Welcome to a new series of blog posts here on Hashtag Basketball where we will be providing in-depth analysis for individual players. We'll take suggestions from our readers, but we'll mainly be focusing on players who are either exceeding expectations or failing to live up to them. The purpose of this series will be to shed light on why there is a difference between expected and actual production and to predict whether the difference is a fluke or a real cause for concern. This time we will shine our spotlight on the sharpshooting Frenchman in Portland, Nicolas Batum.
Nicolas Batum has been one of the most disappointing and frustrating players to own this year. Over the past 2 years, Batum has solidified himself as a multi-category producer by knocking down threes, racking up defensive stats, and adding assists to his repetoire during the 2012-13 season. This year, however, he simply hasn't provided the all-around production that owners expected when they drafted him as high as the 2nd round despite averaging 5.0 assists, 1.3 steals, and 0.7 blocks. The reason is that he is shooting just 39% from the field on just 8.8 attempts per game including 22.7% from beyond the arc. There is one potentially simple explanation for this prolonged stretch of poor shooting. Batum has had problems with his right wrist since injuring in practice nearly a year ago, but he was able to pull things together and shoot 39% from three in March and April of last year. That wrist has recently flared back up, but I still had a feeling that there was more going on and decided to look a little further into it. In order to contextualize my findings, let's start out by looking at Portland's strategy going into this offseason and the changes in philosophy they implemented after their playoff loss to the Spurs last summer.
Portland's Recent History and Offseason Strategy
If you played fantasy basketball in either of the past 2 years, you know that Portland starters are golden because they had virtually no bench behind them to take their shots or minutes. Portland's bench has been the least utilized and the least productive over the past 2 years playing 66.4 minutes per game in the 2012-13 season and 68.5 minutes per game last year while posting a combined efficiency score of 21.1 and 27.3 in the two respective years. All 4 of those numbers were dead last in the NBA. As a result, the Blazers' organization made it a priority to improve their bench last offseason. The Blazers, so far in the '14-15 campaign, have succeeded and the bench now plays 80.6 minutes per game (a 17.7% increase over last year) and has a combined efficiency score of 34.4 which is good for 20th in the Association. One side effect of strengthening your bench which is good for the team in the long run, but bad for fantasy owners, is that you rely less on your starters. Minutes for each of the big 4 are down compared to 2 years ago.
Batum has been hit the hardest and his minutes are down 7.2% from last year and 13.2% from two years ago. This change in philosophy has a direct impact on Batum's fantasy production. The next priority for the Blazers in the offseason was defense. Last year, the Blazers were second in the league in offensive efficiency, but tied for 14th in defensive efficiency. If you look at the quotes from the players in this article, you notice that each of them mentions defense and, more specifically, transition defense, as a major focal point in practice and the offseason. Because of this, the Blazers are 3rd in the league in defensive efficiency this year and 8th in offensive efficiency. The team hasn't changed personnel in order to achieve this improvement. They've either improved significantly in skill over the past 6 months or they've asked their players to shift their priorities a little bit. I believe the latter is much more likely to be the case. We need to keep in mind both of these changes in philosophy, the increased reliance on the bench and the increased focus on defense, when we try to account for the changes in Batum's production this year.
Change in Batum's Offensive Tendencies
Looking at Batum's raw numbers this year, it's easy to say that he just isn't hitting his shots. The truth is, though, that more is going on here. Sure, he isn't hitting threes that he probably would have hit last year, but he's also behaving differently on the offensive side of the ball. Last year, Batum took 3.3 shot attempts per game from within 10 feet of the rim and attempted 2.5 free throws per game. This year he's taking just 1.8 shots within 10 feet and taking just 1.0 free throws per game. At first, you may think that he simply isn't taking the ball to the rim as much, but, when you look at the numbers, you find that he averaged 1.8 drives per game last year and a nearly identical 1.6 per game this year.
Looking one level deeper at the results of his drives, you see that the points that Batum himself scores on his drives were down 31% while the points that his teammates score on his drives were down just 8%. If he's scoring the ball less when he drives the ball to the rim and shooting the ball less near the rim, that indicates that he is passing out of drives more often. This trend makes sense as Batum has increasingly taken on the role of a facilitator in the Blazers offense since Lillard joined the team two years ago. It would make sense that he would continue to look to pass more especially if he was dealing with injuries. There is another piece to this puzzle, though. When we look at certain hustle stats like offensive rebounding or transition points, we see decreases there as well, even when accounting for the slight decrease in minutes. His offensive rebounding rate, 2.2%, is less than half of his career rate of 4.7%. His hustle points (fast break. points off turnovers, and 2nd chance points) are down 39% from last year (5.7 per game to 3.5 per game).
Does this mean that Nicolas is playing lazy?
Well, last year he was one of the hardest working players in the league running 2.6 miles per game. This year, he's running almost the same amount at 2.4 miles per game. Also, he's on pace to set a career high in defensive win shares despite having missed 6 games already this year and has the lowest defensive rating of his career. It doesn't appear that the decrease in “hustle stats” is due to laziness on either end of the court. One possible explanation ties back into the change in philosophy the Blazers implemented during the past offseason. I believe Batum isn't getting out in transition as much or crashing the offensive glass as much because he's been asked to focus more on defense. Instead of going for the offensive rebound, he's now getting back on defense. Instead of leaving his man early to run out on a fast break, he stays back to ensure his team has possession before leaving his defensive assignment. Therefore, in terms of Batum's mindset when he's on the court this year, he's more focused on involving teammates and transition defense, both of which effect the types of shots he gets and his scoring numbers. Now, let's take a quick look at what could be effecting his jump shot and causing this prolonged slump.
The Jump Shot
Let me just start out by saying that pinpointing the specific reason for Batum's shooting slump is impossible. I can pinpoint that it's specifically three-point field goals in catch-and-shoot situations that account for the biggest difference between this year and last one. Beyond that, it's basically guesswork. After pouring over the splits and watching countless hours of Batum shooting threes, I have a lot of theories, but no hard evidence to support one over the others. Let me just present all of the possibilities that I came up with.
- Batum's workload over the past 2 years and participation in the FIBA tournament this summer have caught up to him causing him to come into the season fatigued
- Injuries, specifically his right wrist injury, are piling up and his reputation as a tough player who plays through minor injuries is preventing him from properly healing
- Less “easy points” (i.e. shots at the rim and free throws) are preventing him from getting into a good shooting rhythm on the floor, causing more early misses, and hurting his confidence
- To my naked eye, his shooting motion looks slightly slower this year. This could be due to injury or a change from Batum or the coaches, but it could be messing with his rhythm
I see evidence for each of these theories, but none of it is conclusive enough for me to endorse one of them. Also, I don't think any of these barriers are insurmountable. My money is on Batum returning to something close to his career average in terms of three-point shooting percentage.
Now, let's come to the part we've all been waiting for: rest-of-season projections. I think his three point shooting will come back. He found a way to play through the wrist injury, if that's what's bothering him, at the end of last year and I think he'll find a way to do it again. Advanced metrics show me no reason not to expect his 3 point shot to start to fall close to his career rate of 36%. The decrease in 2-point shots and free throws, however, I believe are a result of a changed set of priorities on offense. I think those stay close to their season-to-date numbers.
Assuming he takes about the same amount of shots, I think we're looking at 10.4 points per game for the rest of the season. His rebounding rate last year looks like a bit of an anomaly. Look for him to stay near 5.5 rebounds per game. His assists per 36 minutes are actually up again this year. With Lillard being a shoot-first guard, I think there's more room for Batum to be a facilitator especially since he's turned into a pass-first player in that offense. His assist-to-turnover ratio is up and I think he could break 6 assists per game for the rest of the year. The slight bump in steals is also for real. He's focusing more on the defensive end of the ball and he'll get a few extra steals because of it. Blocks should hover around his career average. The three pointers should come back up. If his attempts stay the same and he starts hitting at his career rate, he's looking at 1.5 per game.
The overall 9-cat ROS line looks like this:
Nicolas Batum's projected overall 9-cat ROS line
It's not quite what you would hope for from a 2nd round pick, but it's better than what he's doing now. You'll have to account for his lack of scoring, but he should still provide enough value in other categories to be a valuable piece to your team.
Let us know if you have a player that you want to go under the spotlight next! Tweet us at @HashBasketball or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us who you want to be put under the magnifying glass next.