Batum Thought Blazers Had More Time
Like Marlon Brando’s character Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfont,” the Portland Trail Blazers could’a been a contender, but all it took was one linchpin player choosing to bolt for greener pastures for everything to fall apart. Of last year’s five regular starters, only Damian Lillard now remains, while LaMarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews, Robin Lopez and Nicolas Batum are having varying degrees of success at new addresses.
Batum, a quarter of the way through his first season with the Charlotte Hornets, has settled onto his new team and into his new role there, but even he admits that the way everything fell apart so quickly with such a promising roster was pretty shocking for the players involved.
“It was surprising because we were still so young,” Batum told Basketball Insiders. “It’s not like we were some old team with guys that needed to start over again somewhere fresh. I’m 26 years old. Dame is 25. Wes is only 29. [LaMarcus] just turned 30, and Robin Lopez just turned 27. We were still young. I thought we had another run.”
They did not, however, as the Blazers shipped off every major piece on the roster older than Lillard, replacing them with guys more on Lillard’s career arc in an attempt to remain reasonably competitive without having to completely rebuild.
Still, everything turned when Aldridge made his decision to join the San Antonio Spurs, which Batum isn’t even remotely upset about.
“I understand his choice,” Batum said. “He had done a lot of things for the Portland franchise, but to get a chance with the Spurs to win a ring right away? I think a lot of people would have done the exact same thing.
“He wanted to go to another place to win a championship, and I respect that. I’m not mad about it, but I was surprised. It was a good run, and it was fun, but it’s time to move on.”
Interestingly, Batum feels as if his new team in Charlotte is developing into a group with the same sort of promise that Portland once exhibited, even if they are still a year or two away. He sees a lot of similarities between Lillard and Kemba Walker, for example.
“They’re not really different,” Batum said of Lillard and Walker. “One thing that’s similar is that both guys want to win no matter what. Dame wanted to win and showed that he could do anything to win a game, and Kemba has shown that so far too. He’s gotten better, so much better than last year. I knew he was good, but he’s so much better. He’s more patient, making better decisions. He’s just more mature.”
Most importantly, though, is that what happened with the Blazers, where everything fell apart at the peak of so many core players’ careers, isn’t likely to happen in Charlotte. That’s because Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and head coach Steve Clifford all have been given extensions recently enough to ensure they’ll be with the team for the long haul.
“By signing Kemba and MKG to extensions, re-signing the coach, that shows that we’re not just building something for this year and next year,” Batum said. “No, we’re looking long-term with this group of guys. That’s good for the fan base, the players, everybody.
“You can’t just do something like this for one year. It takes time. It’s a process, but this style of things is good. We’re young, we’re talented, we like the coach. Hopefully we can keep this same group of guys for a couple years.”
Doing so would keep Batum from having to watch another young, talented core fall apart at the apex of its progress. What’s different this time, though, is that Batum isn’t one of those young kids anymore. Now, he’s the veteran.
“I’ve had different roles in my career. I was a rookie once, and then the last couple of years I’ve been looked on more as a playmaker to fit alongside LaMarcus and Dame,” Batum said. “Now, I’m on a different team but I sort of feel like my role is the same. The situation is just different. The coaching staff expects me to be a leader since I’m really the only older guy on the team other than Al Jefferson. That’s a new challenge for me.”
Still, it’s one that he welcomes, and he insists that he’s happy with his new team and that he’s in it for the long haul.
“I’m all good. The city is different, but the coach is great, my teammates are great,” Batum said.
“We’re young, and we’ve got a ton of new guys too, so we still have to adjust to the new system and the new teammates. It will take time, and we’re doing well. We’re above .500 and we’ve played against some big time teams. We’ve beaten big teams too, so that’s encouraging. We’ll keep getting better.”
In a tight Eastern Conference, that’s going to be paramount.
“Everybody in the East is in it this year,” Batum said. “Everybody talks about the Western Conference, but the East is pretty good. Even the teams nobody talks about, like the Celtics, Detroit, Orlando, us, a lot of teams have really gotten better since last year and that’s made a big difference.”
That has led to an Eastern Conference playoff picture that currently has 13 teams seriously competing for a spot in the postseason. Charlotte currently has the second-most wins in the East (13), but they’re only four games ahead of the 13th-best team in the conference. A lot can happen with that many competitive teams, but Batum thinks his squad is up to the challenge.
“It’s going to be like that until April 15th,” Batum said. “We’re going to have to battle all year long.”
Portland, meanwhile, is five games below .500 and doesn’t look like they’ll have much of a shot at the postseason, proving that sometimes, startling change can be a blessing. What must have been a shock several months ago has turned out fairly well for Batum. It has turned out fairly well for a lot of other former Blazers too, and someday we’ll figure out who fared the best from that group of former Portland players. But what we’ll never know is how good they might have been had they stuck together.
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