One of my most fervent convictions this season has been that SF Nicolas Batum deserves to start every single game over Martel Webster.
Not only should Batum start, he should be playing at least 20 minutes a game and be present on the court during crunch time and overtime.
Although Webster played a phenomenal January and certainly has the potential to rack up points, Batum has been consistently one of the best, if not the best defender (and it is not even close between Webster and Batum) on the team.
Now, not only is Nicolas Batum playing superb defense guarding the best in the league, he is displaying an array of improved skills on offense. Batum's improved skills allowed him to go off the other night for 31 points, a career high for the man considered at one time to be a D-League lifer.
Although every injury to a Blazer this season has been devastating in one way or another, perhaps the most detrimental was the surgery to Batum's shoulder almost immediately before the season began. The implications of his absence were very clear, as Webster and all his incompleteness on defense was inserted into the starting role to pick up the slack for an absent Batum.
The team didn't suffer terribly, however there were many games I was left wondering "What if Nic was playing? [insert error] wouldn't have happened". Webster could not provide the same smothering, perimeter defense alongside LaMarcus Aldridge that Batum displayed so well the season prior. He could not read opposing offenses the way Batum could, and as a result Webster was often outplayed defensively almost every night.
It is not my goal to trash Martel Webster, rather to point out that his clear deficiencies on defense should be reason enough to give Batum the same minutes he played last season (at the very least) and his starting position immediately upon return from injury.
Of course, this did not happen. In what is becoming an irritating and costly habit, Nate McMillan waffled once again on whether to start or sit Nicolas Batum. Some nights Batum, perhaps the only player on the team beside Roy and Aldridge who actually "earn" their minutes, will play five minutes, while other nights he'll be awarded 30.
Those who argue to justify this fluctuation in Batum's playing time state McMillan plays Batum according to match—ups and asks Batum to play defense, because his offensive contributions are often regarded as secondary or even tertiary matters of importance.
To this, I wholeheartedly disagree. What Nicolas Batum has displayed over the last 17 games is that he is a reliable offensive threat (more so than Martel Webster), whose personal game has absolutely flourished with an increase in minutes, steady expectations and more definitive role on the team.
This season, Nicolas Batum is averaging 22 minutes a game, shooting 56 percent from the field, grabbing almost four rebounds and shooting a lights out 44 percent from the three—point line. In just his second year, Batum has tapped into his potential faster than any other of the Blazers' young rookies and sophomores. Even though he missed considerable time due to a shoulder surgery, his shot is very much improved.
In terms of his defensive efficiency, he's far and away the Blazers' best defender, whose individual defensive skills (length, lateral quickness and great awareness) work to make his teammates (Brandon Roy namely) better within the scheme of Nate's team defense.
The only other player that comes to mind who contributes defensively the way Batum does is Dante Cunningham. Batum has the skill defensively to legitimately guard any opposing one through four and he is consistently pitted against the opposing team's best player, instead of Brandon Roy having the assignment. This speaks volumes about the depth of skill on the defensive end Batum possesses.
To quantify his value to the team, I place Nicolas Batum at No. 3 behind Brandon Roy and Greg Oden. Yes, you read that correctly, I place him in front of LaMarcus Aldridge in terms of importance. I think Batum has the potential to be the Blazers' next All-Star ahead of Greg Oden and LaMarcus Aldridge.
If having a versatile, healthy and dominant seven—foot center was not so important to the Blazers' long term success, I would argue Nicolas Batum is second in long—term value and overall success, behind only Brandon Roy.
Sophia Brugato | Twitter: @sophiabiabia | s.brugato(at)gmail(dot)com