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January 11, 2012, 02:07 PM ET
Batum Issue Lingers for Blazers

by Kevin Pelton

PORTLAND - Tuesday’s matchup between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Portland Trail Blazers at the Rose Garden highlighted a crucial distinction between the two teams: the Blazers are a team in the truest sense of the word, while the Clippers are at this point still a collection of talent.

That’s not meant in quite as pejorative fashion as it might sound. I don’t question the Clippers’ willingness or even ability to work together. It’s just that the pieces don’t quite all fit yet. The lack of size coming off the bench up front is a key reason the Clippers have struggled defensively thus far, and their small backcourt has a tough time against teams like Portland with size at guard. Beyond that, the Clippers simply need more to jell.

By contrast, the Blazers look like they’ve been playing together for years despite integrating a new point guard and three reserves who are part of the rotation. In part, that shows the difference between adding pieces to meet specific needs and revamping an entire starting lineup. Portland’s newcomers have been able to fit in around a core that has playoff experience together. It’s also a credit to the veteran presence of players like Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford and Kurt Thomas.

There’s a threat coming to the Blazers’ balanced mix, however, and it’s the impending free agency of forwards Gerald Wallace and Nicolas Batum. Having two starting-quality small forwards has made for an uneven situation, especially given Wallace’s well-founded reticence to play the four on a regular basis.

Starting at small forward, Wallace has thrived. His energy and ability to get out in transition have been at least as key to Nate McMillan’s newfound up-tempo attack as the addition of Felton, and Portland even ran its offense through Wallace during the first quarter Tuesday night. He hasn’t been the Blazers’ best player–that title still belongs to LaMarcus Aldridge–but nobody on the team has been more important this season. Portland is outscoring opponents by a remarkable 11.4 points per 100 possession with Wallace on the floor, per BasketballValue.com. And the pair of off nights Wallace has had this season match up perfectly with the Blazers’ two losses.

Wallace, who can opt out of his contract at season’s end, is already talking about sticking around for the long term. Because a possible extension would be limited to two years, it makes more sense for Wallace to become a free agent and re-sign with the team, but sources close to him told The Oregonian’s Jason Quick that Wallace is open to retiring in Portland.

The problem is Batum will also be a (restricted) free agent next summer, assuming he and the team are unable to agree on an extension by the Jan. 25 deadline for players in the last season of their rookie contracts. Before last night’s game, Batum told Dwight Jaynes on Comcast SportsNet that playing time is the most important factor in his decision. He then proceeded to get just 16 minutes of playing time against the Clippers despite a solid outing.

Cutting Wallace’s minutes noticeably doesn’t make sense, but McMillan would be wise to get Batum more run while resting his starters a little more. Last night, the Blazers’ entire starting lineup was on the floor with 8:34 left in a seven-point game. With Portland’s lead in little imminent jeopardy, McMillan could easily have gone with reserves Batum and Crawford somewhat longer.

The other wild card here is that Batum is capable of playing more shooting guard than he has this season. Crawford’s presence makes that slightly trickier, but Wesley Matthews is playing 33.1 minutes a night–as many as Wallace. Dropping that number even to 30 a game could help McMillan find more minutes for Batum off the bench. This isn’t just a matter of keeping Batum happy; he’s a starting-caliber player who needs to be on the floor, especially during a season where resting starters is more crucial than ever before.

You can contact Kevin at kpelton@basketballprospectus.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton.

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