Last week, L.A. Clippers unrestricted free agent Nicolas Batum scared the daylights out of some in Clipper Nation with what sounded like a farewell tweet to the city of Los Angeles.
Batum, it turns out, was simply referring to his trip back home to France to join the French national team as they prepare for the Olympics later this month. But the minor hysteria the tweet created — ranging from doomsday Gifs to speculation that Batum had already joined another NBA team or even decided to retire — compelled the 13-year vet to post a follow-up tweet a couple hours later.
And while Batum’s clarification surely allowed many Clippers fans to breathe a sigh of relief, their fear was not necessarily unwarranted. The fact is, after coming to L.A. with next to no expectations — on the heels of a very awkward departure from Charlotte — Batum’s stock is higher than it has been in years.
Several teams, carrying substantial checks, will be banging down his door to replicate the effectiveness he showed last season. So while retirement seems to be off the table, a change of venue is not.
Batum Does Not Need to Chase The Money
Given Batum’s age, 32, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that any team looking to add his services will go into next season with realistic expectations for a title. This is especially likely given that, last season, in addition to his $2.5 million salary from the Clippers, Batum received the first of three installment checks totaling $27 million from the Hornets — a consequence of Charlotte waiving Batum before the final year of a five-year, $120 million deal he signed in 2016.
(To give themselves more purchasing power to woo Gordon Hayward away from the Celtics, the Hornets “stretched” Batum’s final-year salary out over three years — a move akin to what the Mets famously did with Bobby Bonilla.)
This means that the versatile forward will be paid handsomely for the next two seasons no matter where he goes or what terms he agrees to, and is therefore free to pick the team he believes is best situated for a title.
According to Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale, who recently compiled a shortlist of gettable free agents who could put contending teams “over the top,” the best fits for Batum are the Nets, Jazz and Clippers.
Batum Offers Versatility on Both Ends
For one, Favale points to Batum’s versatility on the defensive end, writing:
Though he doesn’t fill the traditional-stopper quota, his defensive malleability can be a boon for any contender that needs switchable options. He spent at least 20 percent of his possessions guarding each of the 1, 2, 3 and 4 spots, and among everyone who cleared at least 1,800 minutes, he posted the sixth-highest versatility score, according to BBall Index.
Matchup fungibility doesn’t always infer effectiveness. In this case, it does. He doesn’t wield heyday quickness, but he’s simultaneously stout and lanky. The Clippers experimented with him facing centers, but he isn’t so much a potential small-ball 5 as a bigger wing who empowers small-ball combinations with center alternatives beside him. Any team hoping to downsize for spurts—or at least create the bandwidth to—can use him.
Batum’s effectiveness in small-ball lineups was never more apparent than in the playoffs. After seeing traditional center Ivica Zubac struggle early on to guard the pick-and-rolls of Dallas’ Luka Doncic, Clippers coach Ty Lue opted to rely more heavily on nimble lineups in which Batum and his teammates could essentially switch everything and recover from double-teams quicker.
Of course, the strategy worked out well against Dallas and then Utah, with Batum playing the fourth-most minutes on the team during that span and registering a team-high plus-127. Additionally, his 23 steals tied Kawhi Leonard for tops on the squad.
When it comes to offense, Favale views Batum’s range from long-distance and his willingness to make the extra pass as an easy fit.
“Applying his offensive fit outside L.A. should be a cinch,” writes Favale. “Batum just splashed in more than 40 percent of his triples while subsisting on a heavy diet of catch-and-shoot looks, and he table-sets for teammates with lightning-fast touch passes and pump-and-drives.”
Clippers Have ‘Inside Track’
So who does Favale think will ultimately land Batum?
He, like many around the league, give the edge to the Clippers, saying that they “have the inside track.” Without any breathing room under the salary cap (quite the contrary, in fact), Batum would need to accept the taxpayer mid-level exception, priced at $5.9 million. But again, he will make plenty more than that this season and next, and it seems likely that neither Brooklyn or Utah will be able to do any better.
Ultimately, the decision could boil down to who Batum believes has the best chance at a title. And the Clippers did make the Conference Finals this year, after all.
It’s also worth noting that Batum, who generated a following of loyal fans referring to themself as “The Batum Battalion,” has regularly expressed his affinity for the Clippers organization and its fans. In his end-of-season exit interview, he reiterated his appreciation to Clipper Nation for welcoming him and family after such a tumultuous final season in Charlotte.
“The Batum Battalion, I didn’t expect that. That was pretty cool,” said Batum. “The way they welcomed me and my family, that was great. I can’t thank them enough. It was a special year for me.”
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