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Why The Blazers Need Nicolas Batum Regardless of Shooting Percentage

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Nico can do plenty for this team besides score the ball.

Batum can still bring some defensive chops to the table.
Batum can still bring some defensive chops to the table.
Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

As if it wasn't bad enough that the Trail Blazers were already without Robin Lopez and just learned yesterday they'd be missing LaMarcus Aldridge for a while as well, there's now bad news concerning yet another of Portland's star players: Nicolas Batum is still battling an ongoing wrist injury.

It's been having an impact for a while, too. You need look no further than his shooting numbers to see it - Batum has missed 55 of his last 82 attempts from the field, and his field goal percentage dropped from 42.5 percent for the month of December to 35.8 percent for January. That decline is significant, and it's costing the Blazers points on the scoreboard. Maybe even games. He was a combined 3-for-18 in consecutive contests last week against the Clippers, Kings and Grizzlies, and Portland lost those games by 6, 14 and 4. He was 0-for-6 against Boston last night in a game the Blazers lost at the buzzer. Even a mediocre shooting performance might have turned a couple of those outcomes.

There's no doubt that Batum's struggles have been an issue. And there's reason to believe that the shooting slump and the wrist trouble are closely connected - it's been reported that the stiffness in the right side of his wrist is causing his shot to veer wide right. And if you've watched him on the floor for the Blazers lately, you may notice that that's precisely the problem.

All right, so Batum is off. This much we know. And it's alarming to note that his troubles have continued for a couple of weeks now - that aforementioned streak of 82 shots began on Jan. 5, when Batum went 3-for-9 and the Blazers quite nearly lost to the bloody Lakers. They have some Damian Lillard late-game heroics to thank that they survived with a four-point win.

So... what? Do we give up on Nico if he can't produce? Cast him away? Deal him to anyone who will take him for a second-round draft pick?

I'm thinking nah.

Good players are able to help their teams even when the shot isn't falling. They get creative and look for other ways to contribute. I remember covering the Celtics when they were playing the Lakers in the 2010 Finals, and they lost Game 7 of that series despite the fact that Kobe Bryant shot a dreadful 6-of-24. The Lakers didn't win in spite of Bryant; they won because he stepped up, grabbed 15 rebounds and played lockdown defense on Ray Allen. (Allen shot an even worse 3-of-14.) Bryant talked postgame, Larry O'Brien trophy in hand, about how he recognized mid-game that the jump shot wasn't working and decided to find another way.

I think at this point, Batum has no choice but to take the same approach. His shot right now isn't hitting the broad side of a barn, but he's an important part of what the Blazers do on a nightly basis, and Terry Stotts can't turn his back on his longtime steady wing man. Instead, the challenge is to minimize the impact of the poor shooting and maximize what Batum does best.

Luckily, Batum does a lot of stuff besides shoot the ball. If there's one archetype of player that can survive a shooting slump and still help his team in a meaningful way, it's the Batum type - a versatile two-way wing player with enough size and athleticism to do just about everything.

One thing that hasn't betrayed Batum yet is his ability to make plays for his teammates. For one example, check out this clip of one of the prettiest assists he's recorded in 2015:



Batum begins this play with his back to the basket, isolated against Jamal Crawford - Crawford's not a particularly strong defender, so a full-strength Batum could easily take him into the post and show him up. But in this particular instance, he's clearly not looking to score. When Aldridge comes with the high screen, and both Crawford and Blake Griffin move to trap Batum, you'll notice that Batum artfully wriggles free from Griffin's ball pressure and finds an opening in the middle of the floor. Again, he could look to score, but he decides against it - instead, he noticed that Spencer Hawes has fallen asleep on Meyers Leonard. Batum knifes a perfect bounce pass through traffic for the easy hoop. It's beautiful stuff.

What's notable about plays like this isn't just that Batum is passing - it's that he's looking to pass. He's got his head down, rarely even looking to the rim. His eyes are more directed toward the guys around him and how the play is unfolding on the floor. He's trying to make the right basketball play.

Defensively, Batum has also stayed solid. His greatest strength on that end of the floor has always been his flexibility - he can scramble around screens to stick with his man or switch to just about anyone. He's physical enough to stay with bigger players and quick enough to stay with smaller guys, too.

None of that has changed during Batum's recent slump. Check out his clip of the Blazers' small forward guarding recent Memphis acquisition Jeff Green:



This is classic Batum defense. The Grizzlies run a 3-5 pick-and-roll, with Marc Gasol on the wing facilitating the play with a dish to Green in the corner. Green cuts back to the wing, where he's met with a hard screen from Gasol; rather than get lost as a result of the huge dude in front of him, Batum curls around Gasol and stays in a virtual lockstep with the driving Green. The result is Green getting funneled into the paint where he's swarmed by the three-man powerhouse of Batum, Chris Kaman and Aldridge. Unsurprisingly, he misses the driving layup.

Little plays like this, while they don't generate a lot of headlines or merit much attention from casual fans, are the bread and butter of Nic Batum's game. He's one of those guys who can help his team dozens of times every night in little ways that don't show up on the stat sheet. (Well, assists do, but you get my point.) So even when Batum's wrist fails him - or maybe, just when he falls victim to a little bit of statistical variance, who knows - he's still an incredibly useful player. He's a lot more than a jump shooter.

I've seen a lot of ludicrous ideas tossed around these last couple of weeks about what the Blazers should do with Batum. There are people who want to trade the guy; people who want to bench him and toss all his minutes to Allen Crabbe and Dorell Wright. There are people who think that Batum, at age 26, after six-plus very productive seasons in Portland, is done. To this I say: Pshaw. With a player like this, who's a star contributor in his prime - and with a team like this, which is set up to win not only right now, but in future years as well - you must look at the big picture.

This Portland team has a legitimate shot at winning a title in 2015, and to do that, you need a variety of guys contributing in different ways. The Blazers already have one of the best offensive backcourts in the game with Lillard and Wesley Matthews; they've got a pair up front that can man the paint once they're healthy again, with Aldridge and Robin Lopez. With Batum, they don't need 20 points a night on 12 shots. They can get by with just an uber-capable glue guy who passes, rebounds, defends and makes hustle plays on both ends of the floor. In fact, every great team needs that guy, and indeed, Batum is the Blazers'.

Batum will never be Kobe Bryant - at least not the Kobe who's shot prolifically his whole career and scored more career points than Michael Jordan. But hey - between Kobe and Nicolas Batum, only one of the two will be on an NBA court this May. When it comes to that guy, let's all just remain patient.