Is Nicolas Batum What the Charlotte Hornets Need?
The craziest period on the NBA calendar is in full swing. We’re now a week past the conclusion of the Finals, and that means the rumors and transactions are zipping around at top speed.
On Wednesday night, one of the most active teams of the young offseason struck again. In one of three deals they’ve already pulled off this offseason, the Charlotte Hornets swapped out longtime swingman Gerald Henderson and young forward Noah Vonleh to the Portland Trail Blazers for versatile forward Nicolas Batum.
How does the trade weigh in for the two teams? Let’s break it down.
Batum should give the Hornets offense everything it thought it was getting in recently-traded swingman Lance Stephenson. While Batum had a rough year in 2015, struggling through injuries to post a nERD of 0.8, which means he would have been worth roughly one win above .500 as a starter for a league-average team, he gives Charlotte, in theory, the kind of player it needs to complement its offensive cornerstones.
While Batum can be a do-it-all forward, capable of handling the ball and setting up others, he’s as effective without the ball as he is with it. Only 35 percent of his field goals last year were unassisted, and that should play well off of a ball-dominant guard like Kemba Walker (career 25.6 percent usage rate) and post professor Al Jefferson (25.5), who soaks up possessions and draws double teams whenever he’s healthy.
The Hornets should now have some of the floor spacing they’ve sorely needed the last two years. Batum is coming off the worst three-point shooting year of his career, but he’s knocked them down at better than 36 percent since entering the league. Batum’s presence as an off-ball shooter and secondary ball handler should give Charlotte what it thought it was getting out of Lance last year, minus the over-dribbling and brick-laying. Toss in an assist rate better than 20 percent in each of the last three seasons for Batum and you can see the makings of a more modern NBA offense blooming in Charlotte.
Batum also gives Hornets coach Steve Clifford a defensive weapon in today’s pace-and-space league, as Batum, standing 6’8’’, has the ability to guard multiple positions. The Frenchman posted 3.2 Defensive Win Shares last year, which would have been just 0.2 behind Jefferson for the Hornets’ team lead.
Is Batum going to turn the Hornets into an Eastern Conference contender on his own? That’s unlikely. But there’s a lot of potential for him to bounce back to his previous offensive levels while giving the Hornets some of what they need to make it back to the playoffs.
This move smacks of a rebuild for the Blazers. Batum is set to make more than $12 million in the final year of his contract, while Henderson is slated to make half of that and Vonleh is on his rookie deal. With LaMarcus Aldridge hitting free agency, shedding a few million in salary could help give the Blazers some flexibility going forward, whether to resign their franchise cornernstone or retool after he leaves.
Henderson is a veteran who does a few things decently well but nothing at a real above-average level. He’s posted negative nERD ratings in each season since 2010, as well as Player Efficiency Ratings below the league average of 15 in every year of his career save for 2012-13. He’s gotten his three-point shooting up to around league average, knocking down 33.1 percent last year, but he doesn’t have Batum’s ball-handling or defensive abilities.
Henderson can be seen as a potential replacement for free agents Wesley Matthews and Arron Afflalo, but he’s a lesser version of both of those players. Portland has been a three-happy group the last few years, launching the third-most triples in the league last year while hitting on better than 36 percent of them. Henderson simply isn't going to help the Trail Blazers continue to play that way.
Vonleh is the more interesting player in this deal for Portland. He was a top-10 pick a year ago but spent most of last season bouncing between Charlotte and the D-League, unable to pick up the intricacies of NBA defense as a 19-year-old rookie. When he was drafted, he had the makings of a stretch power forward after hitting 48.5 percent of his threes in his only year at Indiana, and his 19.4 percent rebounding rate (total rebounds gathered while on the floor) had him projected as a very nice complement to Jefferson in Charlotte. If he’s spent the last year honing his outside shot while getting up to speed on defense, that could make him an intriguing player for the Blazers.
Is he a potential Aldridge replacement?
This trade could be the first move in a busy offseason for Portland, with so many core players hitting free agency. If the Blazers do hit the reset, they just landed a very recent lottery pick who is loaded with potential, along with a veteran presence capable of both starting and coming off the bench.