In a sports world where statistical prowess is becoming more and more important due to sabermetrics and fantasy sports, it’s important to remember how deceiving numbers can be, but when it comes to player salaries, the numbers never lie (unless you’re Andrei Kirilenko).
The Portland Trail Blazers matched a four-year, $46 million offer sheet that the Minnesota Timberwolves gave to their starting small forward, Nicolas Batum, last summer. Batum is a decent player who fills up the box score, but he’s far from a star in this league. For the next three seasons, the Blazers will have to pay Batum the kind of money that a third star on a championship team would receive; unfortunately, Batum will never be the third best player on a championship contender and although opinions may vary on the 24-year-old small forward, time will prove this to be true.
Here are Batum’s averages from the 2012-13 season: 14.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.1 blocks, 2.6 turnovers, 42% FG, 37% 3PT, 87% FT, 38.5 minutes, 73 games played.
Not too shabby, right? Although Batum is a wonderful player for your fantasy team due to his ability to fill up all five main statistical categories (points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks), in reality, his impact-to-salary ratio is lacking. And that’s on the numbers alone.
Aside from the numbers (which we’ll get back to), Batum hasn’t exactly been a workhorse for Portland. In five seasons, Batum has missed 66 games, including nine last season. Although that doesn’t seem like such a big deal, if your third-best player gets injured every year and still weighs just 200 pounds at 6’8″, then that’s a cause for concern.
Batum’s numbers from last season were inflated because of his extended playing time. Batum was fifth in the league in minutes per game, averaging 38.5 minutes a night for the bench-less Blazers. When your per-36 numbers are worse than your actual averages, you’re either playing too much or you’re a superstar; Batum is certainly not the latter.
Then, there’s Batum’s polarizing play. Some nights, you watch him and you’re blown away by all the things he can do for a team. On those nights, he looks like he’s one of the top five small forwards in basketball. When he’s hot from outside the arc, it drives the rest of his game and all of a sudden he becomes a dominant on-ball and help defender. When he has defenders sprinting out to contest his shots, he has enough of a handle to get by his man and either create a shot for himself or make the defense pay for helping. On those nights, he’s worth $11 million or $12 million a year.
On other nights, you can forget he’s on the court. In 31 of the 73 games he played in, Batum scored 11 points or less. In 32 of 73 games, Batum shot less than 40 percent from the field. Just 16 times all of last season did Batum get to the free-throw line more than five times. In 34 games he had three or more turnovers, a very high number for a guy who isn’t a primary handler. Out of the 165 3-point shots that Batum made last season, 92 percent of them were assisted, meaning that most of the shots he made were created by someone else (the assist percentage can be deceiving at times with guys like Ray Allen or Klay Thompson because they are so good at coming off down screens and creating space for their shots, which is an art form few have been able to grasp so well, but Batum is strictly a catch-and-shoot guy, so the assist percentage holds water).
The point here is not to bash on Batum; he’s a very solid player and essentially a European version of Rudy Gay (nice numbers, weak intangibles, overpaid). The point instead is to show how much Batum’s contract will hinder the progress of the Blazers as a franchise. Is anyone salivating over a Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum three-headed monster? Of course not. Are they a playoff team this year? I say yes, although they are relatively close with a handful of teams that sit below the top six teams in the West (Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors) and firmly above the bottom three in the West (Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz).
Is it possible that the Blazers sneak their way into the top six this year on the heels of some improvement from Damian Lillard (likely), increased depth (legitimate depth this season) and breakout years by youngsters on rookie contracts like Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, Thomas Robinson and C.J. McCollum (possible, but likely just one or two of them)? I guess. Is it likely? No. Will that success be sustainable? No, because their young players will need to be paid eventually and Portland’s financial flexibility has been diminished by Batum’s lengthy and lucrative deal.
The moral for the Portland Trail Blazers is this: Don’t retain a guy who’s offered an insanely lucrative contract that he isn’t worth. They already have LaMarcus Aldridge locked up through 2014-15 and they have a great young point guard who I think will become a relative Deron Williams in his prime. Now that they have Batum’s contract on the books, their ceiling is lower and they won’t be able to bring in another max-level superstar to play next to Lillard and Aldridge (who are two guys that anyone would love to play next to).
The Blazers have made their bed and now they have to sleep in it. Meanwhile, their fans will have to deal with at least another handful of years before their team makes their way firmly into the title conversation. Unless, of course, the Blazers find a taker for Batum’s massive deal.