In news that is related to water being revealed as still wet and the sun once again rising in the east, the Minnesota Timberwolves brought back center Nikola Pekovic after a lengthy restricted free agency. The move fits right in with the rest of a Timberwolves offseason that was not splashy or exciting, but more methodical like the Chase Budinger and Dante Cunningham re-signings preceding this one. For a team like the Timberwolves with playoff aspirations, bringing back Pekovic was of high importance as a top-3 player on the team last season.
Yet, in a world where JaVale McGee makes $11.25 million and Tiago Splitter is set to make $9 million himself, some people have scoffed at the Pekovic contract because of either the years, money, or both. I’m not saying that McGee or Splitter are necessarily bad players, but Pekovic is certainly worth being paid more than each of them.
In fact, few centers around the league produced on the level Pekovic did last season. Last season Pekovic’s averages of 16.3 points per game, 8.8 rebounds per game on .520 percent shooting were not only invaluable to the Timberwolves, but few other centers managed to post similar figures. The two other centers that averaged at least 15 ppg, 8 rpg and .510 percent shooting? Dwight Howard and Al Horford. Pekovic, of course isn’t the defender Horford and Howard are, but he is a better free throw shooter and posted a lower turnover percentage than either player last season while still playing starter’s minutes.
Last season Horford averaged 10.2 rpg while playing 37.2 minutes per game. While Pekovic averaged just 31.6 mpg, he averaged 10 rebounds per game Per 36 Minutes, which is nearly Horford’s total, and the two players will make the same annual salary next season. The Timberwolves weren’t just paying for Pekovic; they were paying for a worthy complement to Kevin Love. As we know, Love has a propensity for shooting the three, which is fine as long as you have another post presence. Next to Pekovic, Love can shoot away since Pekovic led the league in offensive rebounding percentage in both the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Additionally, this works well because Pekovic is an exceptional finisher at the rim, too.
He also provides Ricky Rubio with a legitimate pick ‘n roll partner in addition to Love. In pick ‘n roll scenarios Pekovic posted a 1.26 points per possessions in PnR situations and ranked 16th overall in the league as a whole. With Pekovic, Love, and the added outside shooting, the Timberwolves set themselves up to have a dynamic, inside and outside offense that could make life very difficult for opponents.
Defensively, he isn’t great, mostly because he isn’t very quick. Still, he has the awareness and instincts needed to be a smart defender by cutting off of good angles to the basket, he’s just missing the speed. Pekovic’s brute frame was incredibly useful in post-up situations last season. Per MySynergySports.com, opponents posted a measly 0.72 points per possession and shot just 39.2 percent against him in such situations, good for 50th overall in the league. Opponents chose to post-up Pekovic 32.8 percent of the time last year, the most of any situation, so it’s a legitimate sample size, too.
My point: Nikola Pekovic is a top center that is now being paid like a top center.
The strides that Pekovic has made each year in the league are also encouraging to the team. In each of his three years he has cut down his fouls per game and turnover percentage while simultaneously having his minutes and usage rate increased. And if you watched Pekovic in his rookie year it is truly remarkable that he has progressed to the point that he has. Should he continue to progress further, he will only be more worthy of this contract, which is also what the team is betting on.
Naturally, there is some concern in this area. Pekovic has missed 17, 19, and 20 games in each of his three years in the league and he is just 27 years old. Skipping Eurobasket this summer should spare him some wear and tear for the coming NBA season, but it’s still likely that for all the good he’ll bring, the big man will still be sitting out more than a few contests. You can worry about what shape he’ll be in when he’s 32 and in the last year of his contract, but that’s five years away and injuries can be prevented, so hopefully that’s the case with Pekovic as well.
Besides, what else were they gonna spend this money on? Especially with Gorgui Dieng, Ronny Turiaf and Chris Johnson as the team’s other center-capable players.
As the Timberwolves look to end their decade-long playoff drought, the Timberwolves have brought back a key piece to that puzzle with Pekovic. At $12 million per year they also got a great deal for a top player at his position who also complements the team’s two other best players — Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love. Like all things in life, there is risk involved, but there is also a lot of potential reward in it for those who don’t let that hold them back. Considering the other risks the team has taken in recent years, this is also one of the safer, low-risk moves they’ve made anyway.