The Hornets Need to Bench Nicolas Batum

No player has been more indicative of the Charlotte Hornets' struggles this year than Nicolas Batum. Would sending the 29-year-old swingman to the bench alleviate those issues?

When Nicolas Batum joined the Charlotte Hornets, he was coming off the worst season of his career. The down-on-his-luck swingman was able to turn his career around in Charlotte with a great all-around season in his first year. His next season with the Hornets was also pretty solid, if a little bit less efficient. So far this season, however, it seems that Batum’s career resurgence has reached an unfortunate – and abrupt – ending. 

As good as Batum has been in the past for Charlotte, it’s time for him to take a step back on this team. He’s simply not producing at the level that the starting guard needs to be, and his role should reflect that. Simply put, Nic Batum should be coming off of the bench.

While he might not be playing well enough to start, Batum would still be the best player on this Hornets bench, with the possible exception of Cody Zeller. Of course, that’s not a bad thing. That’s doubly true for this team, which absolutely collapses when Kemba Walker isn’t on the floor: the team’s net rating is a not-bad 4.9 while he plays, and a horrendously-bad -13.7 when he sits. Using Batum as a super sub would help inch that second number up to a level that’s not quite as embarrassingly awful – especially if he can slide down a position and play point guard, limiting Michael Carter-Williams’ minutes. MCW has been a disaster as Walker’s backup, and even a mediocre Batum would be an upgrade.

Batum already plays as the lone starter in backup-heavy units, and is the de facto point guard when he and Carter-Williams share the floor. Solidifying both of those things by moving him to the bench full-time would drastically improve the team’s bench.

And it’s not as if there’s no one capable of filling in for Batum with the starters, either. Jeremy Lamb has racked up 14 starts this year due to injuries, and he’s performed admirably in his role as the team’s sixth man. He’s averaging career highs in points, rebounds, and assists while shooting over 35 percent from behind the arc. This season, he’s been the only player outside of Walker consistently able to create his own offense. According to NBA.com/stats, putting him in the starting lineup next to his former UConn teammate instantly makes that unit far more dangerous than it is with Batum in his place:

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Lamb provides spacing that Batum (30 percent from long-distance) doesn’t and is capable enough to be the secondary ball handler. Lamb doesn’t create for others quite as well as well as he could, but he’s not exactly a black hole, either. And, according to Synergy Sports, Lamb has been a far more effective defender than Batum:

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Lamb's points per possession numbers are equal to that of Marcus Smart, a great defender -- though it's important to note that Smart's workload on defense is higher in terms of both volume and the level and of player he's guarding. Batum is closer to noted defensive sieves Buddy Hield (1.079 PPP) and Jamal Crawford (1.098).

There are, of course, drawbacks to this lineup change and reasons for concern. Batum is the team’s second-highest paid player, and has several more years under contract plus a player option for 2020-21. Benching a high-salary player is never a particularly pleasant option, especially when he’ll be around for years to come. But that can’t factor into the decision, simply because it isn’t affecting what’s actually happening on the court. If the league’s highest-paid player got his talent stolen Monstars-style, it wouldn’t make sense to continue playing him heavy minutes simply because his contract suggests that he deserves them. Relegating Batum, a guy making over $22 million this year, to a smaller bench role is a hard pill to swallow. Still, it’s a necessary evil.

What might be more concerning is Batum’s reaction to a possible benching? Managing egos and moods of NBA players can be a difficult task – not to say Batum or any player is a prima donna, but it’s never pleasant to be told that you’re not good enough to be a major player anymore. It’s unlikely that Batum would accept the change with open arms, but it’s possible he’d keep an open mind to it.

Either way, it’s hard to imagine interim head Stephen Silas making such a drastic change while Steve Clifford is still dealing with health issues. Even if the move came with Clifford’s blessing, making such a major change would make Silas a scapegoat if things didn’t get any better. Asking an assistant, even a high-ranking one that’s acting as the head coach, to make such a risky move is a tall order.

Despite those issues, it’s still a move that needs to be made. The Hornets have not been very good this season, sitting near the bottom of the conference with a 15-23 record. If Charlotte wants to compete this season, a change needs to come. Sending Nicolas Batum should be that change.

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