There have been some epic battles between centers Nikola Pekovic of the Minnesota Timberwolves and DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers over the past few seasons.
Both men are imposing physical specimens, balletic brutes just an inch below seven feet with muscles coursing like rivers up and down what otherwise look like the sleek granite appendages of their bodies. Both are in the ostensible prime of their careers: Pek turned 29 in January and is in his fifth season after logging time in Europe; Jordan came out of college early and is in his seventh season at age 26. Be it crunching picks, stalwart box-outs or message-sending fouls down near the hoop, both men almost casually deploy sheer physical intimidation as an integral part of their play.
After some initial difficulties early in their careers, Pek seemed to gain the upper hand in their first two meetings last season. In November 2013, he got Jordan into early foul trouble and shot 9-for-13 from the field. A month later, in a titanic matchup, Pek had 34 points on 16-for-28 shooting. For his part, while scoring just four points, Jordan had 17 rebounds, including nine on the offensive glass, forcing Pek into five fouls.
Most importantly, however, Jordan’s Clippers won both games.
The final matchup of 2013-14 found Pek leaving in the first quarter due to injury, enabling Jordan to romp for 24 rebounds. The first two games of 2014-15 likewise had Pek sidelined because of his chronic foot and ankle ailments.
Last Monday night, in the third Wolves-Clips contest of the season, it looked like a vintage joust between the two behemoths was in the offing. Coach Flip Saunders decided to go at Jordan early with Pek to establish the Wolves offense, and he was twice able to seal his position in the paint against his rival and spin for layups. His physicality was otherwise evident in the five rebounds and four trips to the foul line he garnered in his first seven-minute stint on the court.
But Jordan more than held his own with an impressively well-rounded game. He set devastating screens that allowed Clips sharpshooter J.J. Redick to knock down a pair of three-pointers. He snatched a rebound and rifled a long outlet pass that resulted in a Matt Barnes slam-dunk. He disrupted an entry pass by Ricky Rubio into the post, blocked a drive by Andrew Wiggins and threw down a couple of monster slam-dunks when Pek, on both occasions, had to switch off of him to deter dribble penetration from a teammate’s blown assignment.
It was still a close game, 17-14 Clippers, when Pek went to the bench to rest his chronic injuries. But he wasn’t the same in his three subsequent trips back onto the court, shooting just 1-for-6 with five rebounds in 16 combined minutes.
When it was over, Pek had 12 points and ten rebounds and was a minus-16 in just under 24 minutes of play. Jordan shot 10-for-11 — with eight slam-dunks and two layups — corralled 17 rebounds and finished with a plus-22 in 39 minutes of action.
One player is on the come; the other is on the fade.
Feet of clay
The injury-related decline of Pekovic has significant short-term and long-term consequences. He is the longest tenured and (until next season) highest paid player on the Wolves roster, the one expected to provide stability as the bedrock beneath the “Eyes on the Rise” athleticism of hot young prospects.
When he is healthy, Pek is nearly impossible to stop in the low-post on offense without drawing two defenders. And while he lacks quick mobility and leaping prowess, he is a savvy defender who has sharp instincts on the pick-and-roll and uses his 295-pound frame to great effect walling up opponents.
Watching him create synergy with floor-spacing power forward Kevin Love and playmaking maestro Ricky Rubio, I endorsed the five-year, $60 million contract given Pek after the 2012-13 season.
But Love is no longer around to pull defenders out to the perimeter, Pekovic’s feet have been barking at him for most of the season, and Rubio has missed more time to injury than Pek himself. The result has been by far the worst season of Pek’s career.
He is arguably the strongest player in the NBA, yet this year it is to no avail. During the ongoing combat in the paint that is his bread and butter, it is apparent that the pain in his feet prevent him from first planting himself into an ideal position on offense and then engaging in the dips and pivots that maximize that early positioning with a smooth finish.
The numbers are damning. Prior to this season, Pek had never been less accurate than 51.7 percent from the field, which happened in his rookie season. A year later, he shot 56.4 percent. Last season it was 54.1 percent. Thus far in 2014-15, Pek is shooting 42.8 percent. Over the Wolves past ten games, he has shot 37.9 percent.
The decline is caused both by him getting fewer shot attempts down at the rim and by his relative inability to finish even when he has established position. For the first time in his career, less than half of his shots are being taken within three feet of the basket: 46.5 percent, versus a career 56.8 percentage of close-in shots. His shooting accuracy from that 0-3 foot range has likewise plummeted, to 55 percent, versus his career accuracy of 63.8 percent from close-in, which, obviously, was even higher before this season began.
Pek is consistently being pushed 3-to-10 feet away from the hoop for his shot attempts this season. The frequency of those attempts is 45.8 percent, a career high from that distance. His accuracy from that 3-to-10 foot range this year is 30.9 percent, a single-season low that has dropped his career average from that distance to 38 percent.
Pek’s field goal percentage would be even worse if he hadn’t developed a pretty little jumper turning right from 10-16 feet out along the left baseline. His percentage from 10-to-16 feet, 34.8, is a career high, as is the percentage of shots he takes from that distance, although it is still thankfully low at 7.1 percent.
Field-goal percentage has clearly been the biggest decline in Pek’s game on a per-minute basis. He is getting to the foul line at a rate slightly better than his career average, and shooting a career best 83.7 percent on those free throws. His rebounds, assists, steals, fouls and turnovers are at typical rates and his blocks are, like last year, just slightly below his career average.
Put simply, Pek injuries are costing him minutes played and shots made on offense. And despite his lack of rim protection, he is also missed on the defensive end — the Wolves allow 4.1 points per 100 possessions fewer when he is on the court compared to when he sits this year. For his career, over nearly five seasons, Minnesota is 1.4 points stingier per 100 possessions with Pek on the floor.
The fuzzy big-picture outlook
Coming into this season, the center position appeared to be the most obvious area of strength on the Wolves roster. The team boasted a seemingly reliable low-post anchor in Pekovic, a player who could command double-teams, set screens and get you buckets while opening up the floor for his teammates. Behind him there was the emerging Gorgui Dieng, whose marvelous second-half of the season earned him a place on the All-Rookie Second Team in 2013-14. And behind Dieng was gritty veteran Ronny Turiaf.
But even after resting the entire summer in an effort to forestall the inevitable pain in his feet and ankles, Pek went down less than ten games into the season, missing more than two months of the season. In his stead, Dieng played well, but his lack of bulk and physicality was increasingly exposed as opponents pounded the ball inside. Meanwhile, Turiaf lasted two games for 19 total minutes before his continually injured body was traded away.
Consequently, the Wolves are faced with three years of paying Pekovic $12 million per season in spite of now-overwhelming evidence that he is not capable of providing the playing time that would justify such a salary. He has never logged as many as 2,000 minutes — which works out to slightly less than 24 minutes per game over the course of an 82-game season, not counting the playoffs — in any of his five years with the Wolves. His career high in games-played is 62, which has now declined for two straight seasons.
Flip’s front court follies?
Yes, when he’s feeling well, Pek remains an enticing tease. As recently as last Saturday night against Portland, he was a force. He grabbed six offensive rebounds. He combined with Kevin Garnett for a series of double-screens along the elbows near the foul line that continually freed up open jumpers for wing players Gary Neal, Kevin Martin and Andrew Wiggins. In the 25:47 he was on the court, the Wolves were plus-17. In the 22:13 he sat, Minnesota was minus-9.
Although the various foot and ankle injuries have varied some, and the diagnoses have themselves shifted on occasion for the same malady, it is believed that Pek cannot do lasting damage by playing — it is a matter of tolerating the increasing pain and compensating for the limited mobility.
Moving forward, the ideal plan is to play Pek 20-25 minutes per game and rest him whenever the team can afford it. If the Wolves can conjure up the vintage Pekovic of the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons under that scenario, they might be able to patch in the rest. As the salary cap rises with increased media revenue over the next few seasons, Pek’s contract will seem less onerous and he might even be a desirable commodity for another team looking for his very specific set of skills.
But that’s an optimistic view. On the pessimistic flip side, a cost-benefit computation of the team’s front-court personnel is a horrifying exercise.
There is a surfeit of potential carnage on the horizon, and a paucity of reliably valuable assets.
Pekovic’s $12 million per season is a deeply sunken cost. The Wolves have committed to power forward Anthony Bennett at $5.8 million for next season, but Bennett will have to dramatically improve to garner the $7 million that would be owed him the following year if the Wolves extended the deal.
Kevin Garnett’s $12 million contract expires at the end of this season and there has been talk of bringing him back for another year or two. If so, even if he remains a part-time player a la Pekovic — for reasons of age rather than injury — KG is likely to pull down at least $5-$6 million per season or face blowback from the player’s union and league office for a cut-rate deal with a franchise he admittedly hopes to own someday.
These is certainly potential value in Dieng and current rookie Adreian Payne getting $3.4 million between them next season. But Dieng’s ability to be a capable starter, or even a complementary backup to Pek, is less certain now than it was at the end of last season because of how opponents have exploited his physical weaknesses, and because of Dieng’s own mental lapses out on the court. And Payne is a 24-year old rookie who may or may not become a regular rotation player.
Obviously, the Wolves remaking of their front court, from the point of the Kevin Love trade forward, is a long way from any definitive judgment. If the franchise gets a top lottery pick and grabs one of the immensely talented bigs in the upcoming draft, the situation may turn up roses. If Miami fails to make the playoffs (as would be the case if the season ended today), then the pick Minnesota dealt to acquire Thad Young (in turn traded for Garnett) is likewise in the lottery, enhancing the second-guessing of that trade. And if the team improves enough to make the playoffs in the next few seasons, Payne will have cost a first-round pick.
Cherish the giant
However it plays out, begrudging Nikola Pekovic would be a challenging task for all but the surliest curmudgeon. The massive Montenegrin with the terrifying array of gothic tattoos remains an eminently likable presence wherever he goes.
On the scoreboard during timeouts, Pek has become the go-to purveyor of the deadpan punchline during skits and quizzes dreamed up by the marketing folks. Never is the Wolves in-game announcer happier than when he can proclaim “The Godfather!” when announcing Pek in the starting lineup or after a made basket or assist by the big galoot.
In the locker room, especially after a win, Pek is the player who takes on the media while his teammates shower. Sitting on his stool with his ankles submerged in a freezing bucket of water, he is by turns thoughtful and capricious, with an impish sense of humor that manages to mitigate his desire to bypass the rote stupidity of the canned quote.
And on the court, it remains a fiendish joy to watch opposing players simply disappear from the action when encountering a Pekovic screen, and to watch typically gigantic human beings warily encounter a man-mountain more powerful than themselves.
In a perfect world, we would see less of Pekovic raising his hands in frustration toward the refs because an opposing big man can more easily budge him from his desired locale. We would see less of the wincing walk to the bench when he can finally let his guard down, albeit surreptitiously, on his pain.
We would see more of the block of granite getting the entry pass from Rubio and twirling on his axis for the bucket. We’d see the smile of satisfaction, and share it all season long for a change.