Did you have Nicolas Batum performing competently on your 2020-21 bingo card? With the clouds of his previous lucrative contract dissipated, Batum now finds himself outperforming his new minimum deal with the Los Angeles Clippers, as Batum’s offense has been a welcome addition for the franchise.
Just like every other team in the NBA, the Clippers have suffered a myriad of setbacks in reaching their ceiling early in the season: Marcus Morris, fresh off a 4 year, $64 million deal, is dealing with a knee issue and remains sidelined; Kawhi Leonard is playing with a mask following a mouth laceration; Luke Kennard is still adjusting to the game after not playing since early 2020; Reggie Jackson is still Reggie Jackson.
But just like we all expected, Nicolas Batum has emerged as a sound rotational player, averaging 10.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 0.9 steals in 29 minutes per game, filling in as the primary four while Morris heals. More impressive are his shooting splits of 51.6/45.7/93.8, a year removed from an abhorrent 34.6/28.6/90 season. He’s coming off another strong game against the Phoenix Suns in which he hit 4-7 (57%) from deep, including a dagger three to repel Phoenix’s last push.
Despite the breaches in the rotation, the Clippers have catapulted to a 5-2 record, tied for first in the staunch Western Conference, and Batum’s offense has assisted that start.
Batum’s momentous output through seven games always circles back to his shooting. Last season’s abysmal production from deep in Charlotte rang bells of concern when Los Angeles picked him up. Would his shooting revert to his career average three-point percentage of 35.7? Or was last season a clear indicator the 32-year-old forward was destined for “washed” territory? This blistering start has put those concerns to sleep. Off this baseline out-of-bounds set (BLOB), the Clippers run an elbow stagger for Paul George to curl off of as Batum is situated just outside the initial down screen by Patrick Beverley. Beverley will leak out to the corner, and Batum will split between the screens as Serge Ibaka sets another one for Batum. Jae Crowder is caught ball-watching, allowing for George to stop his drive and find Batum for the open look. Splash.
Here’s another BLOB set later in the game. This time, it’s a wide pindown for Paul George, a play he’s commonly involved in. Mikal Bridges’ defensive prowess cuts off the dribble hand-off, but Devin Booker gets caught in a daze after Ivica Zubac’s down screen, permitting Batum to pop out for a three. Splash. Batum’s three-point resurgence hasn’t sparked just himself, but the entire squad. When Batum is on the floor, the Clippers are hitting their non-corner threes at a difference of +11.2%, ranking in the 92nd percentile, per Cleaning the Glass. That number will likely decrease under more minutes, but as the last two plays indicated, Ty Lue can trust Batum in these spots to convert.
Speaking of trust, how about Batum’s dagger mentioned earlier? Ibaka sets the high screen for George, but Deandre Ayton sticks to Ibaka rather than cutting off George’s lane downhill. That forced Devin Booker to collapse into the paint, freeing up the path to pass to an open Batum. Chris Paul cannot rotate in time. Splash. Batum is essentially a new toy dusted off from the top shelf for initiators like George and Leonard. With the abilities of George and Leonard to drive-and-kick, Batum’s offense, theoretically, is perfect. Per NBA.com tracking data, Batum is shooting 50% on catch-and-shoot triples; three-point attempts comprise 58.5% of Batum’s overall attempts.
Here’s Batum in action with George against Portland. LA runs a stagger screen for George, which flows into a George-Ibaka pick-and-roll set. Jusuf Nurkic shows high to prevent George’s downhill lane as CJ McCollum tagged Ibaka’s roll. That opened a window for George to hit Batum in the corner. Splash. Batum is usually on the court with one of George or Leonard in at all times, and we’ve seen the chemistry developing between George and Batum. Per pbpstats, Batum has played 158 of 202 minutes with George on the court. George’s expertise in setting Batum up has led to Batum possessing an eFG% of 63.2 with George versus a 57.1 clip without.
Moving to assists, Batum’s assists per game have steadily dipped since eclipsing at 5.9 a game in 2016-17 with Charlotte. Last season, he averaged 3.0 APG, not a stark difference to the 2.9 he currently averages. But there’s context to that; Batum didn’t play alongside stars like George and Leonard in Charlotte. Assists per game don’t always tell the complete story, either. Per nba.com tracking data, Batum is averaging 4.4 potential assists per game, fourth-most on the team. The typical ball-handling triumvirate of George, Leonard and Lou Williams spearhead that category.Still, Batum’s a ball-moving forward, a contrast to Morris, who often counters that trait. Per Cleaning the Glass, Batum’s usage rate of 11.3% ranks in the 9th percentile among fellow forwards. However, his assist-to-usage ratio is at a beaming 1:16, good for the 98th percentile. Batum’s excelled in this category dating back to his Portland days, but it’s a positive sign for a Clippers team hoping to secure a balanced attack with a variety of players. Batum’s offense has been superbly effective. The eye test definitely supports his per-100-possession offensive rating of 139 and a defensive rating of 113, a +26 differential, which would be a career-high if it sustains. Not only that, but his points per shot attempt mark of 135.6 ranks in the 91st percentile, a perceptible distinction from being in the 10th percentile a season ago, per Cleaning the Glass. While the Clippers wait for Morris to fully heal, Batum, even when he inevitably comes off the bench, is flying under the radar as one of the offseason’s best transactions by any team this season.
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