I've written all season about how new coach Terry Stotts is riding his starting five into the ground, noting that it could catch up with the Blazers before season's end.
It's starting to.
Batum injured his wrist in practice in the middle of January, and by the end of the month, it was painful enough and affecting his play to the point that team doctors ordered an MRI, which came back negative.
It's the wrong wrist for the right-handed Batum, who has been shying away from taking shots because of the pain and who spends good chunks of court time grimacing these days.
While Portland's do-it-all forward has altered his play lately to account for the pain -- he attempted a measly four shots in Monday's 100-98 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves -- the one thing that hasn't changed is his playing time.
Batum was third in the league in minutes played going into Tuesday's games with his average of 38.8. He's one of three Blazers in the top 10 in that category -- rookie point guard Damian Lillard and All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge also average more than 38 minutes a game. Wesley Matthews isn't too far behind, at 35.5.
It's tough to complain too much about all the work the starters are getting when the Blazers are 25-23 and eyeing a potential playoff spot. But playing guys who are clearly injured and in pain -- and whose production is suffering because of it -- doesn't make much sense, regardless of how short Portland is on depth.
Batum had his MRI on Jan. 31, according to reports. That was two days after he played 40 minutes, 18 seconds and went 4-for-14 from the field in a 106-104 win over the Dallas Mavericks. In the three games since, Batum's grimaces have become more frequent and his shot attempts fewer. He shot just seven field goals each in back-to-back games against the Utah Jazz on Feb. 1-2 -- the Blazers lost the first 86-77 and won the second 105-99 -- while playing more than 38 minutes each night, then went just 2-for-4 with three rebounds and a whopping seven turnovers in 35-plus minutes against the Timberwolves.
To be fair, Batum is prone to the occasional whopper in the turnover column; on Jan. 16, he had nine of 'em against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and he's coughed up seven two other times this season. Also to be fair, he finished one assist shy of a triple-double in that win over the Jazz on Saturday, though his statistical production fell off quite a bit as the game rolled on, the pain in his wrist becoming more and more evident.
Monday's game against the Timberwolves might have been the most glaring example yet, though, of the fact that Batum is hurting and should be sitting and resting that wrist. The four field-goal attempts were a season low, one of just eight times he's shot fewer than 10 field goals this season. Five of those eight have come since he hurt his wrist on Jan. 19.
Batum has admitted recently that the wrist pain is leading him to shy away from shooting the ball, telling reporters after Monday's win over Minnesota that "I didn't really want to shoot it," when asked about a wide-open 3-point attempt on which he hesitated before eventually shooting and missing.
Batum also said "I have to fight through it, I have to play through it. Especially with the next two or three games we have coming up. I can't really miss games. I have to keep playing."
I disagree, although you have to admire his willingness to tough out an obviously painful injury.
Thing is, if Batum continues going like he has been -- hesitant to shoot, averaging just 7.8 points over his past five games -- he's not quite as valuable to the team, is he? Without Batum as a scoring threat, defenses can afford to sag off him a bit and key, instead, on Lillard, Aldridge and Matthews.
The time has come for Stotts to turn to his bench and give Batum a break. It might not take much -- a game or two, maybe, then he'll get a solid five days of rest over the All-Star break. But Stotts and the Blazers have to think long-term here. Doctors might have cleared Batum to play, and it might be true that he won't injured the wrist any further, but the last thing the Blazers need is a lingering injury that affects one of their top players for the remainder of the season.
Portland's bench guys are mostly young, and it's true that they might not be ready. They might not be up to the task yet of filling in, even somewhat, for a guy like Nicolas Batum.
But if Stotts doesn't play them, they never will be.
Adam Sparks has followed the Portland Trail Blazers since the early 1980s, and has written about the team as a freelancer since 2009.