The Trail Blazers’ 50-year anniversary season is temporarily on pause as the NBA goes on hiatus to slow the spread of COVID-19. During that break, Blazer’s Edge is counting down the top 100 Blazers: players, executives, and other influencers who made the franchise what it is today.
No. 40 | Nicolas Batum
Games Played with Blazers: 481 Regular Season, 27 Postseason
*PTS: 11.2 | REB: 5.1 | AST: 3.0 | FG%: 44.6
*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland
Departed Club: July 2015, traded to the Charlotte Hornets for Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh
Place in History: Selected 25th overall in the 2008 NBA Draft by the Houston Rockets—then traded to Portland for fellow draftee Darrell Arthur—Nicolas Batum is one of the better examples of value for the dollar in Trail Blazers history. The lithe small forward from France would go on to start 428 games for the Blazers as a Jacques of All Trades, a superb defender who could shoot, pass, drain the long ball, and dunk with relatively equal ease.
It didn’t take Batum long to make an impact once he hit the league. He sliced, he diced, he dribbled, he defended, and he made julienne fries. He could do all these things (except dribble) as easily without the ball as with. This made him the perfect accompaniment to Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge in Head Coach Nate McMillan’s system. The Blazers didn’t need another scorer; they need someone who could do everything else. Enter Batum. He started in 76 of 79 appearances his rookie season and never looked back.
Before long, Batum was playing 30, sometimes almost 40, minutes per night, largely due to his defense. He’d draw the opponent’s best wing scorer and stick like glue. He could cover space deceptively quickly. You’d think the opponent had a step, then the avenue was gone. Batum’s defense wasn’t super aggressive; he was not Stacey Augmon or Scottie Pippen. He was that annoying guy that you weren’t going anywhere without...like a waiter who asks every five seconds how you’re enjoying the meal until you finally just wish he’d go away.
On offense, Batum walked through some serious undertow. He could shoot the three well enough to remain a weak side outlet his entire career. That was the constant. He could play the strong side too, driving or setting up plays. He had the ability to get to the hoop. When he elongated on the leap, he was like a condor unfurling its wings for a slam. But he swirled amidst the All-Star rocks of Aldridge, Roy, sometimes Greg Oden, plus all the players brought in to bolster them. Batum might have been able to average 20 had he been featured. He never was. Some nights he’d pop off huge. You’d think, “This is the take-off moment.” The next night he’d be back in the muck.
Watching him night after night, it was hard to avoid the impression of a brilliant student just getting by. You never knew if it was the the fault of the pupil or the school. It was probably a bit of both.
The nights when Batum came out of his shell were magical. He scored 35 against the Rockets in November of 2012, shooting 13-of-19 from the field, 5-of-8 from the arc, with 6 rebounds, 4 assists, and 5 blocked shots. This came six days after he pasted 33 on the San Antonio Spurs with a similar stat line (sans blocks).
Batum’s best overall stretch may have come in the 2014 NBA Playoffs, when he topped 20 points four times—adding in a ton of rebounds and assists, naturally—as the Blazers defeated James Harden, Dwight Howard, and the Rockets before falling to the San Antonio Spurs. Batum appeared to light up that spring, though the Renaissance was short-lived.
If you watch Top Chef, sometimes contestants will say it’s easier to cook with a limited amount of ingredients before you and a clear challenge presented than it is to cook when you’re told to make anything you want with a completely-stocked pantry. Paralysis by analysis is a real thing, especially when you’re good. This might also describe Batum’s career with the Trail Blazers. He could do almost anything, but what was he supposed to do? Was he only a defender and weak-side shooter? Some years, yes. Was he more of a second point guard? Yes, that too. Was he the fifth option in the offense or the third? Yes, and yes. He had his best years in Head Coach Terry Stotts’ free-flowing, ball-sharing system, but also arguably his worst. Like Travis Outlaw before him, Batum was one of those guys who straddled very different eras, always earning a place with his raw ability, but never quite finding a home.
When the end came, it was obvious that the Blazers were not going to spend big money to keep Batum. He was too good to re-sign on the cheap, but his promise still outweighed the reality of his production. As it turned out, the Charlotte Hornets believed in that promise and were willing to make him part of their central core.
Though he already seemed like a grizzled veteran, Batum was only 26 when the Blazers traded him. At that age he had already been in the league six years and clocked 481 appearances. That tells you everything you need to know about Batum’s game.
Strip away everything else—stardom, stats, expectations, environment—and judge by pure basketball ability, and Batum would probably stand among the best players in Portland history. The “everything else” caught up to him. Still, if you were to build the ideal small forward, you wouldn’t deviate from his mold much. Batum is another player who, had he played in an era that valued ball movement more, an era where his athleticism was just slightly more telling, he might have been an all-time great.
For the value, the potential, the great nights of all-around production, the defense, and for being the most tantalizing player of his era from the moment he stepped on the Moda Center floor to the day he left it, Nicolas Batum gets the 40th spot on our Top 100 countdown of Trail Blazers players and influencers.
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