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Nicolas Batum’s story of redemption aligns with that of the Clippers

Clippers forward Nicolas Batum makes a pass as he's pressured by Washington's Deni Avdija and Raul Neto.
Clippers forward Nicolas Batum makes a pass as he’s pressured by Washington’s Deni Avdija (9) and Raul Neto on Thursday.
(Nick Wass / Associated Press)

Waived by Charlotte last November, Nicolas Batum wondered what was next.

He believed he was closer to the version of himself who had once helped elevate All-Stars, not the 6-foot-8 forward made dispensable after career-low productivity in his 12th NBA season.

Batum believed in himself. Waiting by the phone, he just didn’t know who else agreed.

“I came from being released and don’t know what to do, to choosing between five or six contenders,” Batum said. “In an hour. After 18 months of not playing.”

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The first call came from Rudy Gobert, his French compatriot and the Utah Jazz center, who implored his friend to “come with me; let’s do it together.”

But Gobert had competition. Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Toronto also called, among other suitors. The Clippers wanted Batum badly enough to set up a de facto phone bank: Batum heard from coach Tyronn Lue, team president Lawrence Frank, and stars Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Their vision for his passing, shooting and defense aligned with his own. It wasn’t the only pull.

Luke Kennard’s big game against the Washington Wizards on Thursday showcased much of the skill set that initially made him attractive to the Clippers.

“We had the common story from last year,” Batum said. “My story is their story.

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“What happened to them last year is what happened to me last year. I think it’s pretty similar: People are expecting stuff from us and things didn’t work out. So I was like, why not go with that team and make sure we both redeem ourselves?”

Hope of redemption remains a goal with no guarantee at the season’s halfway mark for the Clippers. After losing four of their last five games before the break, the Clippers (24-14) are fourth in the Western Conference; in the last decade, the lowest an eventual champion has sat in the standings at the All-Star break is second.

Those who remain bullish on the Clippers point out only 1½ games separate fourth place from second, that a season played amid a pandemic will remain unpredictable, and that the Clippers have hovered among the NBA’s best in net ratings all season. There is also the thought that this roster might be better suited to weather ups and downs and gain strength as the postseason nears because of the steps taken after last season fell apart.

Two such moves were the offseason signings of Batum and Serge Ibaka, both locker-room stabilizers and veterans.

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During training camp it was Ibaka, a starting center who won a title with Leonard in Toronto, who told Leonard “leaders need not only to come on the court and score 30 points. You have to show the team, your teammates, like you’re willing to give everything for them. You’re here to win a championship and you really want to win a championship and we all gonna follow you.’”

A month later, Ibaka said that Leonard had “really learned from last year.”

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So has Batum. After shooting 28% on three-pointers and 43% inside the arc last season, Batum has made 43% from deep — a career high should it continue — and 54% inside the arc. The NBA has not awarded a comeback player honor since 1986, but Batum’s resurgence fits in the criteria for a worthy candidacy. Teammates say he keeps to himself. Others were amazed when he arrived at Staples Center in January to play only hours after the birth of his daughter, still wearing a hospital tag around his wrist.

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George called him “the ultimate glue guy that just kind of keeps everything together for us.” Batum, in turn, calls the season a joy.

As he sat the final 19 games of his fifth and final season in Charlotte, with his minutes allotted to the Hornets’ younger players as part of the team’s pivot toward the future, Batum still arrived hours early on practice days and didn’t want to be disruptive, he told the Charlotte Observer one year ago. With an apology to fans, he acknowledged underperforming during his five-year, $120-million contract.

“They put so much faith in me, and it didn’t go well,” he said.

After the Clippers called — and called, and called — in November, Batum held faith he didn’t need to change his game to fit in with his fresh start. Since he was in grade school in France, he was taught to elevate teammates with his play. After a teenaged Batum led a tournament in assists, “I fell in love with it, the extra pass.” He idolized the multifaceted gifts of Scottie Pippen — it’s why he wears No. 33 — and watched Boris Diaw and Andrei Kirilenko closely. He draws an analogy to soccer, where one scorer is set up by a series of moves, he said.

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He sensed a comfort with the Clippers, whose star duo of George and Leonard reminded him of the dynamic from his NBA start in Portland, playing off of fellow starters LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard.

“I knew I could join a team with talent like that and make sure to be the glue guy,” he said. “I’ve been like that since I’ve played my whole career, in different ways, but the base of my game has been doing that.

“One of the reasons why I chose the offer from the Clippers to be that for that team because I feel like maybe they missed guys like me or Serge like that last year. I don’t really care about what I’m doing on the court. I don’t come on the court like focused on what I can do numbers-wise. I just want to make sure the team, especially my two best players, but the team in general, are good to win the game.”

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Hearing directly from Leonard and George felt like validation that he had left a mark during matchups earlier in their careers.

“I wasn’t like the new Frenchie coming over for the first time,” he said. “They knew me.”

Batum slid into the starting lineup in December while projected starter Marcus Morris recovered from knee tendinitis. Batum fit so well that Morris, only weeks removed from signing a four-year, $64-million contract, agreed to return as a reserve so as to not disrupt the starters’ groove. Of the 46 lineups across all teams this season who have played at least 100 minutes together, the Clippers’ starters own the second-highest plus-minus rating. On their first day practicing together, backup center Ivica Zubac said the new forward was “one of the best basketball IQ players that I ever played with.”

The arc of Batum’s season has traced that of his team, whose red-hot start has leveled out. Batum scored in double figures 11 times in his first 21 games but just three times in his last 14. On Feb. 15, the Clippers were 21-8. Since, they’re 3-6.

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“He’s looking to accomplish the same thing that we all are,” guard Lou Williams said. “The great thing about this group is we are all like-minded in the goals that we have.”

The Clippers have half a season left to ramp up toward that goal. Batum wouldn’t have joined if he didn’t believe it was possible.

“I don’t think we ever really talk about what happened last year,” he said. “Just, why? It’s over, move on, focus on this year. Let’s win it.”


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