Nicolas Batum's Fall from Grace

Ever since signing a max contract in the summer of 2016, Nicolas Batum has been something of a scapegoat for the Charlotte Hornets' on-court struggles. How did he fall so far?

With a quarter or so of the NBA season gone, the Charlotte Hornets are hovering around .500. After two straight 36-win seasons, it’s hard to call that a disappointment – Charlotte is still firmly in the playoff race, sitting at the sixth seed at the time of writing. Still, people are looking for issues with the team, and there’s one easy scapegoat: Nicolas Batum.

That’s a fair designation. Batum’s on an extremely bloated contract, and his on-court play hasn’t come nearly close enough to justify it – this season especially. It’s easy to decry Michael Jordan and former general manager Rich Cho for paying him so much money, laying waste to the team’s cap space and handicapping their future. It’s important to remember, though, that while the Batum contract was always a little too much, it was actually somewhat justifiable at the time.

Let's go back a bit: it’s November 2016. Batum is four months removed from signing a five-year, $120 million contract with the Hornets, and some writers are inspired to share some of their worst Hornets takes. As bad as that looks now, you can still see the logic if you squint hard enough: Batum had averaged 15 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists the year before after being traded over from the Portland Trail Blazers. More importantly, his presence on the team opened the floor for Kemba Walker and helped the star guard shine – it was the first year that Walker averaged over 20 points per game.

After one season of Batum in Charlotte, it was clear: he was a Swiss Army Knife of a player that could do a little bit of everything on offense and use his long arms to his advantage defensively. Most importantly, he was a secondary ball handler, as he was the team’s only perimeter player outside of Walker that could consistently create offense. He released the pressure on his backcourt partner, allowing the diminutive guard to go from a largely inefficient volume scorer to a dynamic leader for a playoff team.

Sure, Batum didn’t make the Hornets a contender. Sure, that contract was a big commitment to make on a 27-year-old wing. But that didn’t matter. His presence legitimized Walker as a star and brought the team back to the postseason; if the team continued to gel and improve, it even seemed possible that it could sneak into the conference finals someday. That was enough to make him valuable, and being a valuable free agent during the salary cap spike of 2016 was enough to earn a max contract from a franchise desperate to stay relevant and competitive.

It didn’t take long for that contract to look bad. While Batum’s averages in four of the five major statistical categories actually rose slightly, his efficiency took a hit. He hit just a third of the three-pointers he took (still took over five per game) and his true shooting percentage dipped under .530 – not dreadful, but certainly not what you’re hoping for from your second option. More importantly, the team missed the playoffs, and while Walker made another leap and earned his first All-Star game appearance, he actually performed worse when he shared the floor with Batum. If the guy paid to make your star player better and get your team to the playoffs isn’t accomplishing either of those tasks, why exactly is he earning over $20 million per year?

Things have just gotten worse since 2017. Batum missed 18 games last season, and injuries hampered him in the games he played in. His three-point shot and overall efficiency continued to decline and his raw numbers dropped, too. His defense has worsened with age and Walker has continued to play better with him on the bench. The team as a whole had a net rating of exactly 0 whether he sat or played; while the offense moderately improved, the defense worsened by the same amount. Numbers-wise, he was basically a complete non-factor. 

Free from major injury this season, Batum’s shooting numbers have bounced back. Again, the offense is better while he plays than when he sits. This time, the defense is only slightly worse. So far, the Frenchman hasn’t been the disaster on the court that many fans seem so quick to label him.

Of course, there’s still one issue. The team performs better on both sides of the ball while Walker plays without Batum than when they play together, and Walker is a more efficient scorer when Batum sits. The fact is this: Walker’s improvement and Batum’s regression have made the latter’s primary purpose obsolete. Kemba seems nearly guaranteed to be an All-Star when Charlotte hosts the game in February; the secondary ballhandler that takes pressure off of him doesn't feel as necessary as it did three years ago. Jeremy Lamb, Tony Parker and to some extent Malik Monk (putting up a solid assist rate considering his reputation as a pure scorer) are more equipped to play that role for the Hornets. If Miles Bridges turns into a better on-ball player, Batum becomes entirely obsolete.

Assuming Charlotte re-signs Walker – and all signs seem to suggest they will – the Batum contract becomes downright suffocating next to the point guard’s max deal (especially if he makes an All-NBA team this season and becomes eligible for the supermax). Any flexibility to improve the team will be all but gone until his contract expires, at which point Walker’s prime will likely have come and gone without any meaningful team success to show for it.

It’s hard to condemn the Hornets management too harshly for this. Even if the Batum deal was shortsighted, it was at least somewhat logical. Those are the kinds of risks that small market teams often have to make in order to stay competitive, especially those with a draft record as poor as Charlotte’s. And that’s life in the NBA’s lower class: one mistake, even one that seemed justifiable at the time, has potentially doomed the franchise to waste the prime years of the guy who might just be the best player in franchise history.

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