NICOLAS BATUM FELT the doubt creeping in.
He hadn’t played a minute of NBA basketball since Jan. 24, 2020, when the Charlotte Hornets decided to embrace a youth movement and send their 31-year-old, $120 million veteran permanently to the bench. That March, he publicly apologized to Hornets fans for not being able to live up to his massive contract. And when Charlotte held voluntary workouts in September after not participating in the Orlando bubble, Batum was told the focus of the minicamp was to develop the team’s young talent.
“Like, OK, I’m that bad?” Batum thought.
On Nov. 29, Batum would find out the answer in a matter of minutes. It was nearly nine o’clock at night when Batum’s wife, Lily, rushed into the living room as he and his son Ayden were putting toys away.
News broke on Twitter in the U.S. that the Hornets were planning to waive Batum and use the stretch provision to make room to sign Gordon Hayward. Not even 10 minutes after that intel had made its way across the Atlantic into the Batum family’s living room in Paris, Nico’s phone began blowing up.
The first call was from a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and longtime friend.
“I was trying to get him to come, to join our team, because I know his value,” Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert told ESPN. “A lot of people kind of criticized him for his last seasons with the Hornets. But we were both in Paris, so I’ve seen the way he worked on his body and got in shape before the season. I knew he was going to be able to impact the game pretty much like before.”
Shortly after that, Tony Parker’s name flashed across Batum’s phone.
After months of wondering if some were right about his NBA mortality, Batum had elite playoff contenders lining up to court his services.
“I’m like, ‘OK, maybe I’m not done yet,'” Batum said. “Because it’s only been 10 minutes [and people are calling]. And I haven’t played [good basketball] for 18 months.
“Ten minutes after I get released, I’m like, ‘OK … maybe … I got something … to do.'”
The Clippers believe that Batum will be one of the key ingredients missing from their championship recipe. It’s why stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, owner Steve Ballmer, head coach Tyronn Lue and front-office executive Lawrence Frank all called Batum as he was making his decision.
Last season, the LA Clippers were a favorite to win it all. The team welcomed the hype only to fall embarrassingly short. Personalities didn’t always mesh, leadership was lacking and the pandemic pause only exacerbated those problems.
Batum watched all that unfold from afar, calling the Clippers’ first game of the bubble restart as an analyst for a French livestreaming site. When he considered their pitch, he saw the right fit.
“What happened last year, when [the Clippers] got criticized a lot, things didn’t go the way people expected,” Batum said. “They’re figuring the same thing for me. I was like, ‘Why not?'”
“We have a common story,” Batum told ESPN. “With the Clippers, their story and my story are similar.”
Four months later, the French forward is settling into an integral role on the title-contending Clippers, who needed him just as much as he needed them.
IT HAD BEEN five weeks since the inconsistent Clippers won consecutive games and they were down by 21 during a late-March game against the Atlanta Hawks. With 6:29 left in the third quarter, a furious Lue sent a message to his team by subbing out his entire starting five.
Over the next 12 minutes, the Clippers subs cut the lead down to four before Leonard and George returned in the fourth to help pull out a stunning 119-110 win.
“The way that he kind of controlled what we were doing,” Kennard said. “Offensively, defensively, getting in the huddles, talking to us during the timeouts.
“Even though it might not show on the stat sheet, Nic Batum was our leader during that stretch.”
Batum didn’t score a point in the win, finishing with four rebounds and three assists in 23 minutes. Last season, when Batum was trying to live up to his enormous contract, such a game would have been disastrous.
“Oh, I’d be crucified,” Batum said.
While Batum doesn’t rack up big numbers in LA, he logs the third-most minutes, behind Leonard and George. He started in his first 37 games, but when Lue recently inserted Marcus Morris Sr. into the starting lineup to jump-start Morris’ game, Batum accepted a backup role.
“I thought that was probably the best signing of the entire offseason in the NBA,” said Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr.
He is averaging 8.4 points while shooting a career-high 42.3% from behind the arc. And he’s complementing Leonard and George by burying 54% of 3-point attempts off passes from the duo, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
“He almost never makes bad decisions,” Gobert said. “He’s a great playmaker. He’s a versatile defender. He’s really long and can fit into any system offensively and defensively. He’s knocking down the 3 very efficiently. He’s had an amazing impact for this Clippers team every night.
“Apparently, I need to be better [at recruiting].”
IT HAPPENS DURING every Clippers game when Batum and Serge Ibaka are on the floor.
Often during a free throw attempt, the two will look at each other and strategize aloud:
“Serge, là prochain, tu change de joueur, je roll et toi tu resort et tu tire.” — Serge, the next pick-and-roll, I’ll roll and you pop and shoot.
“On vas changer. On change sur le pick-and-roll.” — We’re going to switch. Let’s switch on the pick-and-roll.
“On va doubler, on va doubler! On va doubler ton gars.” — We’re going to double, we’re going to double! We’re going to double your guy.
“On va jouer deux! Deux! Deux!” — We are going two! Two! Two! (“Two” is the Clippers’ zone defense)
Some opponents have protested — “No, come on, you can’t do that!” — when Batum and Ibaka switch to French.
“We use it to our advantage,” Batum said. “We had to learn English in this country. So learn French.”
At times last season, the Clippers looked like they weren’t even speaking to one another when they melted down and blew a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets in the second round. This year, Batum and Ibaka are doing whatever they can to unlock the team’s elusive chemistry.
“Before even me and Nic got here, they did have a good team,” Ibaka told ESPN. “[But] we bring a little more salt and pepper. The food was cooked already. Just add a little extra salt and pepper.”
The real test for these Clippers is coming when the playoffs start next month. Batum will be asked to check elite shot creators, hit high-pressure 3s and calm his teammates in tough moments. One year after some were questioning his own NBA fate, Batum’s presence will be essential.
“He’s an unbelievable teammate,” George said. “This is a perfect team for him because he doesn’t have to shoulder a lot, he doesn’t have to do everything … He just fits right in.”
Last season, Batum and the Clippers didn’t meet expectations. Now both will try to write a new story together.
“I don’t know if I’m the missing piece to be honest,” Batum said. “But I got a chance to end up with a pretty good team, especially with what happened to me the last two years.”
“I just want to make sure we click as a team, on and off the court.”
ESPN’s Tim MacMahon contributed to this story.