Much has been made about the Portland Trail Blazers and their young squad of blossoming talent. Nicolas Batum has been adorned with fan support and according to reports, has been the most sought-after candidate when teams come calling for a trade.
How Batum fits in to the Trail Blazers has been the subject of much debate. The 22-year-old’s defensive prowess, length and 3-point shooting ability lends many people – even Michael Jordan himself – to consider Batum as the shadow of a young Scottie Pippen. This sentiment has been echoed around the league and begs for closer inspection. While Batum certainly has time to mature as a basketball player, that he’s similar to one of the 50 greatest NBA players of all-time may be questionable.
In his first year in the league, Batum was a surprise candidate as a starter. When he was a rookie in 2008 he was slated to play in the D-League but instead made his way to the Blazer roster and started 76 regular season games. Unfortunately, Batum’s second year was interrupted by a shoulder injury that only saw him play 37 games in 2009-10. Back on track for last season, Batum again returned to form in a majority of the Blazers regular season games, starting 67 times in 80 appearances.
Because of Batum’s injury-laden second year, for the purpose of a baseline comparison we must count 2010-11 as Batum’s second full season as a starter. Using last season as a jumping off point for projected growth, we have to use the same line of thought in comparing Pippen to Batum. According to Basketball-Reference.com, in his per 36 minute averages Batum put up 11.5 field goal attempts, shot 35.4% from 3-point range, pulled down 5.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 14.1 points.
Nicolas Batum’s numbers aren’t anything where Pippen’s were in his second year as a starter. In 1989-90, Pippen put up similar numbers (although he shot just 25% from behind the arc) with exception to an extra rebound and a whopping 5.1 assists – three more than Batum – per each 36 minute period.
The obvious difference in the games of Batum and Pippen shines through statistical comparison. That is to say that Batum is not a natural passer or rebounder the way Pippen was. As fans in Portland know, Scottie played the role of guard-forward wonderfully, bringing the ball up the court and setting plays in motion. Batum isn’t that kind of player, either with the Blazers or internationally.
However, looking back over the course of NBA history there are three players that Batum compares favorably to, at least when they were in similar stages in their careers. One of those players is Tayshaun Prince, who has been compared to Batum in the past and his second year with the Detroit Pistons was quite similar statistically.
Prince’s second year as a starter was 2004-05 and his stat line per 36 minutes went like this: 11.4 field goal attempts, 35% from 3-point range, 5.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 14.3 points. With exception to the numbers in assists, the forward from Motown almost matches Batum’s production from last year.
The second player Batum matches up with is Sean Elliott. In 1990-91 Elliott was a 22-year-old small forward with similar per 36 minute numbers: 11.5 field goal attempts, 31% from behind the arc, 5.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 15.4 points. Elliott played on a similarly talented team as the Blazers that year and his usage rate is comparable.
With exception to slightly better production in steals and blocks, Nicolas Batum’s numbers compare more favorably to Prince and Elliott than he does when compared to Pippen. Even further, Pippen’s usage rate was much higher than Batum’s was in his second season as a starter, around 21% where Batum, Prince and Elliott hovered between 17.8% and 18.8% in comparative years.
That’s not to say I think Batum correlates to either of these players perfectly. The issue I have most with statistical comparison is the Blazer forward’s obvious talent for defensive prowess. Batum’s numbers are higher in steals and blocks per each 36 minute period and therefore lends the Batum/Prince/Elliott comparison to the same statistical holes as does Batum to Pippen. So, is there a player that compares favorably to Nic Batum? In his second season, there’s only one NBA player that closely mimics Batum’s per 36 minute averages in offense and defense: Danny Granger.
Although Granger’s usage rate of 23.3% and PPG of 19.6 was through the roof in his second year as a starter in 2007-08, his defensive numbers are more comparable at 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks. If we used a relative comparison in usage rate between Granger and Batum (giving them an even-weighted usage rate) their offensive numbers would be similar, even if Granger still had the edge. Having put all these numbers on the table, what are we to make of them?
The Eye Test
Comparison between Pippen, Prince, Elliott and Granger gets a little blurry at this point. Pippen and Prince are more often thought of as ball handlers who can not only bring the ball down the court but post up players and muscle their way to the cup. Elliott and Granger, meanwhile, are typically thought of as being more of spot-up shooters.
In all honesty, Nate McMillan’s offensive strategy for Batum has been limited. Watching tape on Batum, he rarely cuts to the bucket with the ball or plays the pick-and-roll game. Instead, McMillan runs him around screens, uses ball screens for backdoor cuts and runs him on the wing on the fast break. The same can be said about Batum’s international play. Save for a few shining moments, Batum isn’t really the slashing, triple-threat type.
McMillan’s use of Batum in offensive situations may very well be the key in explaining the difficulty in making an accurate comparison to former and current NBA players. The type of touches Batum gets on offense may account for the disparity in assist averages between Batum, Prince and Elliott. That Batum would flourish if given the offensive opportunity that, say, Brandon Roy has in the last three years is anyone’s guess. While the Blazer’s offense this year is set to be more dynamic than in years past with the addition of Raymond Felton and Gerald Wallace, Batum’s own personal growth and direction may very well become galvanized in 2011-12.
One Way or Another
That anyone looks at the way Scottie Pippen played during the 1989-90 season or the way he ran the Rockets, Blazers or even the MJ-less Bulls in 1999 and compares him to Batum is a wonder. Statistically speaking, Pippen and Batum don’t match up although they share some similarities. That’s not to say that Batum could never become Scottie Pippen, just that there is little evidence at this point in his career to suggest that is his natural path.
It should be noted that although Prince, Elliott and Granger all share similar statistical qualities none of them could be described in exactly the same way. So too does Batum’s edges stick out from the shadows of these players. Prince’s game shows more determination on the offensive end, whether by team design or natural instinct. Elliott makes a good offensive comparative but lacks absolute consistency concerning defensive statistics and impact. In Indiana, Danny Granger’s third year numbers in usage and points skyrocketed in a way that no one believes Batum will match in the upcoming season. Really, comparison is a useful but imperfect way to pigeonhole players.
What will be important to Batum for the upcoming season is finding his own niche, his own value as a contributor to a Trail Blazer team that may be ready to move ahead from the Roy-centric era. Nate McMillan needs to find better ways to involve Batum in the offense. That he hasn’t run more pick-and-roll situations with LaMarcus Aldridge is confusing. Batum has the ball handling skills necessary to cut around sloppier defenders in those situations and with his wingspan, height and Aldridge cutting to the basket it would be a hard combination to stop.
Those who have compared Batum to Scottie Pippen have stressed the need for LaMarcus Aldridge to have a “sidekick”. However, in considering Pippen’s impact statistically – and not just emotionally – saying that Pippen was Jordan’s sidekick is incredibly insulting considering the reliance those Chicago Bulls had on his effectiveness. Batum doesn’t fit that mold statistically, and although he may be an important supporter for Aldridge so too will Ray Felton, Gerald Wallace, Wesley Matthews and Marcus Camby in their contribution.
Nic Batum is not the next Scottie Pippen. Or the next Tayshaun Prince, Sean Elliott or Danny Granger. Basketball fanatics are too quick to place players in the footsteps of their predecessors. Kobe was supposed to be the next Jordan. Chris Paul was supposed to be the next Oscar. Oden was supposed to be the next Bill Russell. This problem plagues the forward from France even if it’s not to the magnitude others have experienced before him. Nicolas Batum needs to take off the Scottie Pippen crown we’ve adorned him with. It doesn’t fit him and I fear the weight may crush him if he doesn’t remove it all together.
The newest edition to The Hoop Doctors writing staff, Dane Carbaugh is the editor and lead writer of the popular new basketball blog A Young Sabonis. Dane is a published research author and also writes for Dime Magazine and the ESPN TrueHoop Affiliate Portland Roundball Society. He can be found on Twitter at @DaneCarbaugh