Clippers’ gamble on Nicolas Batum has paid off with the best possible start

Los Angeles Clippers forward Nicolas Batum in the second half of an NBA basketball game late Friday, Dec. 25, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Forward Nicolas Batum, a 12-year veteran, has fit in well with the Clippers by averaging 8.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists while playing his steady, reliable defense. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

For a player still finding his way on a new team, making the clinching three-pointer Sunday was no small boost for Clippers forward Nicolas Batum.

Yet the moment was just as notable for what preceded it — that Paul George, dribbling into the paint on a night when he scored 39 points, trusted a wide-open Batum enough to pass him the ball with 11 seconds remaining and a three-point lead.

“After what happened to me the last 18 months, basketball-wise, to play on a team like that, to be on the court on those situations and have the trust of my teammates, and from a guy like PG to get me the ball and to make a shot, a big shot like that, it does feel great,” Batum said following the 112-107 win over Phoenix. “I don’t really like to talk about myself, but just feels great to have a shot like that.”

Batum joined the Clippers as a free agent because the Charlotte Hornets decided in November to part ways with their highest-paid player following a career-worst season.

If not for a sore knee that has sidelined starting forward Marcus Morris to start the season, Batum most likely would not have been on the court in crunch time.

But as a second Suns defender closed the lane on George’s drive, he didn’t hesitate to give the ball to a player whose up-and-down 18 months might have discouraged his new teammates.

“He was hitting all game,” George said. “I seen him wide open, I had to hit him.”

For Batum the three-pointer, which came in the left corner where he has shot 71% this season, was further evidence that the self-belief he carried into his 13th season was justified.

Needing to make room for the contract of free agent Gordon Hayward in November, the Hornets waived Batum, whose production no longer justified a $27-million salary following a season that began with a fractured finger on his left hand and proceeded to get worse. He hyperextended the same finger six weeks later and finished averaging 3.6 points and 23 minutes, his fewest since he was a rookie in 2009.

Once the prototypical 3-and-D wing, Batum made 28% of his three-pointers last season, the fifth time in six seasons his accuracy ranked below the NBA average.

The numbers laid bare his struggles in Charlotte, but Batum didn’t believe they were a true indication of how much he had left in the tank.

“I don’t think it’s fair for me to judge me 18 months, when I played 15 years as a pro, if I count my years in France,” Batum said. “I had a good career. I’m not a Hall of Famer, I didn’t do stuff like to be a Hall of Famer, but I think I got a respectable career and what happened in the last 18 months didn’t work out.

“The first two years in Charlotte was great, I had a very good relationship with [coach] Steve Clifford and we made a change as a coach and it didn’t work out. It happens sometimes.”

Clearly, others agreed: Several suitors pursued him, but he signed a minimum deal with the Clippers believing a roster featuring established scorers including George, Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams would best complement his passing and defense.

A starter for 90% of his career, Batum didn’t “want to try to do too much” in a narrowed role with the Clippers, saying he drew inspiration from the winning plays made by veterans Boris Diaw in San Antonio and Andre Iguodala in Golden State on championships teams.

Then came Morris’ injury, and with it a larger opportunity to test whether his self-confidence was correct. Batum has answered with best-case scenario production: 8.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists in 29 minutes while shooting 45% on three-pointers, to go with the highest assist-to-turnover ratio, effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage of his career.

“Since the first day I got to practice, the first practice, [the Clippers] told me to be myself again, to be ‘that guy,’ and I love that,” Batum said. “That’s the way I see the game. … The way I am, the way I love to play, as a team. You know, I’m not the best one-on-one player. I’m not the guy who’s gonna get 25 shots. But I know what I can do to be on the team.

“Basketball is five on five, you can’t have [all] guys taking 25 shots. You need some guys here to do the little things and make sure the team stays together and the concept as a team, we move forward and stick together as a team. And that’s what I love to do.”

When guarded directly by Batum, opponents have made 10 of 35 three-pointers while producing nearly as many turnovers (10) as assists (11). After guarding everyone from 6-foot Chris Paul to 7-foot Deandre Ayton on Sunday, Batum likened his defensive role to how former Portland coach Nate McMillan used him during his first three seasons.

Such a start has raised the question of its sustainability. The Clippers view him as a linchpin because of his passing and defense. Batum’s shooting numbers might regress, but there also conceivably won’t be as much riding on Batum’s shooting upon Morris’ return.

“He’s very important to what we’re trying to do,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “He’s only gonna get more and more comfortable.”

Before tipoff Sunday, Phoenix coach Monty Williams called Batum the Clippers’ “glue.” Then Batum stuck it to the Suns, with three assists and 14 points, with no field goal bigger than the shot George entrusted him to make with 11 seconds left.

“He’s been playing both ends of the floor, knocking down big shots,” Leonard said. “Playing great defense, passing the ball. He’s been a big pickup for us.”

UP NEXT

VS. SAN ANTONIO

When: 7 p.m., Tuesday

On the air: Prime Ticket. Radio: 570, 1330

Update: The Spurs (2-4) visit Staples Center before the Clippers quickly hit the road again for a two-game trip against Golden State that begins Wednesday. Guard DeMar DeRozan took only 80 three-pointers in his first two seasons in San Antonio but already has attempted 15 in six games this season, making seven. Forward LaMarcus Aldridge (knee) has missed the last three games and guard Derrick White (toe) has played only once.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.