A whole lot of NBA teams had a little extra money to spend during the summer of 2016. Some, like the Golden State Warriors with their acquisition of Kevin Durant, struck gold. Others spent recklessly and got burned, perhaps no team more so than the Charlotte Hornets, which handed out a number of bloated deals after making the postseason and proceeded to make the playoffs a total of zero times since.
The deal that has arguably drawn the most scrutiny was the decision to hand Nicolas Batum a five-year contract worth $120 million. A very good player who came over from the Portland Trail Blazers after the 2014-15 campaign, Batum averaged 14.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game during his first year in Charlotte, and his integral role in their postseason berth led to the team compensating him handsomely.
He was good for the Hornets in the first year of his deal, and then a mix of injuries and a general struggle to find his form led to Batum regressing hard. His final three years in Charlotte saw him average just 9.4 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in 30.1 minutes per game. Batum appeared in 161 of 243 total games, connected in 35.7 percent of his threes, and looked like a cautionary tale for future small-market teams who want to hand out star-level money to players who are not of that caliber.
Still, Batum was not a bad basketball player by any stretch. He was rather someone who cashed in at the exact right time and the result was his contract always got brought up before some of the context surrounding it, namely the fact that he’s more of a “star in your role” player than straight-up star. It’s what made his decision this offseason to join the Los Angeles Clippers after he was stretched and waived by the Hornets in an attempt to free up cap space to sign Gordon Hayward so fascinating — Batum, healthy and motivated by being on a good team, would get the chance to exclusively do things he’s good at for the veteran’s minimum on a team that would never need him to do anything beyond his skill set.
It’s been all of 15 games, but the early returns have been better than promising. Batum has thrived in L.A., earning a spot from day one in the starting lineup for Tyronn Lue and making the most of the opportunity. His counting stats are solid, averaging 9.9 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.3 steals in 28.1 minutes per game. The only guys on the team who play more than him, at least based on minutes per game, are Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, as he has made himself an important member of the team’s rotation.
The thing that has made him so invaluable is that Batum has morphed into an efficiency monster. He’s connecting on a career-best 43.9 percent of his threes this season, oftentimes being a major beneficiary of the fact that George and Leonard have been quite good as playmakers in Lue’s offense. Unsurprisingly, he’s been deadly as a corner three marksman — half of his shot attempts are corner threes, and he’s connecting on 45.5 percent of those. In general, he’s been a killer on catch-and-shoot threes, as he’s hitting 46.7 percent of them and they make up 58.8 percent of his shot attempts, per NBA.com’s tracking data.
If he was just doing this, serving as a reliable corner three-point shooting threat and hitting jumpers when the guys around him got him clean looks, Batum would be worth every penny the Clippers paid him. Whenever someone is brought to town on a minimum contract, getting any sort of consistent production out of them makes the investment worthwhile, and Batum has certainly done that. What has made his signing so impressive, though, is how he has impacted winning basketball beyond just hitting shots every now and then.
According to Cleaning the Glass, lineups that feature Batum are demolishing other teams — the team’s points per 100 possession differential with him on the floor is +12.4, putting them in the 93rd percentile of all lineups league-wide. The lineup that he’s played in the most — with he, George, and Leonard surrounded by Patrick Beverley and Serge Ibaka — is +24.7, putting it in the 95th percentile. That group is throttling teams on offense (121.7 points per 100 possessions), clamping them down on defense (97 points/100 possessions), and forcing turnovers at a frankly shocking rate. Defensive possessions with that group end with turnovers 22.1 percent of the time, putting it in the 97th percentile for that statistic.
It’s not a huge surprise. Beverley, George, and Leonard are All-Defensive caliber players, and even if Batum wasn’t a very good defender in his own right, the matchups he would get would usually be favorable ones while those aforementioned three players did their things and Ibaka was tasked with taking on the opposing big man. But here’s the thing: Batum has been quite good defensively, too, as he’s second only to Leonard in defensive win shares, defensive box plus-minus, and steal percentage this season.
His versatility as a defender plays a big role in this. He’s spry for someone listed at 6’8 and 230 pounds, and even if he doesn’t have the quickness to keep up with someone, his wingspan is approximately 15 feet long and allows him to pester faster players. Let’s take Wednesday night’s 115-96 win over the Sacramento Kings as an example: Per NBA.com, the player he spent the most time guarding was Kings big man Marvin Bagley. Second-most: De’Aaron Fox. Third-most: Buddy Hield. The Clippers are blessed with a team that has a trio of wing defenders in Batum, George, and Leonard that can all guard 1-4 — along with a guard in Beverley who will play bigger than his size — meaning that they can basically pick and choose how their resources are best allocated on the other end of the floor.
This would not be possible if Batum was washed, or if his feel for the game was a little off after being in the weird state of purgatory he’s found himself in recently, but that hasn’t been the case. Let’s again go to Wednesday’s game and highlight one specific sequence at the start of the third quarter, where Batum pokes away a pass with his back turned to the ball; shepherds the Clipper defense in transition, plays a role in taking away a Fox pass, reels in an airball, and pushes the ball in transition; and forces yet another steal on an attempted entry pass to Bagley. Then, a little later in the frame, he forces yet another steal by turning into a shark who smells blood in the water, chasing down Fox in transition and poking it away from behind before the Kings guard ever has any idea that Batum is behind him.
Again, if Batum was only hitting corner threes, or just staying afloat on defense, or just doing any number of individual things that contribute to winning basketball, he would be worth the scant amount of money he’s being paid this season. Instead, he’s been the best possible version of himself, albeit in a reduced capacity. As a result, in basically every metric that measures your impact on the game, Batum is either behind only Leonard (on/off plus-minus per 100 possessions) or behind Leonard and George (win shares, box plus-minus, VORP) on the entire Clippers team.
There is a lot of basketball that needs to be played this season, and no one knows if Batum will be able to keep up his level of play on both ends of the floor. But no matter what, Batum is positioning himself to be a crucial member of the rotation for a team that has legitimate championship aspirations, and if they end up lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy for the first time in franchise history this year, you can probably bet that the guy who got stretched by the Hornets and headed to L.A. on the veteran minimum will play a major role in their success.