As the Portland Trail Blazers continue the long struggle to right their ship and resume winning against the league’s best while dealing with injuries to their top player (LaMarcus Aldridge) and most reliable bench scorer (Mo Williams), Nicolas Batum has emerged as one of the bright spots during this rough patch. Of the top eight teams in the West, Portland holds the worst record when facing other western conference playoff teams at 8-14. Recently they have begun having problems even overcoming the league’s worst teams as evidenced by last night’s narrow overtime win against the lowly Milwaukee Bucks. Yet Batum has continued to play well, raising his level of play even as the rest of the offense has been in a free fall.
Batum’s value as a truly versatile, ‘do-it-all’ player cannot be understated. While he may never reach the status of an ‘elite scorer,’ he has learned to contribute in other ways. To atone for the absence of Aldridge over the last three games due to a bruised back (and earlier in February due to a strained groin), Batum has averaged 9.0 rebounds, 1.3 steals, and 1.1 blocks per 36 minutes when Aldridge is not on the court and is currently grabbing more rebounds per game than LeBron James. He has helped Robin Lopez hold down the defensive fort and provided the Blazers with someone to crash the glass and do the dirty work on the defensive side of the ball. Batum has been on a rebounding tear over the month of March, averaging nearly 13 per game over the last ten games. He has produced two different stretches in which he has generated at three straight games with more than 15 rebounds. Only Dwight Howard, Kevin Love, DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond, Andrew Bogut, and Joakim Noah have matched this feat. You will notice that that group includes former and possible future recipients of Defensive Player of the Year Awards. Moreover all in that group play at the power forward or center position while Batum spends almost 90 percent of his minutes at the small forward spot. The Blazers have the 5th best rebounding rate in the league at 52 percent but that effort is typically led by Aldridge and Lopez; Batum has proved to be a good substitute for Aldridge. In fact over the course of the last three games Batum has done more than just be a force in the rebounding game; he has proven adept at all facets of the game averaging 22 points, 13.4 rebounds and 6.3 assists while shooting 50 percent from the field and 3 point range. In fact Batum just missed recording a triple double in last night’s win over the Bucks, finishing with 21 points, nine rebounds, and nine assists.
The Blazers have always viewed Batum as one of their most valuable and versatile commodities since acquiring him in a draft night exchange in 2008. With his good size, great length, and his perimeter proficiency, Batum has many attributes that teams look for in a long term starter. But Batum’s box score totals are never going to overwhelm you, primarily because his most prominent quality is his unselfishness. Batum functions as the team’s ‘glue guy,’ the one who does a little bit of everything, like setting good screens and working on his kick-and-shoot game, in order to ensure the team succeeds. Batum tends to play off of his teammates and lets the circumstances of the game dictate how he plays. In other words he does what the team needs him to do, whether that’s finding the open man, keeping the ball moving around the perimeter, or willingly being assigned to guard the opposing team’s best player in crunch time, Batum is capable and more than prepared to do so. Case in point: Batum’s career average for rebounds is 4.7 per game. However when Aldridge went down Batum saw a clear need for someone to step up and fill the void on the glass and he made it his mission to do so. That is his new focus and he has achieved at the highest levels in that area as of late.
Some view Batum’s style of play as a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ type syndrome that does not lend itself to achieving NBA elite status, but really it is more a demonstration of Batum’s basketball intelligence and ability to fully realize at all times what the game requires of him. He is able to share in the running of the offense at times with Lillard as head coach Terry Stotts’ system gives him the green light to create and facilitate, particularly important since Lillard is still more of a shoot first point guard. With Batum functioning at times as a high post distributor it allows Lillard to do some scoring off the ball. In fact Batum is averaging 5.2 APG, 24th overall in the league and third among non-guards behind only Kevin Durant and LeBron James.
Batum is always good for double digit scoring totals but again it’s not his primary function. He is most effective in two areas, serving as Portland’s best finisher at the basket, converting over 74 percent of his attempts within five feet of the basket. Additionally he is a key part of the Blazers’ three point powerhouse shooting tandem this year that has admittedly waned at times during their recent struggles (obviously not an uncommon phenomenon with a team heavily reliant on the three point shot). Batum is a career 37 percent shoot from downtown and is one of only five players to record 100 3-pointers in each of the last four seasons (Durant, James Harden, Kyle Korver, and Wesley Matthews); clearly the most consistent aspect of his game.
The Blazers have continued to struggle in the month of March, losing six of their last nine following a five game winning streak following the All Star Break, but the play of Batum has kept them in many of those losses. Batum’s recent aggressive brand of play has been a revelation and one that the Blazers will need from him consistently in order to stay afloat in the highly competitive West as Aldridge recovers and much of their offense (especially the bench) endures their longest slump of the long NBA season.