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.