There are a number of reasons why the surprising Charlotte Hornets would start the NBA playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference if the season ended today.
But the simplest one is a clever Frenchman named Nicolas Batum.
Batum had his first triple-double as a Hornet in Wednesday night’s 99-81 blowout of the Miami Heat, but it certainly won’t be his last. When the ball is in Batum’s hands, a hard game looks easy.
Said teammate Kemba Walker of Batum: “He changes everything. For everyone.”
The trade that brought Batum to Charlotte was the best move in a series of four trades in June that redefined this team. The Hornets basically got Batum for Gerald Henderson (a shooting guard who couldn’t shoot) and Noah Vonleh (a big man who was a big project).
It has become a temporarily sensational move – but it will only be permanently validated if the Hornets keep Batum around for more than a season.
Batum, 27, will be an unrestricted agent in the summer of 2016. And given the NBA’s crazy-money standards, Batum will need a contract to stay in Charlotte that will approach $20 million a season.
The Hornets should give it to him.
In today’s NBA – where even the eighth man gets paid like a Fortune 500 CEO – Batum is worth a maximum contract. While his stats aren’t always as flashy as they were Wednesday (10 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in 28 minutes), he’s a point forward who takes a lot of the playmaking load off Walker and makes everybody around him better.
Someone is about to give Batum huge money. It may as well be the team that is showcasing his talent so effectively this season.
I asked Batum Wednesday night if he would like to stay with the Hornets long-term.
“Why not?” Batum said. “I like their vision.”
Batum pointed to long-term deals with Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jeremy Lamb and an extension for Cody Zeller.
“They see long-term with guys who can play right now,” Batum said.
The Hornets’ three-game win streak is modest, but it has pushed them to 13-8. And Batum’s playmaking makes the team much more efficient offensively.
Said Clifford of Batum: “ If you made a video of these last three games, you’d have 8-9 clips of sheer talent, of things nobody can teach anybody how to do. When he catches the ball, he knows where everybody is. He knows not to throw it to guys who can’t do it where they are, and he knows where to give it to guys where they can do something.”
Batum’s performance was the best news on a day that started sourly for the Hornets, as center Al Jefferson earned a five-game NBA suspension due to a violation of the league’s anti-drug policy.
Jefferson was already sidelined due to a calf injury. From a basketball standpoint, the Hornets have played just fine without him. From a moralistic standpoint, Jefferson is an 11-year NBA veteran and knows he should have known better. He apologized for this positive drug test – a source indicated to The Observer this violation was marijuana-related.
And while Jefferson’s apology seemed heartfelt, it’s still troubling that he broke the NBA’s rules. It’s also not smart, considering he’s about to be an unrestricted free agent in 2016 at age 31.
As Jefferson said Wednesday when taking questions before the game began: “I’m a man, and one thing about being a man, I’ve got to take full responsibility for my actions ... I just feel so low right now. Every little boy and little girl who looks at me as somebody they look up to ... Me doing stuff like this, making the mistakes that I made, it’s not cool. It’s not cool for them and it’s not cool for me. That kills me more than anything.”
But forget about Jefferson for a minute (and the Hornets certainly played well without him again on Wednesday).
The point of this column really is this: The Hornets have rented Batum for a year for nearly $12 million, and that’s fine.
But to make this trade pay off at the maximum level, owner Michael Jordan needs to write a max-level contract check this summer and keep Batum around for many years to come.