In a season when several Clippers exceeded expectations, from comers like Ivica Zubac and Terance Mann to veterans Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson, perhaps the only one that qualifies as an absolute shocker is 13-year veteran Nicolas Batum.
Over 66 games (38 starts), Batum is averaging 8.1 points and 4.8 rebounds in 27.4 minutes, and posting an effective field goal percentage (giving extra weight to 3-pointers) of 59.7%, the highest in his career save for his sophomore season when he played in just 37 games for Portland.
Moreover, Batum is tied with Kawhi Leonard for most defensive win shares on the team, 2.4, is fourth in offensive win shares, 2.7, and has become a de facto captain with the Clippers’ top-five bench while also seeing primetime runs with the starters in big moments.
To say that Batum’s play this season is a surprise, following his strange and awkward final year in Charlotte, is a tremendous understatement. Very few people — very few experts, saw this kind of contribution coming. But Clippers assistant coach and former Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson did and was someone who pushed to bring Batum aboard.
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‘I Don’t Want to Be an a-Hole’
“I’m not exaggerating, nobody expected that,” Atkinson said recently about Batum’s season, in a podcast interview for France-based Basket USA.
“Everyone thought his career was dead, that he was over,” he continued. “When (president of basketball operations) Lawrence Frank told us we had a chance to sign him, I said we absolutely had to. When I was the Brooklyn coach, we played a lot against Charlotte and Nicolas Batum defended very well against D’Angelo Russell…
“It’s just that Charlotte didn’t play him a lot,” Atkinson added.
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. The Hornets did play Batum — a lot — at first, about 35 minutes a game his initial two seasons in Buzz City and 31 in each of the next two, starting every game he played over those four years and averaging 12.8 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists. But things changed last season.
Charlotte went into rebuild mode and Batum’s minutes — and performance (34.6% shooting) — went where long careers usually go to die. Out of a possible 65 games, Batum only saw minutes in 22, picking up DNPs and Inactives like dogs pick up sticks: 19 straight before the pandemic shut down the league.
Okay, so maybe Batum’s time had come. Fine. Only problem was, he was still getting paid a ton of money. Like $25.5 million. For riding the bench. The team’s highest-paid player healthy but not playing — not a great look. On top of that, Batum was holding a $27 million player option for the following season, meaning he would be doing more of the same in 2020-21.
But Batum is far from tone-deaf, and on March 4, 2020, he told Hornets fans he was sorry.
“I apologize to the people here,” Batum told The Charlotte Observer, “because they put so much faith in me. And it didn’t go well…. It didn’t work out. But what do I have to do? Because I’m still here.”
The Observer’s piece notes that, despite the awkwardness of the situation, Batum was nonetheless very active as a cheerleader and a diplomat from the bench — by his own estimate saving the team from a half-dozen technical fouls over the course of the season.
“I don’t want to be an a–hole,” Batum told the Observer. “I don’t want to be selfish … I don’t want to be that guy who’s like, ‘OK, let’s go out tonight. Coach sucks. Don’t show up. You shoot 25 times a game; don’t listen to him.’ No. I won’t do that. I don’t need that. They don’t need that.”
But there is a limit to everyone’s contrition, and though some in Charlotte felt that Batum should not exercise his $27 million player option, thereby saving the Hornets a huge chunk of change, that was too much to expect. Not surprisingly, Batum exercised his option at the end of the 2020 season.
Not interested in being saddled with Batum for another season, and really really really itching to bring the pricey Gordon Hayward over from Boston, the Hornets opted to waive Batum in November. While basically gifting Batum a year’s salary (more than most people make in several lifetimes) the move allowed the Hornets to “stretch” Batum’s remaining year over three consecutive years, which gave them extra immediate buying power.
Charlotte got Hayward, Batum got paid, and soon enough Batum joined Atkinson and the Clippers on a one-year, $2.5 million deal. (Batum was recently booed in his return to Charlotte in the regular season’s penultimate game.)
Atkinson and Batum Go Way Back
Trying to isolate the impact Batum has had with the Clippers this season is difficult, but it’s safe to say he’s succeeded both tangibly and psychologically.
In April, after Batum blocked thee and five shots in consecutive wins over Detroit and Indiana (while also putting up 14 points in each contest), Clippers head coach Ty Lue jokingly gave his 6-foot-8 forward the nickname “Nic Gobert,” a nod to Utah’s 7-foot-1 shot-swatting goliath Rudy Gobert.
And earlier, on March 22, Batum played a key albeit statistically irrelevant role in a season-altering 24-point comeback over Atlanta. In that game, which was the second win in what would eventually be a 17-3 Clippers stretch, guard Luke Kennard went 8-for-8 and scored 20 points in less than 20 minutes, but it was Batum (zero points on 0-for-4 shooting) who Kennard talked about in the postgame.
“Nick’s presence is huge,” said Kennard. “Me and (Terance) Mann, obviously we were getting most of the shots, but just [Batum]’s presence, the way he kind of controlled what we were doing offensively and defensively, getting into huddles, talking to us in timeouts — he was our leader during that time. Even though it might not show on the stat sheet, Nic Batum was our leader during that stretch. It shows a lot about who Nic is, his character, the type of teammate he is and what he brings to this team.”
None of this, of course, is news to Atkinson, who played in Europe during his career and saw Batum mature.
“I have always appreciated Nico since the time he was at Le Mans. I saw him grow up, he had very good years in Portland. My only question was about his body. That’s why we have to give him a lot of credit. He’s in good shape again, he’s worked like crazy on and off the pitch. He works as hard as everyone else in the team, on the floor but also in the gym, he’s a real pro and you know his Basketball IQ is very, very high. The players respect him and love to grow with him. His defense is great and honestly, he’s one of our best players this season.”
While all that may be true, there is one thing Atkinson is worried about when it comes to Batum.
“The only thing that scares me is how much money he’s going to ask us for next year, it’s really my only fear,” said Atkinson. “Nicolas, we need you to stay with us — you have already made enough money!”