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Nicolas Batum could give the Clippers what they sorely lack

Charlotte's Nicolas Batum controls the ball during a game against the Chicago Bulls.
Charlotte’s Nicolas Batum controls the ball during a game against the Chicago Bulls in November 2019. Batum could be playing for the Clippers this season.
(Bob Leverone / Associated Press)

Ever since Charlotte agreed to sign Gordon Hayward to a four-year, $120-million contract and it became clear the Hornets would need to shed salary to make room for the free-agent forward, NBA observers began playing matchmaker.

Nicolas Batum could be headed to the Clippers, multiple people suggested last week.

Charlotte waived Batum on Sunday, allowing the team to stretch his $27-million salary this season over the next three seasons, and the Clippers are indeed Batum’s likely destination after he clears waivers by midweek, according to the Athletic.

Should that happen, the Clippers will have beaten out several interested teams for his services, as Batum’s agent told a French basketball website last week that Brooklyn, Golden State, Utah and Milwaukee also had been in contact.

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The prognostications linking Batum, who will turn 32 next month, with the Clippers were rooted in the belief that the best version of the 6-foot-9 forward could cheaply provide what the team lacked, namely a three-point shooter and versatile defender capable of shoring up a thin rotation behind starting forward Kawhi Leonard.

The Clippers have signed rookie center Daniel Oturu to a two-year contract worth $2.4 million guaranteed.

But it remains to be seen whether that best version would show up.

Batum is coming off a season in which he averaged a career-low 3.6 points and played 23 minutes per game, his fewest since his rookie season in 2008-09. He shot 34% overall and a career-worst 28% on three-pointers in 22 games, missing Charlotte’s final 19.

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Batum is just one season removed from making 38% of his threes. Yet that was the first time in five years that Batum shot better than the league average from behind the arc.

Though Batum never has required an offense to run through him, his usage rate has been on a steady decline the last four seasons — from 21% to 17% to 12% and, last season, 9%, when Batum was one of only seven players to play at least 400 minutes yet finish with a single-digit usage rate.

Nicolas Batum holds the basketball as he warms up before a game.
Nicolas Batum warms up before a game between the Charlotte Hornets and Denver Nuggets in January.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Yet even if Batum is no longer the player who shot better than league average from deep five times in his first six seasons, his career 35.7% three-point shooting suggests an ability to keep defenses honest — and not only because of his shooting. Batum isn’t turnover-prone, and his assist-to-pass percentage last season ranked second for Charlotte and would have ranked fifth for the Clippers.

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By starting training camp with last season’s starting lineup probably unchanged, new Clippers coach Tyronn Lue will have at his disposal a five-man unit that produced one of the postseason’s stingiest defensive ratings. It was the second unit, however, that too often had all the stopping power of a sieve, and that is where Batum would come in most often to spell Leonard.

Batum allowed a defended field-goal percentage of 43.4%, the second-best mark among all Hornets last season. Per Synergy Sports, Batum ranked in the NBA’s 95th percentile defending ballhandlers in pick and rolls and in the 65th percentile in isolation.

The Clippers’ decision to make a coaching change rather than overhaul their roster sends a clear message: Last season’s failure was on Doc Rivers

Backup center Montrezl Harrell, one of the primary culprits of the bench’s defensive undoing in the postseason, left for the Lakers in free agency after the Clippers decided to move on from the league’s reigning top reserve. Another inconsistent defender, guard Reggie Jackson, appears unlikely to return. Lou Williams is still part of the second unit — as the team monitors the trade market for his expiring $8-million salary — but his defensive shortcomings would be better protected by Harrell’s replacement, free-agent big man Serge Ibaka, and wing Luke Kennard.

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JaMychal Green, the versatile forward who left for Denver in free agency and essentially would be the man Batum is replacing, was valued for his versatility. Batum doesn’t have Green’s ruggedness to hang defensively with centers. (Offensively, Green was also a superior three-point shooter in recent seasons.) Still, Batum’s 7-foot wingspan allows him to defend multiple positions around the perimeter.

Whether his real impact is better or worse than his recent seasons in Charlotte remains to be seen — perhaps as soon as this week in a Clippers uniform.


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