The Curious Case Of Portland Trail Blazer Nicolas Batum’s Right Wrist

A lot of attention has been paid in the Portland media recently to Nicolas Batum’s aching right wrist. The focus has been on his lack of shot attempts — over the first 44 games of the season he averaged 16.2 points per game on 12.7 shots per game; in his four games since injuring the wrist, he’s averaging 7.5 points on 6.5 shots a night. Basically half the production on half the attempts.

Despite the injury, Batum is still playing the big minutes he’s played all season long. He’s averaged nearly 39 minutes per game this season and that hasn’t changed. In the last four games, he’s “nursed” his wrist by logging 38 minutes, 38 minutes, 35 minutes and 40 minutes.

The reason coach Terry Stotts has kept him on the floor is because Batum is such a complete player. He is still doling out the assists, still hauling in the rebounds, still disrupting opposing offenses with his versatility on defense. But because it pains Batum so much to shoot, he has lost a key weapon in his arsenal. Now, instead of being an all-around threat who can launch 3s, get to the bucket and generally do it all on offense, he’s forced into a poor man’s version of Rajon Rondo — a facilitator who can’t shoot. Only Rondo (when he was healthy, of course) is a much more effective playmaker than Batum will ever be.

If the Blazers hope to be a playoff team, they can’t have a player of Batum’s caliber on the floor waving a white flag every time he gets the ball beyond the 3-point line. In Wednesday night’s game against Dallas, Batum passed up several wide-open 3s because he can’t bear the pain of shooting them. Because this is a new phenomenon, when defenders scrambled to defend the shot, Batum put the ball on the floor, got by them and found the open man. If he continues to eschew open jumpers, defenders won’t need to close out on him aggressively. That will take away his ability to get past them and create open looks for his teammates.

In short, it will make him a much weaker threat on the offensive end of the floor.

That begs the question: Are the Blazers a better team with a hampered Batum on the floor or with a healthy Victor Claver or Luke Babbitt starting in his place?

I would like to answer my own question with a question of my own: Is it worth risking a serious injury to a franchise building block to fight tooth-and-nail for the 8 seed in the Western Conference?

The answer to that, of course, is a resounding “No.”

The best course of action for the Blazers going forward is to rest Batum. Allowing him to take a couple weeks off to rest his wrist is the right move for Portland. If the Blazers struggle to a bunch of losses with Batum watching in a French tailored suit, that isn’t the worst thing in the world. It would keep one of their three best players from risking further damage to his wrist while simultaneously removing an ineffective offensive player from the lineup.

Putting his underperforming offense behind the bench weakens the team on defense, where Batum has not fallen off whatsoever with the injury. At the same time, it could provide an opportunity for Babbitt to improve his game and become more than just a 3-point shooter. That could go a long way toward determining if the Blazers keep him long-term.

Also – and perhaps more importantly – it helps Portland prepare for the future. This year’s Blazers team will under no circumstances win a playoff series. Entering the offseason with an All-Star, two future All-Stars in Batum and Damian Lillard, and a lottery pick is a better option than finishing the season with a banged-up Batum and a battered ego from getting swept in the first round.

Kyle Boggs is on Twitter. Follow him at @KyleKBoggs

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