Yesterday we asked you to identify the biggest surprise of the 2012-13 season so far for the Portland Trail Blazers, anticipating today's SBNation-NBA league-wide posts chronicling surprises for each NBA team. 600 comments later (and counting) the results are in!
Blazer'sEdge readers came up with a varied list. We knew Damian Lillard would be good, but this good? J.J. Hickson is rebounding better as a center and giving more energy than anyone had the right to expect. 5-5 is a darn good record for the first 1/8 of a season. Wesley Matthews has played strong all-around. Players have taken to Coach Terry Stotts' system quickly. There were even some negative surprises mentioned. Joel Freeland has more hopeful adherents than minutes played so far. Somebody even said they didn't expect Portland's bench to stink this year.
At the end of the day none of these people or events were mentioned as often or with such gushing admiration as Nicolas Batum. He's the revelation of the first 10 games for Blazers fans.
In some ways it's a surprise that Batum is a surprise. This is his 5th year with the team...hardly a new face. Expectations have been high for him since he took over the starting small forward spot in his rookie season. His ups and downs since then have become legend. One week he'll look like an All-Star, the next he's the Invisible Man. His statistical averages have always been good but means don't reveal the roller coaster ride Batum has taken to earn them: from starter to reserve and then starter again, from second to fifth option in the offense, defending like Bill Russell then defending like Bill Clinton. Up until now what you've seen in Batum depends on what your definition of "is" is.
Three significant changes rolled Batum's way in the summer of 2012. First the Blazers cleared their roster of every player who could conceivably challenged him for minutes. Second, Portland matched a semi-handsome offer from the Minnesota Timberwolves, bringing Batum into the 8-digit salary club. Third, the Blazers hired a coach in favor of motion offense, quick shots, and who never met a three he didn't approve of. In less than three months Batum got paid and made.
Even though circumstances pointed towards success, folks were skeptical as the season began. After all we'd seen Batum flourish before. He hadn't found his ceiling yet, nor was potential his main problem. Every time the ladder extended and his climb began he'd get distracted and lose momentum. "Step, step, step, step...oooh! A squirrel!" Then down he'd go and somebody else would take his spot. He still performed well in the minutes and role his was given. He just never seemed to be able to carve out more...at least not permanently.
In the first 10 games of Portland's season, Batum appears to have found a rhythm. As an astute observer put it in the comment section of the surprise discussion post, even the most insightful, knowledgeable, and exacting observers can only point to Batum disappearing for quarters or minutes now, not for entire games or weeks. Per 36 minutes Batum is averaging 19 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals while shooting 48% from the floor and 41% from the three-point arc. His True Shooting percentage is 62%, his assist percentage has nearly doubled from last year, and his defensive rating has improved even while the defensive performance of his team has gone into the dumpster. We're used to seeing a game or two like that from Batum, but 10 games has people buzzing.
Naturally there are counterpoints as well. The most obvious is that you don't earn anything for a 10 game streak even if that's twice as long as your biggest previous run. Careers are measured by seasons. Resting on anything less is more justification than analysis. Even Eddy Curry looked good for half a year or so. Also even though Batum's scoring and shooting percentages are up during this 10-game period (not unprecedented among NBA players), his per-minute statistics aren't radically out of line with previous performances. On the one had that's what you want to see. One of the definitions of stardom in this league is looking good in smaller minutes and not changing when you get a bigger opportunity. By that definition Batum is killing it this year. But it's not like he's transformed into a completely new guy. This makes you appreciate how good he always has been but it also makes you want to see more before passing final judgment.
The biggest question mark still surrounding this surprise, though, has nothing to do with Batum himself. It's systemic. Batum is flourishing because he's getting huge minutes without being replaced, but Batum is also flourishing because he's playing in a Batum-favorable system. That's fantastic, except that a look at LaMarcus Aldridge's per-minute numbers in the first 10 games shows a decline at lest commensurate with, if not exceeding, Batum's advance. Other factors might be in play...injury, adjusting to a new coach and a new year. But it's quite possible that the system that favors Batum is slighting Portland's other forward. Batum diehards will no doubt cry, "It's way too early to tell that!" That may be true, but then we have to admit it's way too early to talk about any of this stuff, including Batum's improvement. One can't assume the upward trends are real and lasting while the downward trends are extraneous.
If Coach Stotts' offensive methodology does disadvantage Aldridge and if they can't find a way to remedy the situation, the Blazers will have a tough choice to make. They wouldn't want to give up on a freshly-signed and newly ascended Batum but they can't prosper unless they can keep Aldridge productive and happy. They could trade Aldridge, but before doing so they'd probably experiment with a return to Aldridge-dominant ball to see what would happen. This would be the real test for Batum. Can he produce like this if Aldridge returns to form? For that matter can he produce like this when the Blazers find a viable forward to play behind him and he's not getting every conceivable minute and touch anymore? Alternately, can he become a true superstar who merits those minutes and touches no matter who else is on the team, Aldridge included?
We don't know the answer to any of those questions yet. All we know is that Batum has responded to his promotion in minutes and responsibility so far, keying several games and winning a couple others for the Blazers outright. For now that's enough. If he continues at this pace Batum will likely be the surprise of the season not just for Portland but around the NBA. If not, he'll still remain a fascinating and tantalizing prospect for Blazer fans to chew over. Either way, it's a ray of light in what was supposed to be a down season for Portland.
We'll take it.