The 76ers’ biggest mistake in 2024 NBA free agency

When the final free agency rankings are released, it will be hard to imagine that the Philadelphia 76ers won’t be among the NBA’s beauties.

They landed the biggest free agent on the market in Paul George, giving the podcasting combo forward a four-year, $212 million max contract, filled out their roster with familiar faces like Kelly Oubre and Andre Drummond, and even took jabs at the Phoenix Suns and Miami Heat, stealing Eric Gordon and Caleb Martin on deals that were worth less per year than their player options for 2024-25.

And yet, while fans are excited about free agency, the draft (Jared McCain, Adem Bona and Justin Edwards all look like gamers) and the future, there is one player the 76ers will sorely miss heading into the fall as they still haven’t found a way to replace him: Nicholas Batum.

After initially landing in Philadelphia as part of the James Harden trade, Batum played some of the best games of his career for Nick Nurse last fall, establishing himself as a two-way contributor, a connective passer and an entry pass server — all the things a team wants around an all-world presence in the paint like Joel Embiid. He hit just under 40 percent of his 3s, grabbed 4.2 rebounds and played, and, despite a meager 5.5 points per game, was easily one of Philadelphia’s most important players, even if that wasn’t the expectation when he was acquired.

While it’s impossible to know how much Philadelphia offered the French forward in free agency – one has to imagine something similar to what Oubre got in the $8 million-a-year range – Batum ultimately decided to return to Los Angeles and his favorite coach Ty Lue, with whom he has a very special connection, on a two-year, $9.6 million deal.

Should Philadelphia have pushed harder for Batum? Yes, he really was a perfect fit alongside Embiid and would certainly be a top-eight player on this team even if they made the same changes. Considering his relationship with PG, who he played with in Los Angeles, Batum’s presence will certainly be missed this fall.

*sigh* Well, I guess there’s always the trade deadline, where Batum could be forced back to Philadelphia if the Clippers decide he’s not a core piece of their roster going forward.

Philadelphia 76ers forward Nicolas Batum (40) drives past Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo (13) during the fourth quarter of a 2024 NBA playoff playoff game at Wells Fargo Center.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

For Nicolas Batum, leaving the 76ers was personal

Speaking to reporters about his free agency as part of his media availability for the French Olympic team, Batum revealed that despite having interest from more than half of the Association, he decided to return to Los Angeles and Lue, despite the team trading him last fall.

“It’s a comeback, actually,” Nicolas Batum said via HoopsHype. “I had several options, a lot of options, 17 to be exact. It’s a good thing. I’m reuniting with Ty Lue on a project that I really like. It’s a good thing.”

Now, for fans who don’t know, Batum and Lue don’t have their normal dynamic, as in 2022, the French forward explained his unique connection with the championship-winning head coach as he didn’t know if he would still be in the NBA if the Clippers didn’t give him a chance after a failed stint in Charlotte.

“(The Clippers) gave me another opportunity in this league to compete and be a basketball player, so I think that’s my way of saying thank you. I’m going to do whatever it takes to win games and do something special. Even on the best day of my life,” Batum told reporters via Sports Illustrated.

“Ty Lue saved my life, so I’m sticking with him unless I get fired. He saved my career.”

After initially signing a four-year, $46 million deal with the Portland Trail Blazers in 2012, Batum was traded to Charlotte in 2015 and signed a massive new five-year, $120 million contract to become a focal point for the Hornets going forward. And yet, as the team stopped taking contention seriously, Batum fell out of favor and was released from the team in November 2020. After signing with the Clippers as a free agent, Batum found a home with Lue and ended up re-signing with the team multiple times before being traded to Philadelphia last fall.

While only time will tell how this current streak plays out, as he could be just a few seconds away from moving on once again, for now, he’s happy to be back in Los Angeles for another run with Lue, and that feeling appears to be mutual, as the Clippers had plenty of other options to use their money on and still went with Batum.