The Charlotte Hornets’ Nic Batum has some things he’d like to say, but they may not be exactly what you’d expect.
In an exclusive Observer interview Tuesday, Batum offered an apology for not playing up to the level of his massive contract. He also said he was determined not to be an “a--hole” about the fact he never plays anymore. He praised the Charlotte Hornets for their reliance on youth in this losing season, even though it has come at his expense.
“This franchise has got a bright future,” Batum said, “but I don’t think I’ll be part of it.”
Batum, 31, doesn’t mean he’s leaving anytime soon. The five-year, $120-million contract he signed in the summer of 2016 makes him virtually untradeable, and this year’s trade deadline has already passed. Batum’s contract — still the most lucrative in Charlotte pro sports history — doesn’t run out until after the 2020-21 season. And he knows he and the Hornets haven’t done nearly what everyone hoped for when he signed it.
“I apologize to the people here,” Batum said, “because they put so much faith in me. And it didn’t go well…. It didn’t work out. But what do I have to do? Because I’m still here.”
Batum has decided the best thing he can do is be the world’s most expensive cheerleader, trying to salvage this awkward situation.
It is truly awkward. Batum gets paid far more than any other Hornet. He’s healthy. And yet he didn’t play a single minute in February.
Hornets coach James Borrego, determined to commit to Charlotte’s core of young players, has benched Batum for 15 straight games entering Thursday night’s home contest against the Nuggets. The last time Batum played was Jan. 24th, when the Hornets (21-40) gave him 33 minutes. Not coincidentally, that game was in France — Batum’s home country. He walked off the court after that game, flew back to America and hasn’t played since.
Yet watch Batum on the bench. He applauds constantly. He stands up so often that the fans seated right behind him should get a partial refund. He has mediated enough officiating disputes between his teammates and the referees that he figures he has saved Hornets from getting a half-dozen technical fouls this year.
As for cheering his teammates as opposed to privately pouting, Batum said he’s not “mad” about the situation he finds himself in, but allowed that he is “frustrated.” Still, he said, he’s determined not to let that frustration bleed into his demeanor on a team where a number of younger players are watching to see how he will handle this.
“I don’t want to be an a--hole,” Batum told the Observer. “I don’t want to be selfish … I don’t want to be that guy who’s like, ‘OK, let’s go out tonight. Coach sucks. Don’t show up. You shoot 25 times a game; don’t listen to him.’ No. I won’t do that. I don’t need that. They don’t need that.”
A 6-foot-8 wing known for his versatility, Batum came to the Hornets in a trade with Portland for Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh in the summer of 2015. It seemed like a steal. Batum was exactly what Kemba Walker needed -- someone to take some of the playmaking pressure away. Batum said he wanted to make Kemba an NBA all-star, and he did. Several times over.
Batum could handle the ball and play point forward and throw a bounce pass between two defenders that hit a teammate in stride for a dunk. He averaged 14.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists that first season.
The Hornets loved Batum back then so much they gave him more money than they’ve ever paid anybody, during a perfect financial storm of that summer of 2016, when the NBA’s TV money spiked and teams were overpaying for players left and right.
If the Hornets hadn’t signed Batum for $120 million, multiple suitors were waiting at the door to pay him something similar. It’s easy to say now that Charlotte should have just let Batum walk, but at the time a lot of people (including me and, far more importantly, Hornets owner Michael Jordan and then-general manager Rich Cho) thought it was a good idea to keep him.
But after Batum signed that contract, it gradually became more about what he doesn’t do, rather than what he does. He’s paid like a superstar, but prefers to play the role of Best Supporting Actor. He doesn’t hunt his shot with enough ferocity. He doesn’t give you 25 points and 10 rebounds per game. His frequent passing can seem like passivity.
As my colleague Rick Bonnell once deftly wrote in a column: Batum is a glue guy, and it turns out that the Hornets vastly overpaid for glue.
Said Batum of the past several years as a whole: “I could do a better job, of course. And I regret that.”
$292,683 per game
Batum’s best season with the Hornets was that first one, in 2015-16. The Hornets went 48-34, made the playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s No. 6 seed and then stretched Miami to seven games in an NBA first-round playoff series before succumbing to some Dwyane Wade magic.
That summer, Batum took the $120 million Charlotte offered him, just like we all would have if the Hornets had offered it to us.
Since the day he signed that deal, the Hornets haven’t returned to the playoffs (this will be the fourth straight season they have missed the postseason). They have lost 57 percent of their games, as well as Walker, the best player in franchise history (to Boston). The coaching staff has turned over, as has most of the roster.
Batum counts himself as part of what he calls “the older era,” on a team where first- and second-year players are playing close to half the total minutes. He said he appreciated veteran players in Portland who showed him the ropes as an NBA teenager. He’s now trying to pay that forward with players such as Devonte Graham, Miles Bridges, P.J. Washington, Malik Monk and the Martin twins.
“They are a great group of young guys,” Batum said. “And if in the next year or two, they are a playoff team, I’ll be proud of them.”
Batum’s paycheck (he makes a staggering $292,683 per game over the contract’s lifetime, regardless of whether he plays) is far from the only reason for all this losing since 2016. But it is a convenient scapegoat. His fully guaranteed deal is routinely included in any snarky Internet list that includes the phrase “Worst NBA Contracts.”
It’s not your $292,683, of course, that Batum is collecting for all these DNP-CDs. It’s Jordan’s money, and he can afford it. Still, Batum understands the frustration Hornets fans have about him.
“I didn’t live up to expectations the last 2-3 years,” Batum said. “I understand that. I know that.”
After this season concludes, Batum will have one more in Charlotte. That assumes Batum picks up the player option (for $27.1 million!) for next season. He said he won’t think about such things until after this season is over, but it would be crazy for him not to take the money.
There’s also a possibility that next season in February, when Batum’s deal is only a couple of months from expiring, he might negotiate a buyout with the Hornets, get waived and join another team. That’s what Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did last month.
Batum said he won’t debate any of the financial stuff anytime soon.
“I don’t think about it now, because so much stuff going on with the team,” he said. “I don’t want to put stuff in people’s heads … Like I say, I don’t want to be an a--hole…. I’ve got to stay focused on these young guys until April 15th (when the Hornets’ season ends).”
As for Batum’s lack of playing time, he said that doubters have been non-believers in his basketball skills ever since he first was a pro as a teenager in France.
“When I was younger,” Batum said, “ wasn’t good enough to leave my hometown. And then I wasn’t good enough to play as a pro. And then I wasn’t good enough to get drafted. And then I wasn’t good enough to sign my first contract.”
For now, though, Batum understands that his haters are having the last word.
“Maybe this is the first time the doubters got it right about me,” Batum said. “They finally got it right about me, after 15 years.”