This young season has been relatively free of off-court drama for the Trail Blazers, with one exception. The team has entered into discussions with Nicolas Batum about a contract extension, and according to reports, they’re not off to a great start. The Blazers’ front office has made it clear publicly numerous times that they envision the 23-year-old forward being a part of the team’s future for years to come. Batum likewise says he’s comfortable in Portland and wants to get a long-term deal worked out. Should be a quick set of talks, right? Well, apparently not. Batum is young and still has serious upside, but his confidence has come and gone, especially on the offensive end, as his role has shifted for reasons mostly out of his control (trades and injuries, mainly). All of this translates into a player that’s not easy to put a dollar amount on. Do the Blazers pay him for past performance or future potential? Taking the former approach means risking bad blood, while the latter strategy brings with it the danger of hamstringing the team financially for the next several years if, for whatever reason, things don’t work out. The answer, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle, and it’s in the best interests of both sides to find it.
Batum and his agent, Bouna Ndiaye, have both said that his playing time and future role on the team are just as important to them as the size of the extension, if not more so. This puts the Blazers in a tricky position, because they will also have a decision to make this summer with regards to Gerald Wallace. Crash is having a terrific 2011-12 campaign, and while Portland will (and should) try to lock him up for the next few years, he isn’t necessarily a player they should feel compelled to keep at any cost. Between his age (30 by the start of next season), injury and concussion history, and style of play predicated largely on athleticism and explosiveness, a long-term contract may not be the best idea for Portland. If they can get Wallace to agree to a three-year deal, great. Anything longer and I’d think long and hard before doing it.
This complicates things with Batum because even if the Blazers can sell him on taking less money in exchange for the promise of a starting job, they’re either conceding any chance of keeping Wallace right off the bat or banking on convincing him to remain as a reserve (unlikely, since he’s good enough to start on practically any team in the league). Portland will be forced to decide between an extremely productive known commodity with a shorter shelf life and a much younger player with the chance to be very good for a very long time, but a player whose worth right now is based more on hypotheticals than track record.
One judgment call the Blazers will have to make is whether Batum is more valuable to the team as a starter or sixth man. ESPN.com’s splits for 2010-11 suggest the difference in his production is fairly significant. In 67 games as a starter last season, Batum shot 46.5% from the field and 36.1% on threes, averaging 12.9 points per game. By comparison, the 13 games in which he came off the bench saw his field-goal percentage drop by seven points to 39.3, while his scoring fell to 9.7 PPG. However, the circumstances of last season (injuries galore to Portland’s big men and the integration of Wallace following the trade deadline, which accounted for most of Batum’s time as a reserve) make it hard to call this data definitive. He’s already played 12 games this season as a backup in a much more stable rotation, and his numbers (42.5 FG%, 48.6 3P%, 11.8 PPG) are closer to what they were in his starts last year.
A bigger difference-maker in Batum’s production than whether or not he starts is his playing time. His scoring numbers are markedly better in every category in games where he plays 30 or more minutes (67 games in his career) than those in which he plays 29 or fewer (71 games), according to Basketball-Reference.com’s splits. That has held true in 2011-12: Saturday’s loss to Houston was easily his best game of the season, and although he didn’t start (Kurt Thomas got the nod in place of injured Marcus Camby), his 41 minutes were by far the most he’s played this year. Batum had a stellar night on both ends of the floor against the Rockets, a 29-point, 10-rebound effort that included six three-pointers and four highlight-reel blocks. It was only the second time this year that he’s played more than 30 minutes. He had a 34-minute shift in last Wednesday’s loss to Orlando in which he also shot the ball well, scoring 14 points on 4 of 8 shooting and hitting 2 of 3 three-pointers. His games below the 30-minute threshold have been more hit-or-miss affairs, and with Camby likely out a few more games, he’ll get plenty of chances on this road trip to prove himself in extended minutes. It’s unlikely that he’ll get to start anytime soon barring (God forbid) an injury to Wallace or LaMarcus Aldridge. But if he’s willing to embrace the sixth-man role, and Nate McMillan is willing to give him longer minutes, all indications are that he’ll be a valuable contributor.
Mike Acker of Rip City Project raised an intriguing point in his recap of the Houston game, which is that Batum may be the kind of player whose offensive contributions on any given night are dependent on how involved he is on defense. Two of his four blocks in that game came before he got hot shooting near the end of the second quarter, which may lend credence to this theory. Batum has yet to become the lockdown perimeter defender his length and athleticism give him the potential to be, but there are signs that he’s moving in the right direction.
Though the sample size for the 2011-12 season is small, the numbers in the mySynergySports database suggest that Batum is improving defensively this season while being used mostly in the same ways as he was last year. His pick-and-roll defense in particular has seen vast, and encouraging, upward trends. He’s allowing 0.58 points per possession to PnR ballhandlers, down from 0.85 PPP last season, while his opponents’ field-goal percentage in these situations has dropped from 40.7% to 10%. Opponents are only scoring on Batum in the pick-and-roll 25% of the time, a sizeable drop from last year’s 41.9% rate. These improvements come, too, without much change in the percentage of plays in which he’s defending a pick-and-roll, which is still around 17%. His defense of spot-ups has also seen noticeable improvement in PPP allowed (1.08 in 2010-11, 0.9 this year), field-goal percentage (41.9% last year, 31.6% this year), and scoring percentage (41% down to 33.3%). His isolation defense has improved as well, if not as dramatically. The only area in which his defense has regressed is in post-ups, where he is only used 13.4% of the time. It’s hard to pass judgment on a season that’s only 12 games in, but even a normal amount of regression to the mean will likely leave very real improvements for Batum as a defender.
Ultimately, the Blazers and Batum will have to agree on a contract that falls between what he’s done and what he can do going forward. One possible point of reference is similarly-skilled Nuggets guard Arron Afflalo, who signed a five-year, $43 million deal last month. A figure like that for Batum seems a little high to me, but if that’s the kind of money he’s seeking, it wouldn’t hurt Portland to meet him halfway. The Blazers can only sign Batum to a four-year extension now, and can sign him to a five-year deal if he becomes a restricted free agent this summer. The risk there, of course, is the high likelihood that he’ll get a higher annual salary offer from another team than what the Blazers were hoping to pay him, forcing them to either let him walk or take on a bigger commitment of money to keep him than they had planned.
Neither of these options is ideal, which is why Portland should push hard to get something done now. A contract somewhere in the ballpark of $25-30 million over four years strikes me as fair. At just 23 years old, Batum has yet to reach his prime. He’s improved every year he’s been in the league and will likely continue to do so for at least a few more years. Whether Wallace stays or goes, Batum’s role should increase in the coming years, be it as a starter or as a sixth man. If he keeps improving, a contract like that will look like a steal for Portland and set the Frenchman up for an even bigger payday at age 27. Even if he flatlines, the Blazers are a better team with him than without him in both the short and long term. It’s a risk, but as this team comes into its own, it’s looking more and more like one worth taking.