We’ll have a more detailed responses to Batum’s contract coming soon (for real) plus some coverage from Vegas, but for now here are a couple of takes on the Batum signing:
For me, the only thing worse than tanking is ambiguity. Neil Olshey had made it clear his plan was to keep Nicolas Batum in Portland, but after Indiana matched the Roy Hibbert offer last week it felt like Portland had returned to NBA limbo. Fans started to fidget, talking themselves into nonexistent sign-and-trade agreements that left Luke Babbitt as the Blazers starter on the wing. Felton’s officially gone, Batum’s locked up, and Lillard’s play this week has been stellar. Things are finally starting to take shape for the Blazers.
With Batum’s signing, eighty percent of the starting five is set for the Blazers. Lillard is a virtual lock at point and Matthews, Batum, and Aldridge remain the starters. It might not be the most polished group of starters but it’s going to be a fun and intriguing one.
As for the starting center, more likely than finding a player via free agency or trades this summer, Portland’s new coach will decide from the guys already on the roster. With the athleticism of Lillard, Aldridge, and Batum, the smaller JJ Hickson is a real possibility to start in the middle–one I like. Going small might not put the Blazers in playoff contention, but it could certainly be a fun bunch to watch. I’m assuming of course they figure out how to run a fast break, a fundamental that escaped them last season.
Solidifying Batum as part of the starting five isn’t a game-changer to compete with the West’s elite this season, but the core is young and talented enough to grow together as the organization strengthens the supporting cast. I like the move; signing Batum is a decision fans are much less likely to regret than letting him go.
Coming off of a season where we saw a tenured coach fired, the city and media turn on the starting point guard (and he back on them), and the franchise centerpiece medically retire at 27-years old (only to sign with another team seven months later), securing the team’s young and talented second-leading scorer is the right move for the direction of the franchise. While there is still a lot up in the air in terms of what this team can do together, the future is looking a lot less like purgatory and closer to a thoughtfully retooled roster full of young, promising players.
Look, at least it’s over now. The Batum saga seemed of a piece with the leaguewide inability to gracefully manage a restricted free agency in the new labor environment. Now that the dust is settled, though, the process pretty much worked how it was supposed to, and Neil Olshey kept his man.
Which is not to say I’m in favor of this move. Of course the figures of the contract matter a great deal, and so far we don’t really know what Nic is getting. There have been ambiguously sourced reports ranging from 8.75 million in the first year to 11 million, and Olshey has disputed the widely reported 4 years/ $46.5 million cap figures.
At pretty much any of the reported numbers, though, Batum is overpaid. I certainly see the appeal of locking in a young swingman with a versatile skillset, but I think that Batum is closer to his ceiling than the focus on his youth suggests. Batum manages to be pretty efficient while logging consistent minutes, but he doesn’t match that efficiency with raw production. I think that means a player whose skill set is nearly maxed out.
I’d argue that Batum is good for exploiting holes in a defense and little else. He was assisted on a massive 77.2% of his buckets, more than 10 percentage points higher than the league average for small forwards. He is most effective as a cutter and a shooter—great qualities, to be sure, but when you consider how available these skills are in the talent market, why pay Batum for them?
I actually think Batum’s value has been paradoxically inflated by the success of frugal teams and their acquisitions. The “D & 3” archetype is everybody’s favorite boilerplate roster filler, and we just saw Miami, San Antonio and other elite teams prove their value. If Danny Green can be a plus player, then God knows Nic Batum can do all the same things better, right?
But that thinking misses the point. Those defense and corner 3 guys are used by frugal teams precisely because their talents are some of the easiest to find; they’re used because they’re cheap, and they’re cheap for a reason. Further, Batum’s defense is vastly overrated. He’s a great shotblocker for his position, but his rebounding has never been even league average for small forwards and he’s nobody’s idea of a lockdown on-ball guy. He’s the Serge Ibaka of wing players: a prototypical physique with the knack for big defensive plays who isn’t actually that useful for team defense.
Do I think this signing is a catastrophe? Hardly. The Blazers still have cap space, and now they have a young gazelle of a wing player in their employ for the next several seasons. And I could be wrong about his potential to improve—it could be that Batum continues to grow as the faithful hope and he earns every penny. But if he’s paid near reported salaries and he never makes a big leap, Batum’s contract is an example of a team investing in an image of a player rather than the reality.
I’m fine with the decision to match Batum’s offer sheet, at least when considering the few viable alternatives Neil Olshey had. Depending on whom you choose to believe about his negotiations with David Kahn, Derrick Williams may or may not have been on the table for a sign-and-trade. That would have been the move, but all indications are that Paul Allen is still bitter about the circumstances surrounding the Martell Webster trade from 2010 (which is a pretty ridiculous thing on its face to hold a grudge over, given that it’s Martell Webster and not, you know, a player the Blazers have actually suffered from losing). This isn’t the place to have the discussion on whether it’s smart to run a team based on the personal whims of Paul Allen, but accepting that as the reality, Olshey’s options were limited.
The contract Batum got was an overpay for what he has accomplished as a player, but it’s hardly a crippling deal for Portland. They still have some cap space, and they won’t even come close to approaching the luxury tax next offseason, meaning they’ll have a full mid-level exception to work with. Also, overlarge contracts are sort of par for the course with restricted free agency. Teams are forced to pay around 20 percent more for players than they’d like, in hopes that it will be too much for their old teams to handle. The Blazers have played this game twice in the past several years with another division rival, the Jazz. The Paul Millsap contract that Utah chose to match in 2009 has actually turned out to be a pretty fair value for his production, and the hope is that Batum will have a similar evolution. The hole Batum would have left in the roster had he been allowed to walk would have had far worse repercussions for the Blazers than paying him the money on Minnesota’s offer sheet will—how does “Luke Babbitt, starting NBA small forward” sound to you?