Charlotte Hornets

Why a write-off isn’t acceptable to resolve Nic Batum’s Charlotte Hornets story

Nicolas Batum on his Charlotte Hornets season.

Charlotte Hornets’ Nicolas Batum discusses a disappointing season.
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Charlotte Hornets’ Nicolas Batum discusses a disappointing season.

There is a question I get from Charlotte Hornets fans even more than “What would it take for Kemba Walker to stay?”

“What would it take for Nicolas Batum to go?”

I get the widespread frustration. Batum is by far this team’s highest-paid player, and he’s not close to its best one. He was placed in a variety of roles this past season, and nothing quite changed the pattern. It got to a point late in the season when coach James Borrego briefly stopped playing Batum altogether.

So, naturally, Batum was a major topic of conversation when the players, Borrego and general manager Mitch Kupchak met with media post-season. I asked Borrego last week where Batum fits going forward.

“Rick, I don’t really know,” Borrego replied.

That was telling; it demonstrated that for all the adjustments. Borrego is still at a loss for how best to utilize Batum’s skill set. And that’s OK; five months will pass before the Hornets reassemble for training camp.

But Borrego better have this figured out by September, because I doubt there is a path to moving on from Batum’s contract that wouldn’t involve pain. Significant pain.

Do anything

Some fans tell me they’d do anything to move on from Batum, and the remaining $52 million on the contract he signed in the summer of 2016. But when you match that emotional response to the facts, it doesn’t really hold up.

Trading the rest of that guaranteed salary — $25.5 million next season and $27 million for 2020-21 — would either bring back similarly unpalatable contracts or forfeit an asset, such as a future first-round pick, that the Hornets would have to include as an inducement.

I hear some exasperated fans endorse cutting Batum. Really?

If you were signing those paychecks, would you write off that large an expense? Remember, there is no longer am amnesty provision in the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, which would have at least mitigated the salary-cap damage of moving on from Batum. Even with amnesty, the Hornets would still owe him every dollar.

Ir’s important, regarding Batum, to differentiate between “overpaid” and “useless.” Batum will always be overpaid by this five-year $120 million contract. However, that’s the fault of Hornets management at the time, not Batum.

Batum was never going to morph into a 25-points-per-game scorer as a result of signing that contract. He’s not as good as he was in the 2015-16 season, but he plays the same way he did in earning that deal: Less a scorer than a facilitator. You pay him to do a little bit of everything — ball movement, rebounding, defense. He’s a generalist, not a specialist.

Decline

That’s not to give Batum a pass for lacking productivity. His scoring average has slipped each of the last three seasons, from 15.1 to 11.6 to 9.3. His assists were 3.2 per game, lowest in seven seasons. His shooting percentages improved last season (45 percent from the field and 39 percent from 3-point range), but the problem wasn’t his shooting, it was his seeming reluctance to shoot. His 562 shot attempts were his fewest in eight seasons.

There were circumstances. Asking Batum to do more defensively, to facilitate moving Jeremy Lamb into the starting lineup, might have reduced the energy he apportioned to offense. Tony Parker’s presence as backup point guard might have reduced Batum’s assist opportunities. However, that doesn’t rationalize a situation that got so extreme Borrego didn’t play him at all three of the last eight games.

It’s not as if Batum is high-maintenance. He has frequently said team success is more important to him than stats. Borrego praised how Batum bought in to a frequently changing role, whether it be position or starting or minutes.

The problem isn’t whether Batum is willing to adapt. The question is how.

Utility

“I think he would admit it was a tough season for him,” Kupchak said of Batum, adding, “I will sit down with the coach, and we will come up with what we think makes sense going forward. But he could be a starter or he could come off the bench. We don’t know yet.”

I don’t think it matters all that much whether Batum starts or which position he plays. His strength is utility; that he can play shooting guard, small forward and at least some power forward. That he can guard a variety of players. That he can help ball-movement and contribute all over a box score.

He’s not going to be a star, even though he will keep being paid like one. That’s old news.

It’s on Kupchak and Borrego now to make this work, and that is about utility.

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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