Portland Trailblazers free agent wing Nicolas Batum agreed on a 4 year, 45 million dollar contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves yesterday, a deal that with incentives is pushed past 50 million dollars. Shortly after his agent announced the news, Batum indicated his strong desire to play in Minnesota next season, despite the fact that the Blazers have publicly said they will match the Wolves’ offer for the restricted free agent when contracts can be officially signed on July 11. So no matter Batum’s wishes, it seems, he will play the next several seasons of his young career in Portland instead of Minnesota.
Upon learning of the Blazers’ intention to match their offer sheet and retain Batum’s services, reports began to surface that the Wolves were offering second-year forward Derrick Williams and journeyman Martell Webster to Portland for Batum in a sign-and-trade. Williams, the number two overall pick in last year’s draft, had a middling rookie season for Minnesota as he adjusted to the size and speed of the NBA game. Even so, he remains a very promising prospect as basketball’s modern forward, a player with the size of a 4 but talents and athleticism of a 3. Williams will be on his modest rookie contract until the 2015 season, too, making him one of the best values in the league assuming some accelerated development.
Nevertheless, Portland seems to have no interest in a potential Batum-Williams swap, instead preferring to retain the 23 year-old frenchman. On the surface and given Batum’s sterling reputation as a player and prospect, this makes sense. His new contract isn’t outrageous and Batum, at the very least, has proven himself as the rare wing with great length and deep shooting ability. If he improves just modestly he’s a valuable piece on any team, and his age and experience suggest he’ll do better than that.
But is Batum so good, today or four years from now, that the Blazers and the basketball blogosphere/twitterverse should so brashly refute Minnesota’s offer of a player like Williams? Using logic based on advanced statistics, roster fit, or salary cap implications the answer is defiantly no, which says a lot about the league’s collective view of each player. They’re both well below 25, both have positional versatility, and both exemplify the direction the NBA is headed in terms of size, skill, and athleticism. Given that information alone, this trade merits at least a second look from Portland, and that’s before we get into the several advantages Williams presents and debunk the myth of Batum as an impactful two-way performer.
Williams is two years younger than Batum at 21 and has just one year of playing experience compared to his counterpart’s 4. He was a late-bloomer in high-school and as a collegian at Arizona, so his contract should be one of the most bang-for-your-buck in basketball in a year or two. Plus, he’s an ideal fit alongside LaMarcus Aldridge – best suited as a Center despite Portland’s offer to Roy Hibbert and drafting of Meyers Leonard – in the Blazers frontcourt as a stretch 4 capable of scoring in various ways. He should be able to defend opposing 4s relatively well, too, as his well-documented size issues are actually anything but; he’s just over an inch shorter than Blake Griffin but makes up for it with a far better wingspan and standing reach. Williams, even underwhelming rookie season taken into consideration, remains one of the game’s better prospects if for not much on-court evidence; his physical gifts and flashes of talent displayed last year (like this one) are enough to deem him so.
Batum, meanwhile, has been one of the league’s most vexing players since his breakout sophomore campaign of 2009-2010. At 6’8” or 6’9” with quick feet and arms that go forever, he’s an ideal size for a wing and combines it with a rare combination of three-point shooting acumen and finishing ability at the rim. He’s a career 37.2% shooter from deep and shot better at the rim than league average for his position each of his seasons in the league. All that length and offensive talent is enough to make Batum a nice piece, but in tandem with what should be awesome defense given his physical attributes, it’s easy to see the league’s infatuation with him – except for the fact that he’s been a huge net negative defensively for his entire career. Portland allowed 5.3 fewer points per 48 minutes with him on the bench in 2012, a number supported by data dating back to his rookie season. The Blazers have been worse defensively with Batum on the floor every year’s he’s been in the league, and they haven’t been good enough on the other end to off-set those deficiencies; he had a plus-minus in the red this season and last.
There are drawbacks to these statistics (namely +/-), of course, but given the amount we have – four seasons worth – indicating Batum is a bigger liability on defense than he is an asset on offense, his reputation as a player is hardly justified. Not to mention the Blazers’ steadfast refusal to consider Minny’s offer of Williams (and Webster) and the ramifications of Batum’s new contract that will pay him well in excess of 10 million dollars per season. Portland, essentially and through a glass half-empty lens, is sacrificing considerable future cap flexibility and the acquisition of a still very good prospect for a player that does more harm than good. Where’s the sense in that?
This team, assuming Indiana matches the offer to Hibbert and Batum is retained, is one that can only go so far. LaMarucs Aldridge is a star, Wesley Matthews is a nice two-way player, Damian Lillard has some potential as a scoring lead-guard (though how much is in question given his age and lack of NCAA competition), and then there’s Batum. That’s a solid quartet to build on, but one that is missing another player at or near Aldridge’s level and doesn’t have unlimited salary cap flexibility given the annual numbers to he and Batum. And if the latter doesn’t improve and start to actually help the Blazers, that’s a contract that’s potentially damaging and hard to move.
The smarter play, then, is to bite the bullet, come a bit closer to re-building and complete the Batum-Williams deal with Minnesota. A could-be star in Williams and future cap room is well worth several wins and a chance at the playoffs next season, and if Williams fails to develop Portland would be able to start all over again when he and Aldridge are free agents in 2015. It seems all for naught, though, and Portland will do the easy thing to placate fans and the organization’s present state and simply match Batum’s offer sheet. Whether or not doing that or the opposite will ultimately yield to more success for the Blazers nobody knows for sure, but only the latter option offers them the potential to eventually threaten for the Western Conference crown that’s eluded them for 20 years.