Coming within two games last season of their first-ever NBA Finals appearance, the L.A. Clippers have spoken publicly this offseason about their desire to bring back as many members of last year’s team as possible.
On Monday, they appear to have taken a big step in that direction as several sources have confirmed that unrestricted free agent Nicolas Batum and the Clippers have agreed on a two-year deal with a player option for 2022-23.
The news, which was first reported by The Athletic, did not specify a dollar amount, but it has since been revealed that Batum will sign with non-Bird rights, amounting to 120% of the league minimum, or about $3.2 million.
By signing Batum with non-Bird rights, the Clippers continue to have the taxpayer mid-level exception at their disposal ($5.9 million), and the player option for Year Two means that the 6-foot-8 forward will have a no-trade clause built into the agreement.
Batum, who is currently in Tokyo playing for the French national team at the Olympics, has not officially confirmed the agreement, but his wife, Lily, who has become somewhat of a social media star amongst Clipper Nation, was not shy in her enthusiasm on Twitter.
‘Everyone Thought His Career Was Dead’
Batum was undoubtedly one of the more pleasant surprises for the Clippers last season, averaging 8.1 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 67 games (38 starts). He showed tremendous versatility on defense, and his 40.4% from behind the arc was his most efficient mark since his sophomore season in Portland.
Throughout the regular season, Batum was frequently touted as a positive influence in the locker room and as the de facto leader of the Clippers’ second unit. Furthermore, his ability to seamlessly step into the starting lineup when other players were sidelined with injuries, helped keep the train on the track at various points.
In the playoffs, as a crucial component of head coach Ty Lue’s decision to lean heavily on a small-ball strategy, Batum started 10 out of 19 games and led the team in plus/minus with +135. In Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals against Utah, with the Clippers trailing the series 0-2, Batum scored 17 points on 6-for-9 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds. The 26-point victory would be the first of four straight for L.A., over which Batum averaged 12.3 points, 7.0 boards, 2.3 assists and 2.5 steals while shooting 50.0% from three.
The 13-year veteran’s stellar campaign was particularly stunning given the circumstances prompting his arrival in L.A. Playing his first seven years in the league with the Trail Blazers, where he averaged 11. 2 points and 5.1 rebounds, Batum was traded to Charlotte in the summer of 2015 and in July of 2016 signed a five-year, $120 million deal with the Hornets, the final year of which included a player option.
The player option, however, would eventually become a huge source of contention between Batum and the Hornets, who decided on a complete rebuild during Batum’s fourth year under the $120 million deal. Wanting to give their younger players more in-game experience and with Batum shooting just 34.6% out of the gate, the Hornets all but benched Batum for the 2019-20 season, relegating him to just 22 games on the year.
Needless to say, the sight of the team’s highest-paid player riding the bench was awkward for Batum and Charlotte fans alike, and there were hopeful rumblings that Batum might opt out of his player option for the next year and thereby save the Hornets a boatload of dough, totaling $27.1 million.
But while Batum was endlessly gracious about the situation, even apologizing publicly to the fans, via The Charlotte Observer, for not earning his large salary, he was not about to just give away almost $30 million dollars. So when, in November of 2020, Batum opted in before his fifth and final contract season, the organization and its fanbase viewed the decision as akin to an act of war, and 13 days later he was waived.
Three days after being cut, following an internal lobbying campaign by then-Clippers assistant coach Kenny Atkinson who believed Batum still had plenty left in the tank, L.A. agreed to take a low-risk flyer on the Charlotte castoff.
“Everyone thought his career was dead, that he was over,” Atkinson said In June, well after it was clear that Batum’s career was very much alive. “When (president of basketball operations) Lawrence Frank told us we had a chance to sign him, I said we absolutely had to.”
Hornets Helped Make This Happen
The irony of Batum getting dismissed from Charlotte is that it’s perhaps a crucial factor behind his decision to re-sign with the Clippers.
Following his performance last season, there’s little doubt Batum could have signed with another team for more than the Clippers could afford. And some in Clipper Nation feared he would indeed fly the coop for more cash, the panic coming to a partial crescendo when Batum casually tweeted an ambiguous farewell message to the city of Los Angeles in July
But with Charlotte still on the hook for another $18 million over the next two years (the Hornets “stretched” Batum’s final salary over three years to make cap space for signing Gordon Hayward) Batum has the luxury of not necessarily chasing the money.
Instead, he can go where wants to go and play for a team that he believes has a legitimate chance at a title. Clearly, at least to Batum, that place is Los Angeles and that team is the Clippers.
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