He was about 3,800 miles away, but Nicolas Batum’s voice was loud and clear. He wants to play with the Minnesota Timberwolves next season.
Batum, the Blazers’ restricted free agent, made his preference clear Tuesday afternoon in a telephone interview from Madrid, where he was with the French National team as it prepared for a friendly match later Tuesday against Spain, one of the top challengers to the defending U.S. men’s Olympic gold medal team at the upcoming Summer Games in London. While Portland has said it will match any offer sheet for Batum, he hopes they will let him go to play for the Wolves, who have a commitment for a four-year deal worth $45 million on the table when the July Moratorium ends Wednesday.
“I’m a restricted free agent,” Batum said. “I know the situation. Anywhere I sign, the Blazers are going to match. But my first choice was, and is, Minnesota. That’s where I want to play and that’s where I want to put my family. I’ve got nothing against the fans (in Portland) and nothing against the city. But this is a basketball decision and basketball wise, I want to be there. Last year, they impressed everybody, and that’s what I respect. To have a great young point guard like (Ricky) Rubio, and a great coach like (Rick) Adelman, I really liked that project. And I think they think I’m the missing piece at small forward. That’s what they told me.”
Batum met last week with Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, team president David Kahn and Adelman, and was impressed by the direction in which the franchise is going. But the 23-year-old Batum has been a priority to retain by the Blazers through several different basketball administrations, intrigued by his ability to score either as a driver or shooter. Portland acquired Batum in a Draft night deal in 2008 from the Rockets. Last season he averaged 13.9 points and 4.6 rebounds for the Blazers, and his Player Efficiency Rating of 17.32 ranked eighth among small forwards in the league, behind only LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce, Danny Granger, Rudy Gay and Andre Iguodala.
A source said that Batum did not want to sign an offer sheet because he was worried the Blazers would match. And, indeed, according to the Oregonian newspaper, that’s exactly what the team’s new general manager, Neil Olshey, told Batum and his representatives in a meeting last week. However, the Timberwolves have enough space to sign him outright to a sheet. They can clear $10.8 million of additional room buying out center Brad Miller (who has already announced his retirement) and guard Martell Webster, and also could create additional room by using the amnesty clause on center Darko Milicic, who is under contract next season at $5.22 million and has two years and $10.8 million left on his contract.
Batum grew frustrated by the slower pace that former Blazers coach Nate McMillan favored, and thinks he has a chance to play at a more up-tempo style in Minnesota.
“When I talked with Adelman last week, I felt like he wants me, will play me the way I ask to play,” Batum said. “Last year was tough for all of us and I think I need a new start. I think I need something else. Again, it’s nothing against the city or the fans (in Portland).”
Batum said that he thinks Portland and Minnesota will ultimately work something out.
“I know that they’re working on a sign and trade, and I’m very hopeful that both of them understand my situation, do the best both for me and for them,” he said.
Olshey, Batum said, told him last week that he could be a big part of Portland’s team going forward.
“But like I said, I feel like I have to move on,” Batum said. “I need a new situation and a new start…I feel like it’s the best situation for me in Minnesota. I think that’s a great group of guys. This team can be interesting next year. It could be fun.”
The Wolves’ need to add Batum is just as strong as his desire to be there. The team’s All-Star forward, Kevin Love, expressed his frustration with the team’s slow pace at adding quality players Monday in an interview with Yahoo! Sports.
The Timberwolves agreed to terms last week with former Blazers standout Brandon Roy, who ended his retirement due to knee problems after getting treatments similar to the platelet rich therapy program many professional athletes with knee issues are using. Roy will get $10.4 million over two years. The Wolves also traded for Rockets forward Chase Budinger before the Draft, giving Houston the 18th pick in the first round.
“My patience is not high,” Love told Yahoo! in Las Vegas, where the U.S. Olympic team is holding training camp. “Would yours be, especially when I’m a big proponent of greatness surrounding itself with greatness? All these (Team USA) guys seem to have great players around them…It’s tough seeing all these guys that are young and older who have all played in the playoffs. When they start talking about that, I have nothing to talk about. If I don’t make the playoffs next year, I don’t know what will happen.”
Love signed a four-year extension with Minnesota that kicks in next season and pays him $62 million. He wanted a five-year deal worth $80 million, the maximum, but the Wolves were not willing to go that far. But Love, who also praised Adelman and the Wolves’ coaching staff, said he wanted management to “make some stuff happen” and add other players.
“It’s no secret I was willing to commit to Minnesota for five years,” Love told Yahoo!. I’m very happy with my contract. I’d love to be in Minnesota. But like anybody else, I want to win.”
For his part, Batum said he has hopes that the French team can get into medal contention. France got a big boost last week when Spurs star guard Tony Parker was cleared to play after suffering a serious eye injury during a brawl at a New York nightclub last month. Parker has since filed a $20 million lawsuit against the club, where he was with friends when a fight broke out between the entourages of the R&B star Chris Brown and the rapper Drake. Batum, Spurs forward Boris Diaw and the Heat’s Ronny Turiaf will play for France, which starts Olympic play July 29.
“We’re missing (Joakim) Noah right now, but we’re a good team,” Batum said. “We know the USA will be a big favorite in this competition, but us, Argentina and Spain, you never know.”