"Just to be myself again," Blazers small forward Nicolas Batum told assembled media last week at team exit interviews when asked what Portland's coaching staff needed to see from him next season. "I talked to coach, [he said] 'Just be Nic Batum again.'"
The 26-year-old, seven-year veteran from France is generally one of the Blazers' more earnest players when dealing with the media -- a fairly honorable distinction on a roster that includes insightful interviewees like Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and Damian Lillard -- and appears to genuinely value accountability.
Batum wrapped up what will most likely go down as his worst season as a Blazer when the team closed the book on its 2014-15 campaign last week, losing a first-round playoff series to the Memphis Grizzlies in five games. Fans in Portland could easily observe Batum's struggles since November via the eye-test, and his 2014-15 statistics confirm what he told the local media at exit interviews last week: He had a bad year.
Batum says he knew early on last Summer that he was due for a rough season. The French national team was set to be a main competitor for Spain and Team USA last August in the FIBA Basketball World Cup -- an international tournament that occurs every four years -- but would be without the services of star players Tony Parker and Joakim Noah. Sensing some pressure from his home country, Batum was a late addition to France's World Cup roster, even though his early-Summer training regimen hadn't accounted for the physical toll the tournament would put on his body.
"You think about yourself, your family and your job," Batum told The Oregonian's Joe Freeman in March when he described why he competes for the French national team in the NBA's offseason. "Sometimes, you have to go for your country."
In a poll of 747 Blazer's Edge readers last June, 51 percent of respondents said they were either "concerned or somewhat concerned" that Batum would spend a portion of his Summer competing in the FIBA World Cup.
Though his time spent playing basketball overseas in the offseason certainly added to the apparent physical exhaustion he experienced on the court this past NBA season, Batum also suffered a number of injuries -- two sore knees and a sprained shooting wrist, among other various maladies -- that limited his positive impact on the court for the Blazers this season, and he valiantly, if not to a fault, fought through them to appear in 71 regular season contests and five postseason games.
The numbers don't lie, though; Batum had a down year, regardless of whether you view his persistence in fighting through injuries as selfless or ultimately more detrimental to the team, considering he was, at times, clearly playing in a physically compromised state.
An aggregate look at Batum's 2014-15 statistics compared to 2013-14 -- one of his most productive seasons in Portland -- provides some context for what the oft-labeled "enigmatic" small forward struggled through this year:
(All stats presented via NBA.com)
Across the board, Batum's numbers were clearly down this past season from the 2013-14 campaign. He played fewer games and minutes, scored less, shot worse from all areas of the court, was less of a factor as a distributor and rebounder and was, generally, not as involved in the offense. Batum did manage to improve both his turnovers per game and his turnover ratio -- the amount of times he turned the ball over per 100 possessions -- but that net benefit was largely overshadowed by his other stats dipping.
For Batum to be at his best in Blazers coach Terry Stotts' offense, he needs to be able to hit his three-pointers effectively. Penetration by Lillard and the attention given to power forward LaMarcus Aldridge by opposing defenses often leaves Batum open on the perimeter, where he nailed a solid 36 percent of his shots a year ago.
Batum's shooting woes were apparent out of the gate this past Fall, and an early-season knee contusion that occurred against the Nuggets robbed him of the lift on his shot and compounded the issues already brought on by fatigue. In a mid-December matchup with the Bucks, Batum was fouled on a fastbreak dunk by Milwaukee center Larry Sanders, injuring his shooting wrist and left knee. The three injuries -- all occurring before Christmas -- kept Batum out of a combined six games.
Because the Frenchman's battered knees and right wrist significantly hampered his ability to shoot from outside, the opposition was able to sag off of him on the perimeter. Batum's man could then play the passing lanes more aggressively without fear of retribution from outside, thus limiting his effectiveness as a distributor and rebounder, as well.
The snowballing nature of Batum's fatigue, injuries and the way defenses were able to capitalize on his inefficient shooting all combined to create a toxic mix, the odds stacking against Portland's most versatile player since late-Summer and mounting continually.
Batum did have a few spirited performances throughout the season when he demonstrated how useful he could be in Portland's offense -- and he occasionally showed off his abilities as a multifaceted utility player, racking up points, rebounds and assists in almost equal droves at times -- but those productive outbursts more or less merely dotted the vast landscape of a frustrating, morale-depleting and injury-plagued year.
The mid-February All-Star break gave Batum the opportunity to take a full week off from all basketball-related activities, allowing him to come back from his short vacation with his batteries recharged, at least temporarily. And, according to Basketball-Reference.com, his Defensive Rating and Defensive Win Shares -- an estimate of the wins contributed to by his defense -- were both improved from the year prior. Though his offense was in the tank for much of this season, Batum's defensive efforts were, by some statistical measures, as good or better than the season before.
"(Batum is) 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," Blazer's Edge staff writer Evans Clinchy wrote back in January. "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."
The tolls of an 82-game season brought Batum back to Earth for the stretch run of 2014-15, though, and his post-All-Star break surge was, for the most part, in the rearview mirror by April. What Clinchy said almost four months ago still rings true, however. Batum can't be judged solely on his merits as a scorer. He's more of a multi-pronged utility tool -- a serviceable outside shooter, deft passer, pesky defender and sneaky-good rebounder, also filling other useful, unheralded and sometimes understated roles for Portland on both ends of the court. To that end, Batum's season shouldn't be viewed as an abject disaster.
Will he be better next year? Probably. Though Batum has committed to another offseason of competing with the French national team, he's vowed to adjust his Summer training activities to include more rest, in an effort to alleviate the strains of the NBA's regular season.
At just 26 years old, Batum is in the prime of his career. Also keep in mind that the four-year, $46 million contract he signed in 2012 will be fulfilled next June. He and his agent will certainly be looking for another lucrative, long-term deal, and another season like last year's could significantly impact Batum's value on the free agent market. From a numbers standpoint, at the very least, the motivation will be there.
This year was an outlier for the seven-year veteran, a bad outing that all parties involved -- from the player and organization, down to the team's fanbase -- will try to put past them as everyone looks toward the future.
If Batum resumes his productive ways next year, 2014-15 will go down as the season that fatigue and injuries finally crept up on and slowed the dynamic small forward who's been playing professionally since the age of 17. Statistically, Batum's most recent campaign stands out as his worst since taking on a more involved role in the offense back in 2012, when Stotts brought his patented, ball-moving "flow" offensive system to Portland.
Batum probably deserves an opportunity to show that he can recover in 2016. Until this past year, he'd been riding an upward trajectory as a scorer, passer, rebounder and defender, showing improvements essentially every offseason in multiple facets as he's approached his peak output as a player. At his age and with his history, a terrible season like his last should be considered an anomaly until proven otherwise.
At the very least, Blazers fans can take solace knowing that Batum is holding himself accountable for his recent troubles on the court. He clearly wants to move on and come back next October better prepared, ready to contribute the way he had from 2012 to 2014.
"There were huge expectations [last offseason]," Batum told The Oregonian's Jason Quick last week. "I felt we could do something special this season, collectively and personally. So I understand. Since I signed this contract, the first two years I was OK. This one, like I said, was my first bad one. But I understand why people get mad. I'm the first one to get mad at myself.''
"All I know is everybody has one bad year,'' Batum continued in the same interview with Quick. "You have to learn from it. Why? And how can I get better?''
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter