MINNEAPOLIS On Friday evening, the Minnesota Timberwolves completed what appeared to be the final step in clearing enough salary cap space to sign restricted free-agent small forward Nicolas Batum to an offer sheet. However, a league technicality will impede them from doing so until 5 p.m. ET Sunday.
After releasing small forward Martell Webster and trading center Brad Miller to New Orleans, the team cleared about 10.2 million in salary cap space, in addition to the 5.2 million it cleared when it waived Darko Milicic on Thursday. That's sufficient space to sign Batum to an offer sheet, the terms of which were not readily available.
Batum has played for the Trail Blazers since entering the league in 2008, and the team can match any offer sheet presented to the small forward. At this point, Timberwolves president of basketball operations David Kahn said in a conference call Friday that both Batum and the Trail Blazers know the terms of the offer sheet that's prepared for Sunday. However, Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey has said repeatedly the team will match the Timberwolves' offer and that it won't let talent "walk out the door." Portland will have three days to match the offer after it becomes official.
Throughout the week, the two teams attempted to work out a sign-and-trade deal that would have brought Batum to Minnesota and avoided a situation in which the Trail Blazers would simply match the Timberwolves' offer and end the negotiations. Such a deal would have been the most assured way to bring Batum to the Timberwolves, but as of Friday evening, no deal had been reached.
"I know that Nicolas and the Timberwolves would prefer this culminating in a sign-and-trade, but restricted free agency is what it is, and it's certainly the Portland Trail Blazers' prerogative to match whatever offer sheet we tender or for that matter not engage in a trade," Kahn said.
With the trade negotiations in a deadlock, the Timberwolves elected to clear the necessary salary cap space to present Batum with his offer, no matter that it would seem to be just a formality in light of Olshey's statements. The 15.4 million in cap space the Timberwolves have gained would have been enough to immediately sign Batum on Friday, but a league rule mandates that Batum not sign the offer sheet until Webster clears waivers.
In the 48 hours between Webster's release and when he clears waivers, the Timberwolves will continue to attempt to hammer out a sign-and-trade deal with the Trail Blazers, which seems like a stretch at this point. If it comes to a matter of signing Batum, the Timberwolves will likely lose out, but they plan to make the offer regardless. They told Batum of their preference to acquire him in a sign-and-trade deal, but they also made it clear that they were willing to present him with an offer sheet. Kahn does not want to go back on his word, no matter the consequences delaying the team's pursuit for other free agents.
"I think when you make a commitment to a player, you follow through on the commitment," Kahn said.
The Timberwolves' interest in Batum was first reported during the 10-day moratorium period on signing free agents, and the small forward fits the team's need for a dynamic wing player. With four years of experience in the league, Batum is something of a veteran, but like Chase Budinger, whom the Timberwolves acquired from Houston on June 26, he has the potential to grow alongside Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, Kahn said. In his four years with Portland, Batum averaged 10.2 points and 3.9 rebounds per game. In 2011-12, he posted the best numbers of his career, averaging 13.9 points and 4.6 rebounds.
In the past week, the negotiations for Batum have become increasingly contentious. His agent, Bouna Ndiaye, first spoke out on July 5 about his client's desire to leave Portland and play in Minnesota. Since then, the Trail Blazers have remained adamant that they will match any offer given the small forward.
Ndiaye told CSNNW.com that Batum feels that he'd fit better into Rick Adelman's system in Minnesota than Portland's more rigid offense. Then, on Tuesday, Batum spoke out as well about his desire to leave Portland.
"My first choice was, and is, Minnesota," Batum told NBA.com. "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 (Minnesota.)."
Since Batum's comments, Olshey has said that he doesn't believe that the Timberwolves have enough to give up in exchange for Batum. Olshey also took several swipes at Batum's desire to play in Minnesota, associating the state with mosquito bites and frostbite.
So now, the Timberwolves will wait. All parties know the terms of the offer sheet that will bear Batum's signature on Sunday evening, and even what comes next seems easy to predict at this point. Between now and then, the Timberwolves can simply hope for a miracle.
Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.