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May 23, 2024

Sixers stay or go: Is Nic Batum's NBA career over?

Rumors have long been swirling that 2023-24 would be Nic Batum's final NBA season. Will that come to fruition, or might he return to the Sixers next year?

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Batum 5.22.24 Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Nic Batum gave the Sixers a massive lift as a trusted two-way wing after being acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers in the James Harden trade last fall.

It's going to be an offseason like no other. Save for Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey and a few other depth players, the Sixers could totally overhaul their roster before the 2024-25 regular season.

With upwards of $60 million in cap space likely to be available, debates as to whether most of the roster should be brought back into the fold for next season and beyond — or not — will be debated for weeks. As the team contemplates major changes in personnel, we ponder the question, should Nic Batum stay or go?

Sixers 'Stay or Go' series

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Nic Batum | Kyle Lowry | Buddy HieldCam Payne

When Sixers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey finally dealt frustrated star guard James Harden to the Los Angeles Clippers a handful of games into the 2023-24 season — for a package centered around low-usage role players and draft picks — he was making a gamble in several respects. Morey was gambling on the team's ability to sign or trade for a player of Harden's caliber down the line. In the meantime, he was gambling on Embiid and Maxey being good enough to lead a team to the promised land. However, he was also gambling on the players he acquired — Nic Batum, Robert Covington, Marcus Morris Sr. and KJ Martin — in hopes that they could provide meaningful contributions.

It ultimately was a mixed bag: Covington gave the Sixers decent minutes at times, but suffered a serious bone bruise in his knee and never played a game after the calendar turned to 2024. Morris was better than expected, but ultimately was used as salary filler in the trade made to acquire Buddy Hield, who in turn disappointed for much of the remainder of the season. Martin showed flashes of potential during the regular season, but was mostly an innings eater of sorts rather than a relied-upon contributor.

Batum, it turned out, was the real prize of the trade package the Sixers received in return for Harden in terms of current on-court value. He became Sixers head coach Nick Nurse's most trusted and versatile defensive player — some nights he would defend point guards like Trae Young and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, other nights he matched up with big wings like LeBron James and Jayson Tatum, and even one game he defended the 7-foot-3 rookie phenom Victor Wembanyama.

Nurse raved about Batum's defensive chops and overall contributions to winning basketball at every possible turn throughout the regular season, and it only escalated once the postseason began. No Sixers fan will forget Batum's iconic two-way masterclass in the Play-In Tournament against the Miami Heat, when he uplifted Embiid and Maxey despite their own struggles that night and pushed the Sixers through a ghost of their past. In the team's final game of the season — a Game 6 loss at home to the New York Knicks in the first round — Batum was one of the primary catalysts of a major run that took the Sixers from down by 22 points before the end of the first quarter to a halftime lead. 

Bringing Batum back would be a no-brainer: he is a terrific fit alongside Embiid and Maxey, is the exact type of role player any hopeful championship contender should covet and would likely not command significant free agent offers. The only holdup, though, is that Batum may be calling it a career. While the loud rumors about his upcoming retirement have yet to be confirmed, many are of the belief that after representing his home country of France in the 2024 Paris Olympics, Batum will officially retire from professional basketball.

If the veteran forward who just finished his 16th season is indeed content hanging it up, he will have put together a marvelous career in which he will have made meaningful contributions for four different NBA franchises.

If Batum still has the itch to play NBA basketball next season, though, Morey should do everything in his power to bring him back into the fold, even if it is for one final campaign. 

Batum will turn 36 years old in December and is not a perfect player. He battled several injuries during his five-plus months with the Sixers. His inability to create shots for himself or others off the bounce hampered the team's offense at times during the playoffs (particularly when Kyle Lowry, who shared similar characteristics, was also on the court). 

But Batum provides so much good to a team with the Sixers' needs — especially as someone who will likely be signing for a deal near or at the veteran's minimum if he chooses to play another NBA season — that those concerns should not dissuade Morey and his front office from pursuing a reunion.

Batum is possibly the best post entry passer Embiid has ever shared the floor with outside of Harden: his ability to manipulate defenders and use complex angles to generate good looks for the 2022-23 NBA MVP is extremely valuable. He has made at least 39 percent of his three-point attempts in each of his last four seasons, making 39.8 percent of his triples during that period. And his aforementioned defensive versatility makes game-planning on that end of the floor so much easier for Nurse and his staff.

Batum, even at his age, could potentially be a viable fifth starter on a very good team next season if the remaining pieces within the unit are constructed properly. His optimal role is probably as a trusted bench piece who plays anywhere between 18-24 minutes per game, can slide into the starting lineup if a player is injured or struggling, but is not overexposed as a limited shot creator or overtaxed physically.

Because they have an All-Star duo as formidable as the tandem formed by Embiid and Maxey, the Sixers are in a fortunate position: while a player like that may not be suited for many teams, the Sixers can slot him into their rotation and feel great about what he brings. 

It remains to be seen if Batum has the desire to go through another grueling NBA season. If he does, the Sixers should do everything in their power to ensure he ends his career donning red, white and blue.

MORE: Sixers offseason FAQ: free agent breakdowns, cap space scenarios and more

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