After the Los Angeles Clippers flamed out in the 2020 NBA playoffs, as they blew a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets, it was clear that some roster changes needed to be made. They addressed some of those needs, specifically interior defense, rebounding, perimeter shooting and playmaking as they inked free agent Serge Ibaka to a deal and made a trade with the Detroit Pistons for Luke Kennard.
And, in the early season goings, both Ibaka and Kennard have lived up to expectations. But, arguably, the most impactful addition for Los Angeles has been the more low-key signing of Nicolas Batum.
Batum’s signing didn’t garner major headlines, probably because nobody really knew what to expect. He battled injuries his last season with the Charlotte Hornets and suited up in only 22 games — his last game played was Jan. 24, 2020. But, even before last season, he wasn’t nearly as impactful in his years with the Hornets as he had been in his early years with the Portland Trail Blazers.
In the 2020-21 season, however, he’s become an invaluable member of the Clippers rotation, having started all 11 games thus far. He’s healthy and looking like his pre-injury days, reminding people of the versatile player he was and can still be.
“I don’t think it’s fair to judge me off 18 months when I’ve played 15 years as a pro if I count my years in France,” Batum said after a recent Clippers win. “I’ve had a good career. I’m not a Hall of Famer, but I think I’ve had a respectable career.”
“What happened in the last 18 months, it didn’t work out. The first years in Charlotte was great… we made a change in the coach and it didn’t work out, it happens sometimes. But I’m in a great situation right now.”
It’s been his versatility that’s paid dividends for Los Angeles thus far. A wing for most of his career, he’s been the team’s starting power forward and has done a little bit of everything. An additional playmaker in head coach Tyronn Lue’s offense, Batum has helped to keep the ball moving when the Clippers’ stars, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, are either out of the game or without the ball themselves. Likewise, he’s been a dependable three-point shooter, as he’s hit on 43.5 percent of his shots from deep, and an efficient scorer overall, shooting 50.7 percent from the field.
While his overall numbers this year — 10.3 points per game, 5.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists — are right in line with his career averages, Lue has played Batum to his strengths and he’s looked rejuvenated.
“Nic’s been really good, his passing ability, he’s just very versatile on offense and defense,” Lue said after a recent Clippers win. “He’s very important to what we’re trying to do. He’s just going to get more and more comfortable. He was a great addition for us.”
Batum’s versatility isn’t limited to his offensive contributions, he’s been particularly effective on the defensive end as well. His combination of length, size and strength has enabled him to guard multiple positions. He can stick with guards and wings on the perimeter and he can drop down and body up someone in the paint.
In the Clippers win over the Phoenix Suns on Jan. 3, Batum saw time guarding all three of Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. Batum has always been a versatile defensive player, something he recalls from his Portland days when he used to find himself being asked to guard Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd in the same game.
“It reminds me of my first couple of years with the Blazers when I was coached by Nate McMillan. I was kind of used the same way,” Batum said. “I was used that way my first two to three years, now I’m back to that role. I’m not 21 anymore, I’m 32 now so I have more experience, I got more stuff behind me, it’s just better for me.”
Batum has also become trusted by the rest of the team late in games. He’s shown a willingness to take big shots and the consistency to knock them down. He knows his role on the team and has played it to perfection.
When the defense inevitably collapses on Leonard, George and Lou Williams, the Clippers main crunch time options, Batum knows he’s going to be relied on to make some big plays. He’s looked at the way Boris Diaw was used on the San Antonio Spurs, or Andre Iguodala with the Golden State Warriors, and he’s tried his best to fill a similar role with the Clippers.
“Those are the players I try to use to inspire myself this year. I have to be ready. Even if Kawhi [Leonard], PG [Paul George] and Lou [Williams] are great, they can’t rely on themselves 100 percent of the time,” Batum said. “In ten situations, nine are going to be for them but the tenth one, you have to be ready because it might come your way. Just to be on the court with those guys in those situations, you have to be ready.”
And to this point, he’s enjoyed his early days in Los Angeles. He’s loved what he’s seen from the team and loves the chemistry and rapport they have with each other on the court.
“I love it. I wasn’t there last year so I don’t really know what happened and I don’t really care. All that matters for me is this team, this year,” Batum said. “The group is great, chemistry is amazing. We got great leaders… we got guys that just want to be together and love to be with each other.”
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