Welcome to our 2021-22 Clips Nation season preview series, where we’re digging into something that interests us about each player for this coming season. Next up, can Nicolas Batum recapture the magic of his first year as a Clipper?
In the 2019-20 season, it was as if the Monstars stole Nicolas Batum’s talents. Whatever play secured him the big five-year, $120 million contract for the Charlotte Hornets disappeared, and his career fell off.
The 31-year-old Frenchman only played in 22 games in that season, averaging less than four points on abysmal 35 percent shooting from the field and an even worse 29 percent from three-point range. It was one thing to play this bad. It was another — far worse — thing to be the 44th-highest-paid player in the league and put up those numbers. So, the Hornets front office made the decision to waive Batum and clear cap space to sign one-time All-Star forward Gordon Hayward.
While this decision put most, if not all, Hornet fans on their feet, one man was left despondent: Batum was without a team and perhaps without a future in the league. The last couple of his 789 regular-season games played didn’t foreshadow much more than a few more years as a mediocre veteran player.
Things took quite a turn when his phone started to buzz. Out of the calls (the Jazz and the Warriors were in it), it was the LA Clippers that stood out. And they picked up Batum on a one-year veteran’s minimum deal. Lawrence Frank and the Clippers took a gamble.
In hindsight, the Clippers’ vision looks shrewd. They didn’t just see a recently-waived and washed-up veteran in Batum; they saw the Swiss-army-knife, who could be the missing piece for a team in pursuit of a championship. After all, aside from his one dreadful season, there was no denying that he could contribute significantly to a contending team, one way or another. He had career averages of 11.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 3.8 assists; he also proved he can deliver under pressure — he averaged an impressive 10.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.6 assists in 39 career playoff games.
Clipper superstar Leonard didn’t spare words of praise for the Frenchman in an interview as a part of In Pursuit: The Story of the 2020-21 Clippers: “[he is] just a good vet. Very skilled. Shoot, pass, dribble. Been in big moments.” Batum shared that “[i]t mean[t] a lot to have them recognize me… that’s why I wanted to come over.”
This big — well, not really — signing brought a lot of attention to the Clippers and their front office — albeit not auspicious. Jokes about Batum being a “solution” to the lack of playmaking of the Clippers and attacks on the “Flippers” and their failed free agency filled Twitter. Even some Clipper fans saw eye to eye with the rest of the NBA fans. The team’s incontestable first priority was to acquire a true point guard to facilitate plays under pressure and reduce the load on the Clipper superstars’ shoulders — the likes of Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, and Lonzo Ball. How was a 32-year-old 6’8 forward supposed to help the Clippers’ playmaking and ball movement?
It didn’t take long for Batum to change their minds. He was quick to make a name for himself (and of course his passionate fan base, the Batum Battalion). In just his second game in Clipper colors, he showcased glimpses of his undeniable presence when he stuffed the stat sheet with 13 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, and a steal and a block each in a win against the Nuggets.
A few weeks later in a nail-biter game against Phoenix, Batum put on a show on the offensive end, dropping 14 on 5-of-9 shooting. Down the final stretch, Paul George trusted Batum, willingly kicking the ball out to him for the final shot. Without hesitation, Batum put up and cashed in a corner 3-pointer (he capitalized off 43.4 percent of these looks in the regular season), boosting the Clippers’ 3-point lead to six with just under 12 seconds left on the clock and securing the Clipper win.
Throughout the 72-game season, he consistently contributed to the team with his selfless plays — namely, he successfully converted off of his off-the-ball movement (he made 70 percent of his takes to the rim). His 7’0 wingspan and defensive prudence not only took pressure off of Leonard and George but also got in the way of opposing teams’ offense: the Clippers finished fourth in the league in average points allowed with 107.8 points.
Equally, if not more, valuable was Batum’s contributions in the locker room. Despite being a new addition to the team, he understood and embraced the grit and persistence with which the Clippers played. Most prominently, even on one of the best days of his life (the birth of his daughter), he suited up for the game, rushing in just minutes before tip-off to play. With his guardian bracelet from the hospital still on his wrist, he finished the day with an exclamation mark, dropping 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting. With instances like this, he demonstrated his team-first mentality and helped solidify the family-like camaraderie the Clippers now boast; he was a Clipper at heart. He was the Clippers’ jack of all trades — his minutes (most on the team) attest to this.
Just the way he always did in his career, he continued to deliver in the playoffs. He was an above-the-break sniper during the playoffs, capitalizing off of 45.8 percent from his corner threes. What’s more, he was the game-changer for the Clippers: they were 21.2 points per 100 possessions better with Batum on the court. He was the fundamental piece that gave Tyronn Lue the flexibility to go small.
Batum continued to rebuild a name for himself even after the Clippers’ playoff run came to a halt, this time, in Tokyo for the French national team. He was a trustworthy veteran who held the team together in clutch moments. His 3-pointer late in the fourth against Team USA in the opening game paved the way for a French comeback and the subsequent win. Although he wasn’t France’s primary scorer, he continued to contribute to the team by hitting clutch shots, grabbing boards, and stymieing opponents’ best players in the tournament. Most notably, his iconic block against Klemen Prepelic in the semfinals secured them the tickets to the gold-medal game — he had three other blocks in that game, in case you were wondering.
Batum couldn’t have had a better bounce-back season (finishing second in both the Western Conference and the Olympics isn’t too bad, right?). Now he is coming back to the team that gave him a chance to run it back on a two-year deal. This time through, he will look to hoist the Larry O’Brien with the newly-gained trust of Clipper fans and a few Instagram follows from his Clipper teammates (he started last season with a follow just from one of his teammates, Luke Kennard).
And we know a few things for certain. He will be one of the Clipper cornerstones who will lead the team with not only his decades-long experience but also commendable love and dedication for the team and the game. His defensive presence will be an important driving force for the Clippers in coming out on top in games that come down to the final seconds; his corner 3-pointers — if he continues to be in the rhythm he was in last year — will be a reliable means of extending leads and stopping opposing runs; his unselfish play-making will help fellow Clippers get better, more-open shots to capitalize off of (although Clipper fans would love to see a more aggressive Batum on the perimeter).
Now with his once “missing” talents back in his arsenal, Batum could be a major piece that helps the Clippers win their most important game — perhaps their 16th in the playoffs — next season, the way MJ did for the Tune Squad.