The Minnesota Timberwolves are about to find out just how serious the Portland Trail Blazers were when they said they would match any offer for restricted free agent forward Nicolas Batum.
The Timberwolves submitted a four-year, $46 million offer sheet signed by Batum on Sunday, giving the Blazers three days to match the offer or let him leave without compensation. The deal has incentives that could push the total value over $50 million, a hefty price for the 23-year-old swingman who has averaged 10.2 points and 3.9 rebounds in his first three seasons in the league.
The Trail Blazers acknowledged that they did receive the offer sheet Sunday night and said they would have no further comment until a decision has been made. If Portland general manager Neil Olshey is to be believed, that decision was made a long time ago.
As soon as the free agent market opened July 1, the Timberwolves set their sights on Batum, a versatile, 6-foot-8 shooter with an established reputation as a fine perimeter defender. Team president David Kahn and coach Rick Adelman think Batum is a perfect fit for their more open offensive system and can grow alongside rising young stars Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio.
”We’re not in control of the situation,” Kahn said on Friday, alluding to the Blazers’ leverage with restricted free agency. ”I’m more of a glass-half-full person. You hope for the best and prepare for the worst. We’re prepared for every option.”
One would be hard pressed to find an option that hasn’t been considered while these two teams have gone back and forth over the last week.
The Wolves hosted Batum in the Twin Cities for a visit last week and he was impressed with what he heard. Agent Bouna Ndiaye said that his client was unhappy with how he was being used in Portland and would much prefer to play under Adelman and alongside Love and Rubio in Minnesota. They agreed to terms on an offer July 6, and spent the last 10 days trying to negotiate a sign-and-trade deal with the Blazers to make it happen.
But Olshey has been adamant that the Blazers would match any offer and were not interested in the assets the Wolves had to peddle in trade.
The process had several stops and starts, with Wolves owner Glen Taylor saying on Thursday the team planned ”to call their bluff” and submit the offer sheet after being unwilling to part with Derrick Williams or Nikola Pekovic to get the deal done. But league rules forced the Wolves to wait until swingman Martell Webster, who was bought out on Friday, cleared waivers to create enough cap room for the deal to fit on the Wolves’ books.
Webster cleared and became an unrestricted free agent on Sunday evening, clearing the way for the Wolves to submit the offer. Because the deal has been signed and submitted, the option of a sign-and-trade is no longer possible.
It could be viewed as a win-win situation for the Timberwolves. Either they get a player they’ve long coveted and Kahn called ”a missing piece,” or Portland matches the offer and the Wolves have foisted a considerably larger contract than the Blazers initially hoped to commit to Batum onto a division rival’s salary sheet for the next four years.
The only risk the Wolves incur is losing out on other free agents while the process plays out. The contract puts the Wolves right at the cap, meaning they will have to wait until Portland announces a decision before they pursue other players like Boston big man Greg Stiemsma, Lakers power forward Jordan Hill and Rockets swingman Courtney Lee, who is considered Minnesota’s Plan B if Portland matches the offer to Batum.
But Kahn downplayed the possibility of losing out on other players when asked about it on Friday.
”We don’t see it as trouble,” Kahn said. ”We think that we owe it to ourselves to take the shot. If they choose to match it, it leaves us with a significant amount of room under the cap for us to pursue other players.”