When the Minnesota Timberwolves offered Nicolas Batum a 4-year, $46 million dollar deal this past July, the general consensus was that it was way too much. Sure, Batum was a solid player, and he had the potential to get better, but at that point, he hadn’t done enough to prove was he worth that much cash. Nevertheless, the Portland Trail Blazers could ill-afford to lose their talented young forward, so they matched the offer, and kept him in the fold. For a team that seemed to have no chance at success in the immediate future, it felt like a dubious decision.
So far, however, the Blazers have had the last laugh. Not only has Batum lived up to the deal, at times, he’s played well enough that it has almost felt like a bargain. He’s an efficient, natural scorer, who can put points on the board without needing to be the center of the attention, and without disrupting the flow of the offense. Also, he has no problem accepting a different role on a nightly basis. One night, he could be a supporting player, who chips in a quiet 15 points, but if LaMarcus Aldridge, or Damian Lillard are struggling to hit shots, he has no trouble picking up the slack on offense.
Batum’s value to the Blazers was never more evident than in last night’s 92-90 win over the Heat. Trailing late against the defending champions, the Blazers didn’t appear to have much of a chance, but they managed to eek out a tough comeback victory, and the clutch play of Batum was a huge reason for that. There were multiple times when the Heat appeared to be pulling away, and Batum kept his team in the game, the most memorable being an amazing steal, which Batum quickly converted into a layup on the other end. By the time the game was over, Batum had chipped in 28 points, seven rebounds, and five assists. He was by far the biggest reason for the Blazers’ upset win.
If the decision to sign Batum to such a big deal was questionable at the time, it feels like a no-brainer now. The Blazers have an extremely talented young core, and Batum is a huge part of that. With Aldridge as their leader, and Batum, Lillard, Wesley Matthews, and J.J. Hickson acting as one of the stronger supporting casts in the league, this team has a ton of potential, and should be a force to contend with for years to come.
Even though the Blazers had a lot of solid players, the prevailing thought was that this would be a rebuilding year for them. Instead, they’ve found themselves in the heart of the playoff race, with a record of 20-15. Batum’s play is a big reason for that. Not only is he scoring more than ever before, but he’s doing a much better job of engaging with his teammates. His 4.5 assists per game is three times higher than his previous career high of 1.5. Such a stark improvement is very rare, and is almost never a coincidence. It’s clear that Batum did a lot of work in the offseason improving his passing. The end result he’s that he’s a far more dynamic player, and he’s made the Blazers offense much more cohesive and unselfish.
By upgrading his game so much, Batum has bucked of the worst trends in the NBA: players underachieving once they’ve gotten big contracts. Instead, he’s taken things in the opposite direction, getting the big money, and then showing all of us why he was worth it. In a league where so many teams are stuck with albatross contracts due to underachieving big-name players, it’s nice to see a guy working his butt off to earn every last cent.
As anyone who watched the Blazers win over the Heat could tell you, this team has something special. They’re a talented group of hardworking young guys who can’t be counted out of any game. While all five starters are doing their part to contribute to the team’s success, Batum has played an extremely huge role. Had the Blazers let him go to Minnesota, it’s unlikely they would be contending for a playoff spot right now. Any doubt that he was worth the money has been thoroughly extinguished, and he’s established himself as one of the better small forwards in the league.
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