Why Charlotte was the only choice for Nicolas Batum

Nicolas Batum embraced a bigger role with Charlotte. (Getty Images)
Nicolas Batum embraced a bigger role with Charlotte. (Getty Images)

Once Nicolas Batum left his free-agent meeting with the Charlotte Hornets in the early hours of July 1, one of his summer teammates phoned him. San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker is one of Batum’s oldest friends in the NBA and a teammate on the French national team, and he called Batum after his $120 million contract was made public.

“Just know, in 10 years, a young guy might make two times more than you,” Batum said Parker told him.

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Batum laughs because there is minimal trash talk between him and Parker, and Batum’s five-year deal with Charlotte had the elder French star offering reminders and support.

Neither Batum and his reps nor Charlotte held any secret agendas in their free-agent negotiating positions, with firm declarations throughout: The Hornets would delve into their financial resources for Batum, and he wanted to return.

Weeks before free agency, several organizations explored Batum’s availability, including Dallas and New York. The Mavericks were anticipating the departure of Chandler Parsons, and the Knicks envisioned pairing Batum with Joakim Noah as free-agent additions to the starting lineup.

Charlotte acquired Batum in a draft-night deal with Portland in 2015, and he slowly cultivated a passion for the city, for the nucleus of Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and coach Steve Clifford. For Batum, there was no need to move; no need to challenge himself to accept significantly less money and adapt to the ball usages of Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony.

Coach Steve Clifford and Batum have the Hornets pointed in a positive direction. (Getty Images)
Coach Steve Clifford and Batum have the Hornets pointed in a positive direction. (Getty Images)

“When I got traded to Charlotte last year, I knew that I had a chance for a bigger role,” Batum told The Vertical. “In my last couple years with the Blazers, [coach] Terry Stotts let me play my game and we had two All-Stars in Dame [Lillard] and LaMarcus [Aldridge]. I tried to play my certain role there, but when I got traded to Charlotte the coaches told me: ‘We need you to do more now.’ I expanded my game and I’ve loved the coaches, the city, the organization, the teammates.

“There were options with other teams and different scenarios. But I tried to look at what suited me best, and look at this franchise long term. Having Kemba under contract, having MKG under contract, having Frank [Kaminsky] under contract, having Coach Clifford under contract, we have the same core.

“Me personally, I won’t change my game. I got paid because I play a certain way, and especially with this team.”

That core has been molded under Clifford, and the situation allowed the Hornets to keep Batum without much threat. Charlotte was 48-34 last season but is focused on improving. The Hornets understood the likelihood of losing Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee, and general manager Rich Cho retooled the roster around the re-signing of Batum and Marvin Williams. Charlotte added Marco Belinelli, Roy Hibbert and Brian Roberts, and plucked Philadelphia’s summer league star, Christian Wood, on a minimum deal.

“For us, it spoke a lot to our organization, our ownership and our coaching staff that Nic really felt comfortable in Charlotte,” Cho told The Vertical. “It’s important to retain your top free agents, and going into free agency, Nic was our biggest priority along with Marvin. We made it clear Nic was the No. 1 priority, and he made it clear that he wanted to be here. We were thrilled to work through the night and get that deal done.”

Batum’s skills as a reliable, all-around threat have been a luxury for his past two coaches. He shared ball-handling duties with Lillard and provided perimeter and inside scoring with Aldridge and Wesley Matthews with what appeared to be a blossoming roster under Stotts.

“When I re-signed with the Blazers in 2012, the first day of training camp, I knew Dame was going to be special,” Batum said. “He was going to be the franchise one day, and now he is.”

Looking back on his seven seasons with the Blazers, a singular moment scripted the end of their core: Matthews’ Achilles injury one month before the 2015 postseason. After that it all changed. Batum was dealt, Aldridge left for the San Antonio Spurs in free agency, and C.J. McCollum surged to boost Portland’s future.

“Portland was a great situation for me, because we were winning and everyone was together when we were,” Batum said. “I never thought about this bigger role. I loved my role, being the glue and creating for everyone. I love creating for others. We had Dame, LaMarcus, Wes. We had a great run together. When Wes went down the Achilles injury, it changed everything. That was the end for our group.”

These Hornets have reset his mind now. The challenge looms for the franchise to rise in the Eastern Conference, for internal development to mesh with offseason acquisitions. Charlotte had committed to its most expensive financial deal to retain Batum, and within that meeting, the goals were clear on both sides. For Batum, the message was clear.

“I know I have to be more aggressive for sure,” Batum said, “but I have a role and a style of play that I won’t ever change. Now as a team, we have to keep growing.”

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