Batum goes the dynamite

Nicolas Batum, in year one of his new contract, will look to lead the Hornets to the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

Jerome Miron—USA TODAY Sports
Dallas Mavericks guard Wesley Matthews (23) drives to the basket past Charlotte Hornets guard Nicolas Batum (5) during the first quarter at the American Airlines Center in Dallas

In the early hours of NBA free agency, back on July 1, the Charlotte Hornets made the marquee signing of the offseason’s first day: inking small forward Nicolas Batum to a five-year, $120 million deal. It may seem kind of crazy, considering the dollar amount, but this was a below market value contract in the first offseason of the league’s new television deal, which created an abundance of cap space ($94.1 million per team). Batum could’ve asked for an additional $32 million, which would’ve been the full max. However, Batum was exiting the best season of his career, and really enjoyed his time in Charlotte playing for the Hornets under coach Steve Clifford.With all of that added money, though, comes an increase in expected performance. Charlotte just made Batum one of the richest men in the NBA (he has a top 30 salary this season). Is he ready to give the Hornets return on their investment? If last season is any indication, the answer is yes.The French ConnectionDuring the 2015-16 season, Batum led the Hornets assist percentage. When he was on the floor, Batum assisted on 26.9 percent of his teammates made field goals — a number that’s comparable with former All-Star point guard Derrick Rose (25.5 percent). Batum finished tied for 20th in the NBA in assists per game (5.8), and was one of only three forwards — along with Draymond Green and LeBron James — to hit this benchmark. He’s somewhat turnover prone, but Batum’s an elite playmaker, who can run an offense, and set up his teammates. Charlotte’s true shooting percentage, which weighs three point and free throw accuracy into its equation, dropped 3.1 percent when Batum hit the bench last season, according to the league’s player tracking data.Batum, who was one of a dozen players to record multiple triple-doubles last season, displayed fantastic chemistry with Kemba Walker, the franchise’s point guard. For Walker, it’s no coincidence that in his first season of playing alongside a secondary creator he had by far the best shooting performance of his career: 42.7 percent from the field — 37.1 percent from beyond the arc and 55.4 true shooting percentage.Charlotte’s offense wasn’t solely reliant upon Kemba to create everything. He could move off of the ball, and hunt spot-up jumpers. He shot 43.2 percent on catch-and-shoot threes in 2015-16, which ranked 12th in the NBA. His shooting percentage on 3-pointers increased when he received the ball from Batum. According to the NBA’s tracking data: Walker shot 43.8 from deep when Batum was the passer. He also made a career-high 182 threes last season, and Batum assisted on 57 of those buckets — more than anyone else on the team.The chemistry cut both ways, too. Batum shot a solid 34.8 percent from beyond the arc, but that number rose to 37.3 percent when Kemba was the passer. Batum and Walker played 1,970 minutes together a season ago — the second most of any two-man pairing on the team — and in that time Charlotte was 5.2 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents. The Cleveland Cavaliers, champions of the league a season ago, had a team net rating of plus-5.8 points per 100 possessions.Now with Jeremy Lin gone to Brooklyn, they’ll need Batum’s scoring (14.9 points), passing and creation skills more than ever before. This is what the Hornets paid for.A swarming defenseThe Hornets ranked ninth in the NBA last season in offensive efficiency (105.1 point per 100 possessions). Without Lin, Courtney Lee and Al Jefferson, though, they’re a candidate to regress on that side of the court, which means they’ll need to rely heavily upon their defense. Fortunately, Clifford is a wizard when it comes to designing a top 10 defense, and Charlotte also happens to have a roster with several plus-defenders, including Batum.The Frenchmen isn’t exactly a stopper, but he’s 6-8, long and aggressive on that end of the floor. He’s a fantastic two-way player. After missing 75 games last season due to a shoulder injury, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is back, and that’s good news for the Hornets. He isn’t the shooter that the now-departed Lee is, but MKG is one of the best perimeter defender in the league — up there with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Batum and MKG could pair as perhaps the best defensive wing duo in the NBA. Their defensive prowess will allow Clifford to stash Kemba on the weakest perimeter option their opponents trot out, while Batum and MKG wreck havoc elsewhere.On defense, the NBA is all about being about to switch. The more guys on the floor you can have that are able to check multiple positions, the better. This is what Cleveland used to thwart the Golden State Warriors in the Finals in June. It’s not easy to attain, either, but with Batum, MKG and Marvin Williams at power forward, Charlotte has three good defender who are all similar in size — all three players are between 6-7 and 6-9. They’re athletic and good communicators, which could make them a menace to game plan around once this season gets going.What’s next on the docket?Some concerns exist that Batum’s performance with decline after receiving a lavish contract. But he’s a serious competitor, who has found a home and a role suiting of his talents in Charlotte. He’s still just 27 years old, and it was important that the Hornets re-signed their first major unrestricted free agent of the Rich Cho Era, especially after dealing 2014 first round pick to Noah Vonleh to Portland (along with Gerald Henderson) in exchange for the ubiquitous Batum.Aside from Kemba Walker staying healthy, the second most important piece for Charlotte to return to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2002, is Batum playing to the best of his abilities