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Nicolas Batum Revives His Career—and Maybe the Clippers’ Title Chances

After suffering from injuries and irrelevancy in Charlotte, the swingman has rediscovered his game in Los Angeles, adding a new dimension to a contender desperately in need of one

AP Images/Ringer illustration

When Nicolas Batum joined the Clippers, new head coach Tyronn Lue and the team’s brass asked him for one thing: to be himself again. You wouldn’t blame Batum too much if he’d forgotten what that actually entailed after an unmitigated disaster of a 2019-20 season—one that began with the French forward moving to the bench to make space for a youth movement in Charlotte, saw him break a finger on opening night, and went downhill from there.

Batum made just 22 appearances for a bad Hornets squad, averaging a career-low 3.6 points per game, shooting the worst percentages of his career from both inside and outside the arc, and often appearing to have lost a step in general. When he did take the floor, Batum used just 9.3 percent of the Hornets’ offensive possessions, less than half the usage rate he posted over his first three seasons in Charlotte. Even when he was there, he wasn’t really there. And then, starting in late January, he wasn’t there at all: After a loss to the Bucks in Batum’s home country, Hornets coach James Borrego slid his highest-paid player to the bench and kept him there for the final 19 games of a season that would be paused by a pandemic and revived in a bubble, with Charlotte on the outside looking in.

“This franchise has got a bright future, but I don’t think I’ll be part of it,” Batum told Scott Fowler of The Charlotte Observer last March. “When I was younger, [people thought I] wasn’t good enough to leave my hometown. And then I wasn’t good enough to play as a pro. And then I wasn’t good enough to get drafted. And then I wasn’t good enough to sign my first contract. Maybe this is the first time the doubters got it right about me.”

Then again … maybe not. After Batum opted into the $27.1 million he was owed in the final season of the ill-fated five-year, $120 million contract he signed in the salary-cap-boom summer of 2016, the Hornets waived him to sign Gordon Hayward as their new do-everything wing. (That’s going pretty well so far.) Batum quickly caught on with a Clippers team eager to turn the page from its own disastrous end to 2019-20, which left the veteran believing he might be just what the doctor ordered for them. Why? Because while they had superstar talents like Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, “they don’t have a guy who just wants to make the other guys better.”

That, it turns out, is who Batum still is—and the 32-year-old remembering it has been something of a godsend for a team trying to build something new from the wreckage of its collapse.

The Clippers enter Wednesday at 7-4, second in the West, with the NBA’s no. 3 offense—all things you might’ve predicted coming into the season. What nobody saw coming, though, was Batum playing a vital role in that process, operating as an ostensible starting point forward and averaging 10.3 points on 51/44/90 shooting to go with 5.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists in 29.2 minutes per game.

To be clear, that wasn’t the plan when Clippers president Lawrence Frank inked Batum for the veteran’s minimum in December. If all went according to script, the newcomer would’ve spent the early part of this season trying to catch a rhythm with the Clippers’ reserve corps behind Marcus Morris, for whom the team dealt a first-round pick at the 2020 trade deadline and gave a four-year, $64 million contract to in free agency. But when a sore right knee sidelined Morris throughout the preseason, Lue gave Batum a shot to run with the starters. So far, so good: The Clips’ new-look first five—Leonard, George, Batum, fellow newcomer Serge Ibaka, and holdover point guard Patrick Beverley—has buried opponents by a league-best 69 points in 122 minutes. The new unit got off to such a hot start that, when Morris was ready to return to the floor, he volunteered to come off the bench to keep Batum and the starting five rolling. (Karmic payback, perhaps, for Batum making the same offer in Charlotte last season.)

How long that arrangement holds up remains to be seen. It’s fair to say, though, that the starters’ scorching start owes in part to Batum’s ability to make major contributions without needing to wrest a significant share of the offense away from Leonard and George; the only Clipper attempting fewer shots per 36 minutes of floor time than Batum’s 8.4 is young center Ivica Zubac. (Morris, by comparison, attempted 11.4-per-36 as a Clipper last season, and is firing 14.2 through three games back.) When opportunities do present themselves, Batum’s taking advantage, posting career highs in points per shot attempt, effective field goal percentage, and true shooting percentage. He’s not one of the 15 most valuable players in the league, as FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric suggests. But one of its best bargains and most pleasant surprises? I’ll buy that.

Playing with top-tier talent and viable floor-spacers means Batum’s getting looks he hasn’t seen since he was spotting up alongside prime Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. He’s smartly hunting space, taking advantage of all the attention his teammates demand by cutting into open areas; it’s got him taking a higher share of his shots at the rim than he has in nine seasons, and finishing them at a crisp 68 percent clip. He’s feasting from the corners, knocking down 13 of his 24 attempts to punish defenses loading up on George and Leonard:

More than his individual scoring, though, Batum has made an impact with his complementary playmaking. After last season’s disappointing ending, many observers wondered whether the Clippers’ decision to bring back the same crop of point guards that underwhelmed in the bubble would once again lead to Leonard and George having to do too much of the heavy lifting. It’s early, but Batum’s stellar start has helped mitigate that concern. He can take a defensive rebound or turnover and run the break, throw a post entry pass, and man either spot in a pick-and-roll. He can beat a closeout at the 3-point line to keep the drive-and-kick machine whirring, make the extra pass in a swing-swing sequence around the perimeter, toss lobs over the top of the defense, and thread pocket passes through tight spaces inside.

He’s quickly developed great chemistry in the two-man game with Ibaka, regularly finding him in pockets of space for short jumpers, layups, and floaters. His combination of touch and savvy—32 assists and just eight turnovers thus far—allows Leonard and George to get off the ball more, both lightening their shot-creation load and forcing defenses to account for them away from the initial action:

He’s easing the Clipper stars’ burden on the other end, too, adding another skilled wing defender to a team that already featured two of the league’s best. At 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, quick hands, great instincts, and more than a decade of experience in all sorts of matchups and schemes, Batum can take on threats up and down the positional spectrum. Lue’s been taking advantage of that: Batum’s list of defensive matchups this season includes high-octane scorers (Devin Booker, CJ McCollum, Donovan Mitchell), big-wing playmakers (LeBron James, Luka Doncic), smaller point guards (Patty Mills, Mike Conley), and beefy centers (LaMarcus Aldridge, Anthony Davis). His versatility allows Lue to shuffle matchups and find ways to maximize skill without sacrificing much size; he’s said he wants to test out closing games with a lineup of Leonard, George, Batum, Beverley, and Morris, which has gotten only one minute of run since the latter’s return, but could be awfully interesting on both ends, especially in the playoffs.

Role players you can rely on to front Marc Gasol and force a turnover, switch a Chris Paul–Deandre Ayton pick-and-roll without conceding any advantage, routinely be in good help position to shrink the floor, and help clear the defensive glass aren’t easy to find. Ones who can also drill 40-plus percent of their 3-pointers with a 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio are even rarer. Ones who can do all that, have boatloads of big-game experience on the international stage, have already made serious NBA money, and care more about contending for a championship than individual praise? Well, you don’t find many of those.

Boris Diaw, Batum’s countryman and lifelong friend, was one, resuscitating his career after leaving Charlotte himself and playing a crucial role on the Spurs teams that made consecutive NBA Finals and won the 2014 title. Andre Iguodala was another, seeing the future when his Nuggets fell to the Warriors in the 2013 playoffs and deciding to work his way to Golden State to become the linchpin reserve that helped cement a dynasty. Batum’s a long way from joining them, but it’s their footsteps he’s aiming to follow. With every extra pass, weak-side rotation, subtle cut, and quicksilver release from the corner, he’s rediscovering a bit more of himself—and, the Clippers hope, helping them become the kind of team that can lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy.