Nicolas Batum, along with Reggie Jackson, is probably the LA Clippers’ biggest success story this season given where he was when they acquired him.
After what was the worst season of his career in terms of efficiency in 2019-20 (he posted a career-low 46.3% true shooting rate), Batum was waived by the Charlotte Hornets back in December and subsequently signed to a veteran’s minimum contract by the Clippers. The move seemed like a marginal one at the time; Batum would be playing behind Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Marcus Morris Sr. in terms of minutes distributed at forward, not to mention young up-and-comer Terance Mann. He was to be a veteran presence at the end of the rotation. But then, a knee injury sidelined Morris, and Head Coach Tyronn Lue threw Batum into the fire as the starting power forward.
Batum took the role and ran with it.
His 2020-21 season was sensational, particularly in terms of efficiency. He jumped from a career-low in true shooting to his best in a decade (61.7%), and knocked down 40.4% of his threes. He had the highest +/- of any player on the roster not named Leonard or George, and he made an impact whether he was starting or coming off the bench. In the postseason, he solidified himself as an essential piece to the team’s success, often playing center in the Clippers’ small-ball lineups that proved deadly against Dallas and Utah.
Batum completely rehabilitated his value this season, and his body type and play style are very much in vogue right now across the league. A 6’8, long, switchable corner-three specialist that can also protect the rim has been a hot commodity ever since the Warriors struck gold with Draymond Green (after whom Batum said he modeled his small-ball playstyle). Batum is going to have plenty of potential suitors this offseason as a free agent, and he’s going to get quite the paybump regardless of which team he chooses. But he’s made it clear that money will not be the only factor influencing his free agency decision.
During his exit interview days after LA’s loss to the Phoenix Suns in the Conference Finals, Batum was asked whether the Clippers’ fan base, who rallied behind Batum and even coined a wonderful, alliterative title for themselves as his followers (the Batum Battalion), would influence his choice this offseason.
“Of course,” Batum replied without hesitation. “The Batum Battalion, I wasn’t expecting that. That was pretty cool, and the fans in general, they welcomed me with open arms. I know they had some doubts about me when I got here, but the way they greet me, welcomed me and my family, it was great, and I can’t thank them enough because that was a great year. That was a special year for me.”
In addition to Batum, LA will aim to re-sign Leonard and Jackson once free agency begins on Aug. 6. Leonard is obviously the priority, and he’ll be given a max contract should he stay in LA. Once Leonard has been paid, there won’t be too much cap space left to go around for the remaining free agents (the Clippers will already be facing the luxury tax). It’ll be painful for the organization and fans alike, but the team may have to choose between their two unforeseen success stories.
Lue might’ve shot himself in the foot a bit on this one. He coached so well, and did such a great job of maximizing the players given to him, that they now might be too valuable for the Clippers to afford.