Batum Still a Blazer
In what was clearly an uncomfortable process, the dust has finally settled and Nicolas Batum is still a Portland Trail Blazer, the proud owner of a new four-year contract. At times emotions ran high, as they sometimes do when the stakes are high in a free-agent battle. There was posturing, strong words, and certainly some gamesmanship. But, on Wednesday, everything ended in a predictable fashion, with the Trail Blazers matching Minnesota's offer sheet.
Portland general manager Neil Olshey, who met with the media in Las Vegas on Wednesday, never looked or seemed nervous during this process. He assured all parties involved throughout that Batum wasn't going anywhere. When Olshey was asked outside his hotel if a decision had been made, he answered directly, "the decision was made a long time ago. We were never not going to have Nicolas back."
Batum realized this, and even admitted, upon arriving in Portland on Wednesday, "I always knew I was going to be back in Portland."
Why then, fans have asked since, did this feel so ugly at times?
As everyone knows, negotiations in professional sports are played out very publicly. You, whether you like it or not, are a very important part of this process. Your emotion, and your love for your players and team, are leverage, plain and simple.
No one is more aware of this than the people who represent the players. Their job is to get the best possible deal for their clients. If that means using the media, or playing on public emotion will help the cause, then it's game on. It doesn't have to be this way, but many times this is the path these things take. The process to ultimately get Batum signed to a long-term deal definitely crossed into this territory, as you know.
As many times as I've seen negotiations like this play out, I should know better than to start buying into rhetoric and getting nervous over well-placed comments. That's probably why I wouldn't make a good general manager. Say what you want about Olshey, he handled this whole thing as well you possibly could. For the most part he stayed above it all, and outside of a couple of minor jabs at Minnesota, never blinked.
Because of Batum's status as a restricted-free agent, the Blazers controlled his final destination from the start, and Olshey reminded everyone of that anytime he was asked.
Olshey was also so confident in all of this because he was in constant communication with two very important people in this process- Paul Allen, and Nic Batum- even if Batum's agent didn't know it. Even after some comments, attributed to Batum, made it into the media about Minnesota being his "dream" destination, Olshey didn't appear to sweat.
"Nic never said that," Olshey said on Wednesday. "Let's be very clear, Nic made a couple of comments at the behest of the Minnesota Timberwolves and his agent. That was their agenda. That was never Nicolas' agenda. If I wasn't in constant contact with the kid, I wouldn't tell you that. I can tell you Nicolas called me after those articles went out and said, look, they asked me to do this, they put me up to it. It's not me. I just want to talk to you directly. I don't want my agent to know or the team to know. I just want you and I to be on the same page. He always wanted to be back in Portland."
That part I very much believe, despite what you've heard. And, I know for a fact Batum reached out to Olshey early in this process, directly, to try and clear up comments that had circulated, and to assure management that he still very much wanted to be back. Batum was getting very uncomfortable with the way this was playing out, and knew that in an attempt to gain leverage, his relationship with Portland fans could potentially be damaged.
"I think he (Batum) would have liked to do the deal straight up, just like I would have, but he listened to his representative, and that's his right," said Olshey. "The Portland fan base should in no way resent Nicolas Batum for this."
To be fair, it's an agent's right to use any means necessary to get his client the best possible deal. Would Batum have gotten this four-year deal if Minnesota hadn't been willing to roll the dice and be involved in this game? Maybe not. Was it worth it for Batum and his agent? Most likely, yes. Was it worth it for the Timberwolves? They seem to think so, even if it was a very loud swing and miss.
There are ways of handling situations like this that perhaps wouldn't have had to get so emotional, at least as far as the fans are concerned, but no agent will apologize for ultimately getting his client a big contract. The agent though doesn't have to deal with the potential fallout of a fan base that, for a moment perhaps, questioned loyalty. The player does. Batum will do his best to address all of this in the near future.
The process is what it is. That's what we've been told, and time will help settle any ruffled feathers.
At least it's over now. Batum is a Blazer, and will now have to deal with new and improved expectations. Olshey acknowledged that angle of this story, and obviously wants to see a return on this investment.
"What matters is Nicolas accepts the responsibility that he's going to be held to a higher standard now," Olshey said. "He's in a leadership position. He's one of the higher-paid players at his position, and I know he wants to embrace that and have a bigger role on the team on a daily basis."
In other words, Olshey doesn't sound like he's afraid to toss down a challenge, and expects Batum to respond, as he should.
For Nic, he's just relieved he can turn the page and move forward. People tend to forget he's only 23 (Damian Lillard just turned 22). But, Batum, like it or not, is now considered an NBA veteran, and is certainly now a veteran of the business side of basketball.