There is no one thing that could salvage the Charlotte Hornets’ season right now.
However, one thing happened in a 93-91 home loss to the Portland Trail Blazers Saturday that is a necessary step toward a solution: Nic Batum played like Nic Batum is supposed to play.
Granted, any player looks good when his shot is dropping. Batum made nine of his 17 attempts from the field, and five of nine from 3-point range. He scored a season-high 23 points against the team that traded him to the Hornets two summers ago.
But Batum’s success Saturday – there hasn’t been much of it this season – went beyond marksmanship. He was more engaged, more aggressive, more the guy he was for much of the 2015-16 season, when he built the body of work that resulted in a five-year $120 million contract; the largest deal in Charlotte pro sports history.
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Batum passed on playing for the French national team over the summer to concentrate on cleaning up a mediocre 2016-17 season. He lasted less than a full preseason exhibition before tearing a ligament in his left elbow that cost him six weeks of recovery.
When Batum returned, the Hornets had migrated in a different direction, particularly with a lot of post-ups for newly-acquired center Dwight Howard. Batum looked to fit in without disrupting others’ games.
Batum says he tried too hard to fit in, and stopped being the multidimensional player the Hornets paid so much to re-sign.
“I was trying to adjust myself to the other guys way too much,” Batum said, “when sometimes I have to let them adjust to me.”
Acting coach Stephen Silas’ actions suggest he concurs with Batum’s assessment. Silas said in various ways over the past three days that he had to find a way to get Batum more connected. That meant running more plays for the 6-8 shooting guard.
Batum isn’t going to take 17 shots most nights, but the ball has to find his hands more for the Hornets to have any chance of recovering from this 10-19 start. Silas liked that Batum looked to post up more, taking advantage of physical mismatches.
“He had some matchups he wanted to go at, and he was aggressive in asking for the ball,” Silas said. “He would have a small on him (like 6-3 Blazers guard C.J. McCollum), and he and Kemba (Walker) would have eye contact. He’d get the ball and go to work.”
Walker had a bad shooting night, going 7-of-26 from the field and 0-of-9 from 3-point range. There is a huge drop-off between Walker and any other point guard on this team. Also, when Walker isn’t an efficient scorer, there’s not much of a Plan B.
Batum should be that Plan B, whether it’s making shots or finding open teammates. The game gets easier when the offense flows through him, and he has been peripheral far too often this season. The Hornets can still find Howard in the post, but there must be a balance to this offense that hasn’t yet been reached.
In the short run, at least, the rotation will not include rookies Malik Monk or Dwayne Bacon. Silas made that clear postgame. This team has lost three in a row, and the present outweighs the future.
“We need some wins,” Silas said. “It’s not time to develop or gift minutes right now. It’s about winning, and my rotations are going to be short for a while until we get this thing back on track.”
It’s a long distance from being back on track. Getting Batum reconnected is a small, but important step.
‘Hopefully, this is the start of him having some rhythm in his game,” Silas said, “because we’re going to need it.”
They need that, and a whole lot more, to dig out of this mess.