generally shot less overall. He cherry picked his shots (notice his 4% hike in 3P%), and didn't get to the line as much. He was significantly less aggressive, falling into a facilitator role. Until his injury he was taking about 3 FGA per game at the rim, and after the injury the number dropped. In February it was about 2, and then in March and April it dropped to just one.
What does it all mean? Well, first off, his pre-injury numbers were the best of his career. Part of that has to do with how much he was playing, and part of it is due to him finally being in a system that fits his strengths. He's only 24, and has plenty of room for continued growth. If he comes back healthy next year, I wouldn't be surprised if he puts up a line of 20 pts, 7 rbd, 6 ast, 2 stl, 1.5 blk per game next year.
Biggest concerns going forward: re-injury, or never letting his wrist heal. Batum is injury prone, and apart from his wrist he suffered a superior labral tear that ended his season eight games early. Batum is officially playing for the French national team this summer, which is good news and bad news.
The good news: he doesn't need surgery on his shoulder or wrist. That would complicate his offseason, and playing for France will get him more valuable playing time and experience.
The bad news: when is he going to have time to heal? Obviously his wrist wasn't injured enough to warrant surgery or time off. Put another way: he can play with his current injury. The concern is if it is going to heal properly if he plays for France this summer. The other, secondary concern, is re-injury. Playing for France increases his risk he suffers a brand new injury that takes time away from playing for the Blazers, and makes it more likely he re-aggravates a not-fully-healed wrist or shoulder.
While I would like Batum to grow as a player and play for the French national team, his health is certainly a situation worth monitoring closely this offseason.