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Why Nicolas Batum is a perfect role player for the Sixers

Though most Sixers fans have talked about the draft picks the team got in return for James Harden, Nicolas Batum can help this team achieve its goals on both ends of the floor.

Los Angeles Clippers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

In terms of what the Philadelphia 76ers received from the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for James Harden, P.J. Tucker and Filip Petrusev, Nicolas Batum was not the centerpiece. Rather, that would be the two first-round picks — a 2028 unprotected Clippers’ first, and a 2026 first that will have originally belonged to one of the Rockets, Thunder or Clippers.

Heck, the French forward isn’t even the most talked about player the Sixers got in return for Harden. For good reason, most fans have focused on the return of Robert Covington, one of the most prominent success stories of The Process. Daryl Morey has been lauded for his ability to maintain future flexibility with the deal he struck, and most understandably believe the trade was accepted by the Sixers in hope of trading for a different star down the line. To most, it’s secondary that the Sixers got back guys like Covington, K.J. Martin and Marcus Morris Sr.

But believe me when I say this — Philadelphia got back a damn good basketball player in Nic Batum, and he’s capable of immediately helping this contending team.

Batum was highly regarded around the NBA in 2015, having completed seven successful seasons in Portland as a starter for the Blazers. He then signed a five-year, $120 million deal with Charlotte that did not work out as well as either side wanted. He was pretty much cast off at the end of the 2020 season, only to join the Clippers in 2021 and immediately reinvent himself as one of the league’s best role players after “failing” as a star.

He fit in perfectly with the switch-everything identity in LAC, and his versatile defense will be instrumental for Philly moving forward. Batum isn’t the world’s quickest defender, but he moves faster than you think.

Most might assume Batum is only versatile in guarding up given his size (6-foot-8, 230 pounds), and that as he approaches his 35th birthday, defending down might not be in his wheelhouse. But matter of fact, he’s fairly comfortable defending smaller, quicker players, and it’s something the Clippers trusted him to do, often with great success.

Batum has what some might call “functional length.” He was measured with a 7-foot-1 wingspan all the way back at the 2008 NBA Draft combine, and he defends knowing that he can recover and disrupt shots with those long arms of his, even if smaller guards like Jordan Clarkson, Anfernee Simons or whoever get a half-step in front of him.

He can also address a long running weak spot for the Sixers — secondary rim protection.

The team’s defense has always started and ended with Joel Embiid staying near the rim and scaring opponents into inefficient floaters. But it was always so much to ask of the big man with the forwards and wings around him incapable of rotating over to protect the basket. Tobias Harris has never been much of a shot-blocker. Ditto for Tucker. George Niang, beloved as he was, couldn’t jump over a credit card. It’s why Jalen McDaniels still had a tiny bit of value even with his offense in the dumps. A forward who can affect an opposing layup or two each game has value.

The shot-blocking numbers for Batum aren’t world breaking (1.3, 1.4 and 1.0 blocks per 100 possessions during his three seasons in Los Angeles), but with Embiid on the court they don’t need to be. He just needs to be capable of splash plays, where he takes points off the board with a perfectly timed contest off a genius rotation.

OF NOTE: Batum has only played 54 total minutes this season, meaning the sample size is in no way scalable to a larger load, but through three games with the Clippers in 2023-24, he was averaging a career-best 3.5 blocks per 100 possessions thanks to a dominant defensive performance vs Utah.

Again, Batum is not the league’s most explosive leaper. But he’s so well aware of his talents and how to use those vines attached to his shoulders. He doesn’t miss rotations, and when he jumps with an opposing player, he often attacks the ball right at the release point. His hand accuracy on shot blocks is pristine, even though it’s a detail most basketball players never even think about.

None of this has even touched on Batum’s offense, which earlier on in his now 16-season long NBA career was his main selling point. The scoring for the Frenchman has fallen off a cliff (he averaged 6.1 points per game a season ago, and was averaging just 2.7 points per game to start this campaign with LAC), but he’s become an expert at playing off of primary advantage creators.

Specifically, there might not be a better pure passer on the team than Batum. He doesn’t miss swing passes, and he should pair great on offense next to Embiid and Tyrese Maxey, who will draw defenders in, and create passing windows on the perimeter that Batum can capitalize on.

There’s really only one area of concern I hold for Batum on the court — his shooting.

For his career, he’s shot 36.5% from behind the arc, and he’s made 1,591 triples in his career. He was a dismal three-point marksman in Charlotte, shooting just 34.8% from three during his five seasons with the Hornets, but once again rehabilitated that part of his game when given a better context in Los Angeles.

In 207 regular season games with the Clippers, Batum shot 39.7% from three on 4.2 attempts per game. More importantly, he’s averaged 9.0, 9.1 and 6.2 three-point attempts per 100 possessions during the past three seasons, which outdoes the volume numbers of the connective forward he’s replacing in Philadelphia — P.J. Tucker.

The Tuckwagon hasn’t shot threes at the same per possession rate as Batum since his time with the Harden-era Rockets, a team that broke new ground on just how many threes could be attempted per game in an NBA setting. Aside from that, Tucker attempted 3.6 threes per 100 possessions during the 2022-23 season, and the Sixers’ offense suffered from his hesitancy, as teams just stopped defending him entirely.

That won’t happen with Batum.

Watch him pull the quick trigger on all these threes from the corner, remember all the times Tucker pump faked out of open corner threes, and realize how much better spacing he’s going to provide for Maxey, Embiid and the rest.

Also keep in mind the shooting form with Batum. He doesn’t have Tucker’s awkward, low-setting release perched atop his right shoulder. Batum can hold the ball at or above his head and fire quickly, and with that high release at 6-foot-8, he can get threes off over almost any defender.

I won’t rule out a Josh Richardson-style situation where Batum immediately loses the ability to shoot once he dons a Sixers’ uniform for the first time. It’s happened far too often in Philly to be ruled out entirely. But as long as he doesn’t stop shooting like Tucker did, and hovers around that career average of 36.5% from three, he’ll provide the Sixers with great spacing and connective decision making on the perimeter.

Batum was officially listed as out. In August, his wife said on X/Twitter that he planned to have 2023-24 be his final season in the NBA, and that he would retire after one final campaign with the Clippers.

Obviously, he’s not with the Clippers anymore, and it’s probably hard for him to deal with moving from one coast to another after finding a team and a fanbase that loved him so late in his career. But on the outside, it appears like he’s just taking time to adjust, and has the intention of bringing this team closer to its goals.

“It’s a great group. Got great players, got the MVP as well,” Batum said on Wednesday. “We are four great players, me and the three other guys, so it’s gonna be pretty easy to fit in. We got a great coaching staff, we know Nick Nurse has had great success in the past. This team has had great success. It will be pretty easy.”

If he plays like he has in the past few years, the fans here will embrace him quickly, as he is a role player perfectly equipped for bringing Embiid and the rest closer to the playoff success that they so desperately crave.

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