The enduring tragedy of the 2012-13 season for the Minnesota Timberwolves is that a string of injuries prevented the team’s five most complementary players from sharing even a single minute as a unit together on the court. Consequently, nobody really knows how good that particular quintet can be, and because two of them are free agents beginning this summer, it will cost owner Glen Taylor quite a bit more to keep them intact and find out next season.
The longer I watched various members of this ideal Wolves lineup perform this season, the more convinced I became that they could become the core of a truly dynamic team — one that could not only make the playoffs, but perhaps advance to the second round in the rugged Western Conference.
Given that the Wolves have not reached the post-season since the spring of 2004, and have tortured and alienated their fan base with the worst overall record among the 30 NBA teams since trading Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007, the franchise can ill afford to embark upon another questionable rebuilding campaign — especially since resident superstar Kevin Love can opt out of his contract at the end of the 2014-15 season.
In this context, if coach Rick Adelman decides to return — a prospect clouded by the welter of injuries to his players during his two-year tenure in Minnesota and the inability of doctors to definitively diagnose a seizure disorder in his wife this winter — then I believe it is imperative that Taylor and the other front-office personnel rededicate themselves to this now more expensive status quo.
That means re-signing both unrestricted free agent Chase Budinger and restricted free agent Nikola Pekovic to round out a starting lineup that also includes Love, burgeoning star point guard Ricky Rubio, and veteran defensive wing stopper Andrei Kirilenko. Last week I made the case for retaining Budinger. This week it is time to focus on Pekovic, who will be significantly more expensive — his new contract could double or triple the annual salary Budinger will garner — but also more difficult to adequately replace.
Thumbnail scouting report on Pek
Why is Pekovic so valuable? There are many reasons. At age 27, he is in his prime and has become a polished player at both ends of the court, having toiled overseas in Europe before gaining approximately 4,100 minutes of NBA experience during the course of three seasons in Minnesota. He has soft, sure hands for a big man, enhancing his ability to receive feeds from Rubio and his other teammates. He has capable and steadily improving footwork and limited but reliable shooting range around the basket — for his career, he has converted 53.3 percent of his shots from the field and 74.6 percent from the free throw line.
Although it is not ideal, Pekovic has proven he can be the go-to guy in a team’s half-court offense. Aside from Love, who logged only 18 games this season, he leads the Wolves in points-per-game at 16.2, in per-game field goal attempts (11.9) and makes (6.2) and free throw attempts (5.2) and makes (3.9).
Except for little-used center-forward Chris Johnson, Pekovic also tops the team in field goal percentage (51.9). Even with Tuesday night’s pratfall performance in a loss to Golden State, he has spearheaded the Wolves to a winning record over the past eleven games, and was named Western Conference Player of the Week on Monday — the first Timberwolf to receive that honor in more than four years — after averaging 25 points and 9 rebounds while Minnesota won three of four during the first seven days of April. Thus far this season, the Wolves are 13-6 when Pek scores at least 20 points.
Pek is a tenacious offensive rebounder. He led the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage last season and, even without Love as either a beefy comrade in arms down in the paint or pulling away opposing big men from the basket with his three-point shooting, Pek ranks ninth in offensive rebounding percentage for the 2012-13 campaign.
But the source of Pek’s greatest improvement since his rookie year has been on defense. According to Bill Bayno, the Wolves’ assistant coach in charge of the defense, Pek is the team’s best pick-and-roll defender. He remembers and diligently executes the specific pick-and-roll defensive scheme concocted by the coaches each game, and has above-average recognition and anticipation of how an opponent’s pick-and-roll is developing. He also has a good instinctual sense of his own strengths and weaknesses, so that he rarely over- or under-commits on his assignment.
Most importantly, Pek has learned how to avoid fouling without losing his aggressiveness on defense. He was a fouling machine during his rookie season, necessarily limiting his minutes on the court and enabling opponents to enjoy a large free-throw advantage by getting into penalty foul-shot situations earlier in the quarter. He has improved his lateral and backwards footwork considerably, and nearly perfected the art of keeping his arms straight up and absorbing rather than engendering contact with a shooter while holding his position as stolidly as a stone wall.
Not incidentally, Pek is a cherished character with teammates, fans, and the media. His physique is seemingly chiseled from granite and adorned with an array of large, detailed, outlandish tattoos that seem to be a terrifying hybrid of Gothic comic books and the violent history of Christian religion. He is quite possibly the strongest player in the NBA, and speaks in a basso voice with a Teutonic (Montenegrin) accent, but his mien is regulated by his taciturn temperament and a puckish but sly sense of humor, creating the endearing impression of an impish gentle giant.
He is extremely coachable, adaptable to instruction, able to absorb complex content and quick to blame himself instead of teammates. Because he has the body of an intimidating enforcer and the heart and soul of a real mensch, harmony reigns where Pek walks the earth.
His weaknesses are fairly apparent. He is not an accurate shooter away from the painted area close to the basket. He is too stolid to jump very high, which makes him a lousy shot-blocker and a mediocre defensive rebounder. His movements are generally precise but overly mechanical (although that also makes him deceptively quick, especially running up and down the court in transition). Less obviously, Pek still seems to get a little jittery at crunch time, although his shooting percentage in the clutch doesn’t decline enough to be significant in such a small sample size. Finally, while the nuances of Pek’s defense indicate good court vision, it hasn’t yet extended to his passing game, which is probably his most likely potential area for improvement.
Bucks for behemoths
Is the player described above worth $45 million to $60 million over a four- or five-year period? Yes, that is probably what some team — my guess would be Portland, where he’d be a great fit — will sign him for, on an offer sheet that the Wolves have the right to match in order to keep him in the fold. That is a lot of money for a player who currently ranks no higher than third on the pecking order behind Love and Rubio. But Pek’s combination of size, beef, grace, intelligence and desire remains a precious commodity in pro basketball.
Big men don’t come cheaply in the NBA. Sure, they are no longer as prominent nor as dominant as back in the days of Wilt and Russell, or even Shaq and Hakeem; rule changes ranging from the three-point shot to outlawing hand-checking while defending out on the perimeter have opened the game up for smaller, quicker players. But it is still very difficult to be a successful NBA team without a quality big man patrolling the paint — and they are paid accordingly.
Let’s get specific. Sixteen teams will win enough to compete in the playoffs beginning later this month. All but three of them are currently paying at least one of their big men a salary of at least $10 million per season. The outliers are Milwaukee, a miserable eighth seed in the East with a 37-39 record; Houston, the seventh seed in the West who is getting a relative bargain with Omer Asik at $8.4 million per season; and Oklahoma City, the second seed in the West, who is paying Kendrick Perkins an average of $9 million per season, and will begin its 4-year, $49 million contract with shot-blocking power forward Serge Ibaka next season.
The counter-argument that might be offered up by Taylor or current President of Basketball Operation David Kahn is that the Wolves are already paying one of their bigs, Kevin Love, an average of $15 million per season through 2016, provided he exercises his player option to stay here. At a height of 6-10 and weighing 260 pounds, Love has the physique of a behemoth and is a voracious rebounder. So why should the Wolves fork over another long-term, seven-figure annual salary to another behemoth like Pek?
Because when Love and Pek are on the court together, their respective skill sets are complementary much more than they are redundant. As a three-point marksman and undersized grinder jousting for rebounds, Love is best suited as a power forward, while Pek really can’t play any other position but center.
In terms of spacing, if you put Love out on the perimeter and Pek down in the low post, opposing front courts are going to have a really difficult time guarding both of them, and if they try, Kirilenko and Budinger are both superb wing men who move well without the ball, and Rubio is an elite passer who will be blessed with a surfeit of options. The two big men can also run Adelman’s signature half-court offense, the sets with Vlade Divacs and Chris Webber that he used to feature in Sacramento, with one big camped out on the high post and the other diving down to the hoop for passes or rebounds.
Granted, there is some overlap in weaknesses, especially in the lack of shot-blocking and general rim protection when Pek and Love play together, which is why Bayno has been preaching the need for both to hold their position and draw more offensive fouls by taking the charges.
But the numbers are persuasive. According to the stats pages at nba.com, the Wolves were plus 0.7 points per 36 minutes when Pek and Love were on the court together this season, but minus 1.5 points per 36 minutes when Pek plays without Love and minus 2.1 points per 36 when Love plays without Pek. Last season, when Love was healthier and was paired with Pek more frequently, the discrepancy was even more dramatic. The Wolves were plus 3.9 points per 36 minutes when Love and Pek played together, but minus 1.4 points per 36 when Love played without Pek, and a whopping minus 8.7 points per 36 when Pek played without Love.
There is no question that underwriting mammoth contracts for both Love and Pekovic will strain the team’s budget against the salary cap, especially with a sizable contract for Rubio also a seemingly inevitable necessity. But Glen Taylor has boxed himself in. He knew that when he hired Adelman — a now-67 year old Hall of Fame coach with 1,000 career wins but no championship rings on his resume–that he would have to commit to a win-now philosophy. Yet it is difficult, and very expensive, to “win-now” when the personnel man Taylor hired and continues to support and employ, David Kahn, whiffed on a couple of lottery picks, drafting Jonny Flynn with the sixth overall pick in 2009 and Wes Johnson with the fourth overall pick in 2010. (We’ll leave the second overall pick of Derrick Williams in 2011 in limbo for now.)
If either Flynn or Johnson had lived up to their draft status, the Wolves would have assets to either put on the court or leverage in a trade. Conversely, because Flynn and Johnson were both busts, the “win-now” Wolves are required to pay market value to secure the existing assets they possess, and need, in order to be successful.
As the last element of my closing argument, signing Pekovic could also be regarded as an adequate fall-back position, and insurance, if Love’s health or desire to leave prevent him from participating in the Wolves’ future. By contrast, not signing Pek will increase the chances of Adelman’s departure, with Love and perhaps Rubio close behind. Meanwhile, the Wolves fans, who just got socked with massive increases in season ticket prices, have been patient long enough. Keeping the core of this intact will be expensive. But failing to do so could be even more costly.