The Portland Trail Blazers weren’t bluffing about Nicolas Batum after all.
The Blazers matched Minnesota’s four-year offer sheet worth more than $45 million for the restricted free agent, keeping the 23-year-old swingman in Portland just like GM Neil Olshey said they would all along.
Olshey made the announcement on Wednesday in Las Vegas, where the Blazers were participating in the NBA’s summer league. He said that Minnesota’s offer sheet wasn’t as large as had been reported and that some incentives included in it were denied by the league.
Portland’s move to keep Batum ended a long and occasionally bitter negotiation between the Blazers and the Timberwolves, who were convinced the French player was the missing piece in a young core that already has Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio.
“We are disappointed that Nicolas Batum will not be on our team and wish him the best in the future,” Minnesota general manager David Kahn said. “However, we were prepared for the possibility of this outcome and will move forward with our other plans.”
Batum left the French national team, which is preparing for the Olympics, to take a physical in Portland scheduled for Thursday.
Blazers owner Paul Allen chimed in on Twitter: “Welcome back Nic! And good luck in the Olympics.”
Kahn had been interested in Batum for several years and was aggressive when free agency opened at the start of this month. The Wolves hosted Batum in the first week of July and agreed to terms on an offer sheet on July 6, with Batum’s agent saying his client very much preferred Minnesota over staying in Portland.
The Wolves were hoping that the size of the deal coupled with Batum’s stated desire to play under Wolves coach Rick Adelman and alongside Love and Rubio would be enough to convince the Blazers to agree to a sign-and-trade to bring the versatile swingman to Minnesota.
The two teams spent a week and a half in negotiations, but never could find common ground. Unwilling to part with Derrick Williams and a bevy of draft picks, the Wolves searched far and wide to add a third team to the mix that would have added some attractive pieces for the Blazers to pull the trigger. The Wolves offered multiple first-round draft picks and Bulls shooter Kyle Korver in one version of the deal, but that was rejected and Korver instead was traded to Atlanta.
Even when it became apparent that a sign-and-trade wasn’t going to happen, the Wolves pressed on. Owner Glen Taylor said last week that they planned “to call their bluff” and file the offer sheet with the league to see if Olshey was serious about matching any offer. After making a few moves to create the necessary cap room, the Wolves submitted the offer sheet to the league on Sunday, giving the Blazers three days to match.
Through it all, signs of a nasty little feud that originated years ago started to surface. Olshey took a few public jabs at Kahn and the state of Minnesota while the Wolves tried to pry Batum out of Portland.
While Olshey is new to the Blazers, the acrimony could have originated several years ago. Before hiring Kahn in 2009, the Timberwolves interviewed former Blazers executive Tom Penn for the job as their basketball boss, and Penn parlayed that interest into a raise with the Blazers.
The Wolves had some concerns with the Blazers stemming from a draft-night trade that brought Martell Webster to Minnesota in 2010. Webster was hampered by back problems in his two seasons in Minnesota, and the Wolves are convinced the Blazers knew about his condition and did not disclose it before the deal was made.
And Taylor didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Blazers owner Paul Allen during the negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, with Allen part of a faction of owners who were pressing to hold for the very best deal they could get while Taylor was among those pushing for compromise to get the league back in action.
It all came to a head over Batum, who is entering his fifth season and averaged 13.9 points and 4.6 rebounds last year.
While he enjoys living in Portland and playing in front of the Blazers’ passionate fans, Batum’s agent claimed that his client grew disenchanted with the way he was used by former coach Nate McMillan. Batum was looking for more freedom to go to the rim on offense, and more of an opportunity to display his athleticism, which is why he was hoping to come to Minnesota and play in Adelman’s more wide-open offense.
Batum and the Blazers also hit a road block in January, when Portland declined to extend a long-term contract, which allowed him to become a free agent. The Blazers told Batum all along that they wanted to bring him back, but also wanted the cap flexibility to make other moves to supplement a roster that includes Batum and big man LaMarcus Aldridge.
After missing out on center Roy Hibbert when their max offer was matched by Indiana, the Blazers appear to be moving forward with Batum, Aldridge and rookie point guard Damian Lillard as they try to re-tool in the powerful Western Conference.
In some ways, losing out on Batum will still help the Wolves. They have more than $14 million in cap room now, and are expected to announce agreements with former Blazers guard Brandon Roy and Russian guard Alexey Shved in the coming days.
Minnesota also is interested in Celtics restricted free agent Greg Stiemsma, Lakers power forward Jordan Hill and is expected to pursue Rockets free agent Courtney Lee and Bulls veteran Ronnie Brewer as contingency plans for Batum.