(Orginally posted at BballBreakdown)
Despite little mainstream notice, the Portland Trail Blazers lead the NBA in wins at the moment. The stacked Western conference is shaping up to be matchup-driven in the postseason, and therefore home-court advantage might make a huge difference on which teams survive the first round. With over a third of the regular season now passed, Portland is in play for the top overall seed. Damian Lillard has taken yet another step into superstardom, LaMarcus Aldridge has been his usual consistent self and Wesley Matthews is well on his way to earning a $70-million contract next summer.
But Nicolas Batum hasn’t been the same. After logging 93 games with the Blazers last season, Batum joined the French national team in the summer and helped it to a third-place finish at the FIBA World Cup. As a result, fatigue might be playing a role in his production being down across the board. He has also dealt with a wrist injury that may in part help explain the biggest drop-off in his performance; his outside shooting. Whatever the reasons for it, however, it is unmistakable that Batum has struggled during the first third of the season.
Playing most of minutes with two elite shot creators, Batum normally gets open quite often. According to NBA.com, Batum took 63.6% of his shots with no defender within four feet of him last season, and hit his 315 catch-and-shoot three-point attempts at a 38.7% clip. Batum has been just as open this season, on 67.8% of his shots, but has hit a putrid 25% of his 92 catch-and-shoot three-point attempts prior to the game against the New York Knicks. The issue appears to be on the follow-through; in his misses, Batum is not keeping his off-arm pointed up through the release, which he’s consistently doing at the free throw line and enjoying his normally high foul shooting percentage.
Batum is also struggling to create his own shot off the bounce, shooting just 28.6% on 63 pull-ups and 13% on 38 attempts with less than seven seconds on the shot clock. His overall two-point shooting percentage is holding up well thanks to his ability to play above the rim as a target for lobs on cuts and in transition, but Batum hasn’t been able to create separation when turning the corner. Despite standing at six-foot-eight, he doesn’t have long strides and, without a sudden change of gear, Batum is not being able to get past athletic defenders. He entered Sunday’s game shooting 71.4% on his 45 attempts within eight feet of the basket, but had been assisted on 25 of his 35 makes. Last season, more effective on his individual drives, he was assisted in only 58.9% of such scores.
Batum has never been a volume foul shooter but he’s extremely rarely at the line this season, averaging only a single attempt per 36 minutes this season. He has drawn just 12 shooting fouls in 26 appearances, which is also a reflection of his inability to attack opponents with much quickness off the dribble.
As a passer, Batum is assisting on 21.2% of Portland’s scores when he has been on the floor, in line with his performance the previous two seasons. Yet that has been mostly through his ability to hit the pocket pass out of the pick-and-roll in stride, his quick ball moving instincts, how he’s able to post up smaller players in a pinch and use his court vision identifying open teammates on the weak-side. Using SportVU’s new movement asset, I counted only seven of his first 41 assists coming from inside the lane out of dribble penetration (there’s no data available for games over the last month).
However, despite his struggles shooting from the outside and off the dribble, and while contributing less on the offensive glass than he did last season, the Blazers have still scored more efficiently with Batum on the floor, in large part because he has shared 60% of his minutes with all of Aldridge, Lillard and Matthews in the lineup. The team have played well with him, even if they have had to do it without him.
Defensively, Batum is holding up fine on the surface. Though unable to contain dribble penetration through contact due to his lean 200-pound frame, Batum still possesses the lateral mobility to keep pace with most players in isolation and uses his length very well to challenge shots. But Terry Sttots has been less aggressive using him against smaller players this season, which is something he was very comfortable doing last year. And after an elite performance collecting opponents’ misses in 2013-2014 (seventh-best defensive rebounding rate among small forwards), Batum has only been average in these 26 games.
Portland is not a team with much depth. It relies heavily on its top unit producing at an elite level, and Batum has yet to do so. But with Lillard, Aldridge and Matthews all doing what was expected of them and the Blazers leading the league in wins as a result, Batum suddenly finding his legs is what’s missing for people to realize this team is a legit title contender.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara.