HANG TIME WEST – The plan from the beginning was the right plan: The Trail Blazers would match any offer sheet Nicolas Batum signed and keep an important part of the lineup in place while they made significant additions through the draft and free agency.
Grow the team with Batum at 23 years old and set at small forward. Protect an asset. It made perfect sense.
But then came Thursday and news that restricted free agent Batum and the Timberwolves had agreed to a four-year, $45-million deal that can top $50 million with incentive bonuses. It came with the kicker that Batum and his agent urged Portland officials not to match.
And suddenly the end result was not so simple. Not the part about the request to let Batum go Minnesota. That is common in these situations, is usually rightly ignored by the original team, and in time becomes a forgotten part of a tangled negotiating process. Same thing with Eric Gordon and the Hornets – he has an agreement with the Suns, he said his heart is in Phoenix, and every indication is that New Orleans will match anyway.
It’s the other part. The one about Nicolas Batum averaging $11.25 million annually.
Even among those of us firmly in the belief that matching on key restricted free agents should be routine unless the team has a successor in place or the offer is so over the top rope and there is a better way to use the money, eight figures a year for Batum may be the breaking point. He defends. He hits threes. But don’t mangle a salary cap over him.
Neil Olshey, the new Trail Blazers point man in basketball operations, knows how this goes. He was general manager with the Clippers last season when they matched on DeAndre Jordan, an outcome obvious to everyone except the Warriors who made roster moves to create the cap room and did the offer sheet. It was an automatic for Los Angeles even at four years and $43 million for a player with lesser credentials than Batum.
There were obviously differences. Jordan is a center, along with point guard the toughest position to get settled. (One of the reasons it would be tough for the Pacers to let Roy Hibbert walk after he signs a Portland offer sheet on July 11). Jordan had shown the potential to be a major defensive presence. He was close friends with Blake Griffin, and if you’re the Clippers in December 2011, you do whatever it takes to keep Blake Superior happy.
Nothing changes the bottom line that losing talented free agents for nothing, or close to nothing with a weak sign-and-trade return, is a severe blow. So the Trail Blazers will match on Batum if he moves forward with the Timberwolves and signs next week. Relationships hurt far worse than they heal. And if it does not heal, the Blazers can eventually trade him, and then for the best deal around the league and not just the best deal available within a few days from only Minnesota.
It’s just that it is four years and $45 million for Nicolas Batum. There is something to be said for the Trail Blazers seeing that breaking point. There is something to be said from seeing the competitive advantage in letting that number sit on the Timberwolves cap for someone who probably never makes an All-Star team. Portland then goes out and signs a replacement small forward for a lot less money.
In the end, though, what Portland realizes is the only thing that matters in these cases, away from the emotion of the moment.
Protect the asset.