Wolves can finally resume free-agent hunt

MINNEAPOLIS — Portland had until 10:59 p.m. Wednesday

to match the Timberwolves’ reported four-year, $46.5 million offer to small

forward Nicolas Batum. Just after 4 p.m., the Trail Blazers announced their decision.

Batum will remain in Portland. Minnesota can begin to move on, to pick up

the pieces after this weeklong soap opera.

Portland had been adamant for weeks that it would match any offer presented

to the restricted free agent, and sign-and-trade talks between the Blazers and

Timberwolves fell apart late last week. Batum’s fate was sealed before the

Timberwolves sent the signed offer sheet to Portland on Sunday night — a

formality, really — yet the Trail Blazers milked their advantage for all it was

worth.

Batum made $2.16 million last season, and after matching the Timberwolves’

deal, the Trail Blazers will be forced to pay him more than $10 million next

season. That’s nearly as much as the $12.9 million Kevin Love will make next

season. It might be an inflated price for a solid player, driven up by

contentious negotiations.

Portland will now be overpaying, and Minnesota has ample cap space.

Who knows if this whole thing was a ploy by Batum to drive up his price?

Tell the world that you want to go to a team that can’t have you, convince that

team to offer big money while knowing that your own team will match. Trail

Blazers general manager Neil Olshey, with his bold statements about not letting

Batum go, ensured that such a game might actually work for the small forward if

he chose to try it. Now, Portland might be dealing with the consequences.

Maybe, all the machinations were truth. It’ll be hard to ever know.

It’s no wonder the Trail Blazers decided to exercise their right to eat up

five full days the Timberwolves could have used to pursue other players. It was

their right, yet it made the situation seem as if it might never be resolved.

However, it had to end. Starting around midnight on Wednesday, Batum tweeted

several messages that seemed to cement his already predicted return to

Portland:

@nicolas88batum: Heading to the airport…

@nicolas88batum: Heading to….

@nicolas88batum: @ Amsterdam gotta hurry to get the 10.20am flight to…

@nicolas88batum: To PDX Oregon!

In addition, Batume tweeted one last message in French, saying that he’d

return to Europe for games next weekend.

The terms of Batum’s contract with the Trail Blazers were not immediately

available, but they’ll be at least as large as what the Timberwolves offered.

Now, the Timberwolves have more than $15 million in salary cap space to sign

players and make good on verbal agreements with Brandon Roy and Alexey Shved.

There’s still room to sign another player, maybe several depending which

direction the team decides to go.

It’s time to forget about Batum.

“We are disappointed that Nicolas Batum will not be on our team and

wish him the best in the future,” Timberwolves president of basketball

operations David Kahn said in a statement. “However, we were prepared for

the possibility of this outcome and will move forward with our other plans. We

are positioned well from a salary cap standpoint and will continue to explore

additional roster moves. We are confident that we will make the necessary

transactions to improve our team for the coming season and beyond.”

Last week, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor said the team would begin to focus

on looking for big men rather than wing players once the Batum saga ended. That

would make sense, especially with the additions of shooting guard Roy and small

forward Chase Budinger. With Darko Milicic and Anthony Randolph gone and

Anthony Tolliver likely following suit, there’s really no one to back up Nikola

Pekovic at center, even in an unorthodox rotation. Pekovic has been a starter

for only half of a season, and he’s coming off surgery, so to put so much on

his shoulders alone would be a mistake.

When the Timberwolves announced they would be signing Batum to an offer

sheet on Sunday due to a technicality that forbade them to do so any sooner,

one of the biggest worries was the ensuing wait. That time frame gave the Trail

Blazers five days to resolve the situation, and they took almost every hour. In

that time, the Timberwolves could have lost out on a free agent they’d

otherwise have targeted, potentially dooming their offseason.

Fortunately for Kahn, that didn’t happen. No big man who would have worked

in the team’s system signed, and even Courtney Lee, a shooting guard whom the

team has expressed interest in, remains on the market. Greg Stiemsma, Ronnie

Brewer and Jordan Hill, in whom the team has also expressed interest, also

remain available. This five-day waiting game could have been a disaster, but

with Batum to Portland a foregone conclusion and no major opportunities missed,

it can go down in history as nothing more than a pause.

The free-agent chase can begin again Thursday, and next time, it has to be

easier. Or so one would hope.

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