This doesn’t deal with the possibility of a sign and trade, which I would be in favor of exploring but may involve too many moving parts to be feasible.
I have frequently been intensely critical of Nicolas Batum since his semi-breakout in the Spring of 2010. I don’t appreciate his willingness to get lost in the shuffle on offense despite his immense skills or the lapses in intensity or concentration on the defensive end. I also am skeptical of the argument that he’s been held back in his time in Portland by Nate McMillan’s rudimentary offense or poor guard play. Though those things will affect any player, there’s just not a lot of evidence that they are affecting Batum, whose impact on a game is more determined by his own level of interest than anything else.
That said, even as it stands Nicolas is a very good offensive player, both for his ability to knock down 3s at a high efficiency and high volume, and for his fluid athleticism which has helped him become better and better at finishing at the rim and getting to the line. His free throw rate has grown each year in the league, indicating even more potential for improvement in that area as he’s asked to take a greater load.
On the defensive end, Batum’s reputation as a stopper you can count on has waned after that initial impression was somewhat debunked by counterpart statistics, and observers began noting his inconsistent effort on that side of the ball. That said, he has yet to play for a coach that truly demands A+ effort from defenders. Put in the correct scheme with a strong motivator and I would expect him to be more consistent. Additionally his defensive counting stats are good. So factoring in blocks and steals Batum is probably at least an average defender despite the consistency problems.
Adding to his value, Batum plays a premium position. The conventional wisdom is that point guards and big men are more desirable than wings right now. That’s just not the case. This is verifiable by looking at something simple like PER, where Nic’s 17.3 mark makes him the 8th best small forward but there are 22 point guards with a better mark. Anecdotally it’s also easy to see that at least 1/2 the teams in the league need a good two-way wing, while probably less than five have an immediate need at the point guard position. So Nic’s skill-set is relatively rare and valuable. Just how valuable?
The slippery concept of value
Whenever Nicolas Batum’s contract comes up we usually get a list of comparables, which are players who play his position and are similarly productive: Andre Iguodala, Rudy Gay, Luol Deng, and Danilo Gallinari being the most common. Those guys have contracts that average between 10 and 15 million dollars a year. A preference for any of those guys over Batum is a pretty close call, and he is clearly superior to players on slightly less lucrative contracts ( Charlie Villanueva (5/37.7), Marvin Williams (5/37.5), Andray Blatche (5/35.7) and Trevor Ariza (5/34) Wilson Chander, (5/35)).
It is tempting to call all of these players overpaid. But really the fact of the matter is non-rookie players are just overpaid on aggregate. So these numbers start to look kind of gnarly. But that’s going to be the case for every non-rookie or non-superstar max level contract, unless the player makes massive improvements over the course of the deal like LaMarcus Aldridge did. So teams should value their draft picks, but also have to recognize that to put together a basketball team you have to play in the “overpaid” pool of non-rookies and non-superstars.
More Seagull than Albatross
Educated observers are wise to note the importance of not overspending on role players (or even stars) as this can hamstring a team’s flexibility and force an owner to spend through the nose for an overly expensive team. That said, I don’t really see Batum’s contract becoming an albatross. He is young, the new limits on offer sheets will help, and it’s hard to think of a reasonable scenario where even a 12 million dollar contract will hamstring the Blazers. Even if the Blazers do happen upon superstars in the draft, Batum is essentially a Cadillac role player who would snap in beautifully next to a few budding stars.
As Kevin Pelton points out, it’s not the rate of extensions that kill teams, it’s the length. It is very hard to project how good a player will be in 5 years. Two of the most infamous contracts of the last CBA were Rashard Lewis and Gilbert Arenas, who basically became non-contributors in the last two years of massive contracts. Pelton’s study points out that production is generally a fairly decent value for the first three years, then tends to drop off a cliff. As such, in matching a big offer sheet for Batum, the Blazers will be taking a calculated gamble on a year of dead weight on the end of the contract. That’s a much better bet than a 5 or 6 year contract, where 40-50% of the contract is so far out it is difficult to project.
Further mitigating the risk is Batum’s age. Many of the players who become dead weight toward the end of their contract are signing their third or fourth contracts. That means the teams are just incorrectly pricing the decline of aging players. Even if Batum has stopped developing, he’s unlikely to decline during the years that generally constitute the first part of a player’s prime. So even under a fairly spendy extension, I’d say it’s fairly likely he will continue producing at a high level such that he remains in the echelon of other players earning similar money.
The next issue is the argument for flexibility necessarily requires a plausible alternative for the cap space Batum is about to occupy. Currently, the Blazers have just $31 million under contract next year. That means even after signing Batum to a $12 million dollar contract they would still have nearly enough money to throw at a maximum dollar free agent.
It is hard to imagine what Portland is going to do with all that money that is a more efficient use of it than signing Nic. Taking on a player like Andre Iguodala is somewhat better than Batum, but also carries a larger price tag and would require giving up an additional asset. He would also need a contract extension after next season (assuming he opts out) which would require a long-term commitment locking Portland into the tail end of his prime. Other free agents would also likely be coming off their second contract, and also at a greater risk than Batum to tail off during the extension. When we look at the free-agent pool and possibly available trades, there aren’t too many that avoid this trap (and there aren’t even that many good players in the free agent pool this summer).
Another possibility is simply to sign a series of bloated one-year contracts and continue rolling over the cap flexibility. But in the real world, players of Batum’s caliber or better rarely move in free agency or through trades for nothing more than capspace. To the extent that they do, they are either perceived to be damaged goods (Zach Randolph) or too old and expensive to justify the money (Carlos Boozer). I am all for gambling on the next Zach Randolph, but doesn’t holding over $25 million in capspace seem a bit excessive? Basically we’d be doing “rent-a-team” for four years in hopes of getting two Zach Randolphs!
The other issue alluded to above is that a long “albatross” of a contract can interfere with a team as it tries to change directions. The Sixers, for example, are somewhat hamstrung by Elton Brand’s bloated extension, while the Blazers were very fortunate to have the amnesty provision which keeps Brandon Roy’s deal from being an obstacle. But based on his youth, the relatively short-term nature of any impending offer sheet, and his qualities as a player, Batum is far more likely to be an asset on the court rather than a toxic bit of the ledger.
One of the recent columns of my latest writing spree related to why it’s good to stay decent instead of totally bottoming out. In that piece I outlined why I belive it’s easier to retain as many good players as possible, then be prepared to be a contender should you luck into a championship piece. Batum is a perfect guy to keep around in this sort of strategy. Should the Blazers hit the jackpot on the trade market or with the ping-pong balls, Batum will be a perfect complementary piece to stick alongside any star player.
To the extent that he will overpaid to be a complementary player, I can offer two responses. First, quality complementary two way wings are very rare as discussed above. Second, is it better to handsomely pay an excellent complementary player who can work with a ball-dominant star, or pay a guy who is a below-average “star” type like Rudy Gay who needs the ball to be effective but may not be good enough to be a first or second option on a team that wins anything? The answer for me isn’t clear but I would lean toward paying the complementary guy who defends and shoots. The star’s value will diminish if the team ever manages to make the moves necessary to win, while the complementary player’s value will increase.
By way of conclusion, I understand this isn’t a particularly strong or affirmative case for Batum being worth $12 million dollars. But the market for non-rookies and non-superstars is bloated not by the stupidity of NBA teams but by the rules of the CBA. So he will garner an eight-figure offer. Criticism of the market rate has to be accompanied with something more than blanket hand-waiving about him making too much (of course he makes too much, he’s a pro athlete!). It has to be shown that the market provides other and better options.