Russell and Cousy. Chamberlain and West. Kareem and Magic. Olajuwon and Drexler. Shaq and Kobe.
NBA teams have forever hitched their championship hopes to the wagons of dominating inside-outside duos like those. The present day Minnesota Timberwolves? Not so much.
Russell, Wilt, Kareem, The Dream, and Shaq were built in a lab dedicated to genetically engineering prototype big men, towering over their peers and outmuscling, quicking, or leaping them to heights we always knew guys that looked – and by proxy, played – like them would eventually reach. Their playmaking, pace-inducing, highlight-producing backcourt mates shared that same appearance both on and off the floor, one that immediately screams “basketball player.”
These guys were always going to be good. It was predetermined.
Minnesota’s guys? One’s a floppy-haired, frail Spaniard that shotputs his jumper. The other’s a wide, wanting-for-height, white dude from Oregon. They hardly strike fear in the heart of opponents when stepping off the bus, and on the macro level the same could be said for their respective games. It takes time to appreciate the unorthodox beauty to the playing styles of these guys, but by the end of a half or quarter it’s obvious to even the most casual of basketball observers.
Where is this going? Not where you think. On to the real point:
Nikola Pekovic. Love and Rubio don’t look like your typical NBA stars, but compared to Minnesota’s massive Montenegrin center they’re the hoops equivalent of Hollywood starlets. To wit: Pek’s got the bulk of an offensive tackle, face of a teddy bear, tattoos befitting the worst Eastern European stereotypes, and runs like his feet weigh ten pounds apiece.
As the old adage goes and Love and Rubio prove, though, looks can be deceiving. Since Pekovic logged his first extended minutes of the season in a mid-January loss to Atlanta, the second year behemoth has played the lion’s share of Minnesota’s minutes at center. Better, he’s produced like one of the league’s brightest young big men.
Pek’s basic numbers for the month of February: 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game. He’s shooting a scintillating 61.7% from the field and a solid 75.5% at the free throw line. Even better, though, is the impact he’s made in the win-loss column. The Wolves are 13-8 since Pekovic started taking minutes from the woeful Darko Milcic and Anthony Randolph, a dramatic increase in winning percentage since Minnesota began the season 4-7.
So how’s the big guy doing it? Finally, to the graphs!
Minnesota has been far better offensively with Pekovic in the lineup. As you can see in the chart above, Adelman’s team had a below average offense in their first eleven, Pek-less games, a rarity for a coach known for his prowess on that end of the floor. Since Pek’s “arrival,” though, the Wolves score 101.9 points per 100 possessions, a number that would rank tied for ninth in the league if it was based on results of the entire season.
Utilizing supreme spacing provided by Love’s shooting prowess as well as Rubio’s penchant for passing, Pekovic is by far the league’s most active center at the rim offensively. He takes a staggering 11.3 shots at the rim per 40 minutes, a full 2.3 more than second place Greg Monroe. More important, he shoots an efficient 69.8% from that distance, far outpacing the league average of 64.9%. Shown in the graph above for comparison is Dwight Howard. The NBA’s top big man takes four fewer rim attempts than Pek, and makes just over two percent more of them. Obviously, Pekovic fares pretty well in this facet of the game, and Minny has thrived offensively as a result.
By now you should be properly provoked by Pekovic’s proficiency, but we’re not done. Prior to that fateful January day against the Hawks, the Wolves boasted a solid rebound rate differential of +1.22. Today, that would rank as the league’s 11th best rate. That distinction, while impressive, pales in comparison to where Minnesota actually ranks right now – fifth. Yes, Love is one of the best rebounders in the world, but the insertion of Adelman’s offensive tackle/teddy bear into the lineup coincides directly with his team’s rise to the top of the rebounding ranks. Taking just post-Pekovic numbers into consideration, Minny’s differential is +3.83, just behind juggernauts Chicago and Cleveland for the best number in the league.
Bottom line: the Minnesota Timberwolves were never going to look like one of the best teams of today, and that was before the 300 solid pounds of stuffed animal-looking Nikola Pekovic took over as the team’s devastatingly effective starting center. That should hardly matter to the Wolves and their fans, though, because behind Love, Rubio, and the NBA’s most underrated big man, they’ll be sitting very pretty in the standings for the foreseeable future.
Note: Advanced statistics courtesy of Hoopdata.com.