Two of the league’s biggest championship contenders, Portland and Indiana, rely on a couple of unselfish, versatile swingmen to make shots, get stops and every once in a while, throw up one of those games that scream future star. Lance Stephenson might be the NBA’s most improved player this year, upping his numbers to 13.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and a league-leading three triple-doubles, and in the process revealing Danny Granger as expendable. Nicolas Batum might be fantasy basketball’s most underrated player, stuffing the box score — once again — this season to the tune of 13.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.1 three-pointers per game.
Both will play big roles in the playoffs, potentially guarding against the likes of LeBron and Kevin Durant, and if all goes according to plan, next summer we could see Indiana’s 6-5 two-guard draw Batum-type money. However, today, we’re arguing who’s better, right now. Lance or Nic? We argue. You decide.
*** *** ***
The Portland Trail Blazers are enjoying their most promising start to a season this decade. Obviously Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge are the two key cogs but what about Nicolas Batum? Batum has been great out of the gate for the Blazers and is definitely the third-best player on a team looking to contend. I’m going to give you five reasons why, if you’re starting from the ground up, Batum is a better basketball player than Lance Stephenson. Batum isn’t in the elite group of small forwards but he is in that next tier with guys like Andre Iguodala, Chandler Parsons and Rudy Gay.
The first argument in favour of Batum over Stephenson is sample size. Batum came into his own two-to-three seasons ago. He upped his play last season and has matched that output this season, helping the Blazers to one of the league’s best records. Although Stephenson is now averaging almost identical minutes, points, assists and rebounds, would you rather have the guy who’s got it done for 30 games, or three seasons?
The second reason you take Batum is efficiency in close games. Neither Batum or Stephenson are their team’s first option or even second option on offense. So when you’re talking about the team’s third-best player, you want them to be able to step up and contribute when games are close and the lineup needs that extra push. Although they shoot identical percentages at the three-point line, Batum is the more lethal deep threat. Why? Because Batum is taking over two more attempts a game. Batum is shooting 5.7 three pointers a game whilst Stephenson only shoots 3.1. If you need someone to step in and be the volume outside scorer wouldn’t you rather have the guy who more commonly attempts those shots? Combine that with the fact that Batum shoots nearly 12 percent better from the free throw line and you get a clear picture of who you’d rather have in the late game situations. There’s a reason Batum owns a 60 percent true shooting percentage and Stephenson’s is only 56.
The third reason is maturity. Although Stephenson gains some steam from his “loose cannon” reputation, his outbursts have costed his team. In the previous two seasons, Stephenson has 11 technicals. Batum has zero technicals this season and three total in his six-year career. To put that in perspective, Stephenson’s five technicals this season tie him for fifth most on the year.
The fourth reason: defense. As part of his reputation as a team enforcer, Stephenson is often considered a very good defender. The advanced metrics tell me Batum is better. According to Synergy Sports, Batum allows .8 points per possession, or “ppp”, which ranks him 78th in the NBA. Stephenson allows .85 ppp, and although it may not seem like a big difference, that .85 ranks him 143rd in the league. Add in the fact that Batum is roughly three inches taller, with a larger wing span, and you see how Batum can better keep his man under locks.
The fifth reason is position versatility. Batum has the quickness and size to guard the league’s best wings regardless of position. Batum is Portland’s best perimeter defender, whereas Stephenson yields to Paul George in that regard. It’s impressive that, despite guarding the more difficult opponent on a regular basis, Batum has the better defensive metrics.
How many good shooting guards are even in the NBA right now? There’s Dwyane Wade, who misses what seems like every fourth game due to rest. There’s Kobe, who played six games, and James Harden. Batum has the ability to guard four of the league’s top 20 players (LeBron, Durant, George and ‘Melo.) In a league where superstars define the league, having your third-best player defensively be able to slow them down is a big bonus.