Why Is Nicolas Batum So Polarizing?

USA TODAY Sports

Dave explores the varying reactions to Portland Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum. Why is he such a polarizing figure and how can we best understand his style, abilities, and production?

Dave,

Nicolas Batum is the most polarizing player on the Blazer Roster. There are those (like me) who think that he is playing his basketball now and we will never see more from him and he has reached his potential. On the other side, there are those who think is one of the best Small Forwards to play the game. I saw a post on another Blog that showed when he scores 14 points or more in a game, the Blazers play above 500. When he scores less than 14 points in a game, the Blazers lose twice as many games then they win.

Personally I am tired of waiting for his potential and we should trade him, but that is just my opinon.

What is your honest assessment of Nicolas Batum?

Tim

Polarizing is right.

Part of the tendency towards extremism comes in our need for resolution.  Batum lives in a grey area.  He's clearly talented.  His occasional bursts of greatness light up the court.  He's too tantalizing to leave alone.  Yet his approach on the court can tend towards a laissez faire, non-interference policy more than a stirring rendition of La Marseillaise.  Most times when you're ready to write him off he does something wonderful to pique your interest again.  Most times when you look for the next wonderful thing he regresses back to ordinary and makes you wait.  We can't resolve him so we tend to hyperbole either direction.

Neither supporters nor detractors of Batum can hold their position long.  Standing out on a limb is precarious.  But when two crowded limbs sit on either side of the same tree it sure leads to some epic shouting matches.

Those frustrated with Batum have ample reason.  But the conclusion usually ends up, "Write him off.  Trade him while he's still got value."   Frustration is a bad motivation for making deals.  It leaves you on the short end of the stick.  Simple question: what's wrong with having a pretty good role player with defensive chops hanging around on your team?  Obviously if you can get great value for Batum he should be available, but that's true of any player.  Unless somebody knocks your socks off, Batum's a fine guy to have around.

Those enchanted with Batum also have ample reason.  These folks are harder to pin down because they keep moving the target, hopping from limb to limb as it were.  When you suggest that Batum is "just" a role-player--pretty good most nights, missing in action others, with occasional flashes of greatness all working out to somewhat above average--the chorus rises with injuries and All-Star level play in partial seasons and being young and coaches holding him back...claiming there's way more hidden under there.  But then when you point out that with all the minutes and opportunity in the world in front of him and five seasons under his belt he's never put it together and still hovers around average the line changes to, "Not every player can be an All-Star.  You're disappointed because your expectations are too high."

Flights of brilliance aside, the best way to judge a guy is by his baseline.  There is no "Real Batum" hiding under there waiting to get out.  What you see night to night IS the real Batum.

The caution about consistency mattering more in the long run than peaks usually warns folks against falling in love with the occasional 24-point performance.  But it does work both ways.  If a player is acceptable on average then those flashes of brilliance are a bonus, not a source of frustration, even if he doesn't get to the mountaintop as often as you'd like.

Batum is plenty acceptable in this regard.  He's got a nice three-point shot and decent court sense.  I've seen folks debate his effectiveness on defense but I tend to rate him on the high side there, understanding that defensive stats don't always tell the story.  His coaches have generally placed him against good offensive players when they needed a stop.  That's high enough recommendation for me.  Whatever you think of his vacillation this isn't a J.R. Rider situation where the player is killing his team every second game by refusing to participate.  Batum is a legit starter with a mild case of the passives, broken up by occasional fireworks.  There's nothing that unusual or unfortunate here.

But Batum's baseline isn't that fortunate either...despite early hype and misplaced comparisons to LeBron James last year.  Per-minute stats can be deceiving, especially when the sample size is small, but they're quite useful in comparing the production of similar players with similar minutes.  Including Batum, 21 small forwards in the NBA played 30+ minutes per game last year.  Batum ranked 14th out of those 21 in points produced per minute, 15th out of 21 in rebounds per minute, and 3rd out of 21 in assists per minute.  The assist rate looks nice but you have to weigh that category pretty heavily (perilous in most cases) to make Batum look good among his peers.  Outside of those dimes he doesn't look that special.  He certainly doesn't stand out enough to predict stardom, let alone grant it a priori.

Such predictions, of course, remain at the heart of the Batum debate.  We've talked to exhaustion about the benefits of age or experience, ceilings, etc.  People will have their views.  Mine is that while upside endures through a player's 5th season and beyond, habits are generally set by that point.  Eventually those habits determine your destiny more than potential does.  Yes, guys refine their games as they age, figuring out how to get more out of less.  Plenty move into new systems which benefit or hurt them, changing their production.  But in most cases we've already seen a player's DNA after five years in the league.  You learn how to work with it, but escaping it entirely is unlikely.

I don't believe that Batum will be worse off over the next five years of his career than he was during the first five.  Consistent playing time and defined role should allow him to continue as a capable, occasionally brilliant, starter.  But his approach doesn't lend itself to stardom either.  That's not in his DNA.

I found our own Ben Golliver's summation of Batum's Eurobasket performance accurate.  Batum earned a 6 out of 10 rating from Ben, with the tournament description concluding thusly:

The takeaway lesson for Batum should be that generating offense through his defensive effort and his activity off the ball is a better formula than hoping the spot-up shot will eventually fall. The tape will also remind him that he doesn't need to go one-on-one in isolation or thread the needle with overly complex passes to put real pressure on a defense. As long as he keeps moving and picks his spots wisely when he's attacking off of the curls he'll do just fine as an asset.

This reflects the prevailing wisdom regarding Batum.  "If he learns how to play, doing X, Y, and Z efficiently and consistently while minimizing bad choices, he'll be fine."  It's neither a condemnation nor a hearty endorsement.  It's an assessment that Batum has the potential to contribute but he has to apply himself more and show more before he can be relied upon.  And even then, he'll be "fine".  Not world-changing, not league-dominant, but fine (in both the good and bad senses of the word).

The level of application and consistency Batum will develop is the biggest question surrounding him right now.  The complexity of the equation is highlighted in this quote from ESPN correspondent Mark Woods regarding France's triumphant Eurobasket Finals performance:

[Tony Parker], already feeling fatigue in every muscle, had prepared his teammates for this, right from when they went into the locker room some 46 hours earlier following an exhausting overtime win over Spain in the semifinal.

He walked straight over to Nicolas Batum. The Trail Blazers forward had contributed just three points toward the conquest of the reigning champions. "I did everything I could today to win the game," Parker told him. "But I'm going to be tired. I need you to be The Man in the final."

"So," said Batum, "I was ready to go, right from the start, to help the team."

Supporters can revel in the joy of Batum's 17 point, 6 rebound performance in the championship game.  Tony Parker asked Batum to be "The Man" in the finals and Batum stepped up.  It was a career night for him.  Woods noted that the performance came on the heels of a 3 point effort in the semi-final game and detractors will cry that 3 and then 17, leaving an average of 10, is how Batum tends to operate.  "Same old Nic."  But since France won that semi-final matchup and came away with the tournament crown, Batum still comes out ahead.

The real sticking point in these quotes, indicative of the issues with Batum's approach that drive people crazy, comes in the last sentence.  Batum was "ready to go", to help his team, because Tony Parker had asked him.

We just posted an article exploring real greatness in the NBA, using several examples from Trail Blazers lore as guideposts. Jerome Kersey and Buck Williams are two of the greatest role players in Blazers history, of the stature the talented Batum could aspire to even if he never averages 20 per game.  Can you imagine anybody having to ask Jerome or Buck to show up for a game and give their best?

Kersey was talented enough that he could have averaged 20.  They actually had to ask him to dial it back a little (as they did with the 25+ ppg Drexler) in order to fit the team mold.  Williams also had to curtail his former role to fit in with the talented Blazers.  Nobody had to issue these guys a special invitation to get them to show up, fill minutes, destroy opponents every night.  They did it because that's who they were.  They did it because that's how you win 60 games and get to the Finals.  If anything the problem was getting them not to overdo it.

Batum's approach is nothing like that.  Hearing him joyfully deliver the quote, "I was ready to go, right from the start, to help the team," makes you wonder what the alternative is in his mind.  It's the NBA equivalent of saying, "I knew we had a big project at work so I decided to show up on time today.  Yay me!"  That ought to be the expectation every day and it should go without saying.

That Batum succeeded wildly when he did show up only pours salt in the wound for detractors.  Perhaps Portland's game plan this season should include Damian Lillard approaching Batum before every game, asking him to please play as hard as he can tonight?

But that's the way it is with Nicolas Batum.  Every positive comes with a caveat; every negative comes with a dream.  It all averages out somewhere in the middle, probably a little north thereof, but detractors and supporters alike have endless ammo in the meantime.

One of the more important questions for fans right now might be, "At what point is all this drama too much?"  My final verdict: he's probably not worth the fuss either way.  He has talent, but not the franchise-defining kind.  He will help you defensively and from the perimeter but not every night.  Some nights he'll disappear but he'll also do something nice in the process.  He'll give you plenty of reasons to be happy with him but you probably shouldn't mistake that for being able to rely on him.  He'll give you plenty of reasons to yell at your screen but you shouldn't mistake that for him being valueless.

Batum's coaches have experienced the same thing.  There were legitimate reasons to advance him quickly as a rookie and equally legitimate reasons to play him behind more experienced players after that.  There are also legitimate reasons to play him plenty now, though you'd like to see more from him even so.

All this may or may not hold true in the future as the team changes.  It's a good bet that context will determine how valuable Batum is to the Blazers rather than exponential growth on his part.  He's never going to be indispensable, nor the guy you shape your franchise around.  The question is, under what contextual conditions is he more valuable and under what conditions less?

At this point the best approach to the Batum conundrum is to make it matter as little as possible, to be able to appreciate him without needing him.  If Batum were the 4th or 5th best player on the team you could benefit from his threes, his ball movement, his defense, and his intermittent inspiration without getting hamstrung by his foibles.

In any case, the angst surrounding Batum is misplaced, as is much of the attention.  If you prefer a legitimate All-Star player who will maximize his talents every night, switch your focus to LaMarcus Aldridge.  If you're hankering after a young guy with boundless potential, shift your eyes to Damian Lillard.  Nicolas Batum is neither of those things, nor is he likely to be unless his approach changes radically.  He's just Nicolas Batum.  You have to take the bad with the good and understand that the latter will outweigh the former on most nights. Sure it could be better but honestly it could be worse too.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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