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2020-21 Clippers season in review: Nicolas Batum

The buyout signing ended up leading the team in minutes.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v LA Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome to our annual Clippers season in review series. Every day until the end of July, we’ll be taking a look back at the players who ended the season with the Clippers (apologies to Malik Fitts and Mfiondu Kabengele). Today, we conclude with Nicolas Batum.

Key information:

Name: Nicolas Batum

Age: 32

Years in the NBA: 13

Key stats: Batum led the Clippers in regular-season minutes, playing in 67 games and starting 38 despite suiting up for just 22 in the prior season. He averaged 8.1 points and 4.7 rebounds in 27.4 minutes per game.

Batum started in 10 of 19 playoff games, averaging 8.1 points and 5.5 rebounds in 29.2 minutes per contest.

Future contract status: Batum is an unrestricted free agent.

Summary:

At the time of his signing, there were limited expectations of what Batum could provide to the Clippers after an injury-riddled end to his tenure in Charlotte. The hope was that Batum could provide some wing depth at the end of the rotation.

Boy, did Batum do better than that.

Batum was forced into the starting lineup due to Marcus Morris Sr.’s knee injury in December and didn’t relinquish his role until March. He was a connector on offense, bringing some needed ball movement to an offense that had been a little isolation-heavy, as well as spot-up shooting and cutting. Batum was also deployed as the defender on the opposing team’s best perimeter player during the regular season.

During the playoffs, the Clippers put Batum back in with the starters as they morphed from a conventional starting five to small ball. In the switching defense, Batum had to defend everyone from perimeter stars to much taller centers in the middle.

Throughout the season, Batum was the epitome of versatility, filling in whatever role the Clippers needed and doing it happily after years of playing on some fairly irrelevant NBA teams. He even took the floor for the Clippers the day that his baby daughter was born, his wife hilariously kicking him out of the delivery room because she knew Batum wouldn’t be able to focus.

The Clippers made two minimum signings in the 2020 offseason that were the envy of the rest of the league. It’s hard to imagine how their season would have gone without the services of Batum.

Strengths:

Batum reads the game very well. He’s always in the right place on offense, often by making timely cuts on the baseline. He scored 1.50 points per possession (ppp) on cuts during the regular season (for reference, the Clippers scored 1.17 points per possession as a whole), and a ridiculous 1.85 ppp during the postseason. Batum may not have the same lift he did in his 20s, but he can get up and still finishes 70 percent of his baskets at the rim, mostly because he knows when and how to attack.

The Clippers relied on Batum as a floor spacer too. He made 44 percent of his corner threes during the regular season and then transformed into an above-the-break sniper during the playoffs, cashing in on 41 percent of those looks. Batum had lost his corner touch in Charlotte, so it was good to see a resurgence in an offense that created better opportunities for him.

LA Clippers v Atlanta Hawks
Batum was almost always available during the regular season.
Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

The team didn’t expect to have to count on Batum for so many minutes, but his durability was a huge plus throughout the season. Ty Lue almost laughed as he delivered the news of Batum’s first rest day, saying there’s no way Batum could’ve known he’d have to play this much when he signed with the Clippers. Fortunately, he was up to the challenge, and when his role became more physically demanding during the playoffs (fronting Rudy Gobert doesn’t look pleasant at all), he rose to the occasion then as well.

If Batum shined as a wing during the regular season, he absolutely dazzled as a de facto big during the postseason. The Clippers were 21.2 points per 100 possessions better with Batum on the court; their small lineups simply didn’t work without him. He played strong team defense without fouling, chasing opponents off the 3-point line and generally making their lives miserable.

Weaknesses:

Batum is a wonderful complementary player, but he can’t take on more creative responsibility. His usage rate was microscopic as he doesn’t really generate his own shot any more — the rare occasions he actually took the ball to the basket on his own were genuinely shocking. That made Batum a little less valuable when the team’s stars weren’t available, even if it isn’t a problem on a regular basis.

Isolation defense could get a bit problematic for Batum. He’s fantastic coming in for help from the weakside, but he isn’t the guy you want at the point of attack, unless he’s defending his five-year-old son Ayden. Hunting Batum on switches was the best way to attack the Clippers defense in the playoffs since he couldn’t really hang laterally, and it kept him out of help. Opponents scored 1.18 ppp on Batum in isolation in the regular season and 1.27 ppp in the postseason. The Clippers could use another stout wing defender next year to ease the load on Batum, especially with Kawhi Leonard set to miss time.

Future with the Clippers:

The Clippers have a tough road ahead with Batum. Because he was signed to a minimum deal for one season, the Clippers don’t have any bird rights on Batum and can only sign him for the taxpayer midlevel, which is about $5.9 million. That might be enough to keep Batum around since he’s made a lot of money already in his career and found a good fit in Los Angeles, but if he wants more, the Clippers have no way to give him a bigger contract. There will be a market for Batum — good wings are always in short supply — so the Clippers have to hope that their culture is enough of a draw to keep him around.