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Nikola Pekovic: Large Man, Large Contract, Large Impact on Wolves Success

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

Last night against the Chicago Bulls, Nikola Pekovic left the game after playing only seven-minutes of the first quarter. Pekovic has been playing despite pain in his achilles for the past week, tried to give-it-a-go last night, and will see a doctor on Tuesday. The following was written before the Minnesota Timberwolves tipped things off against the Bulls.

Flip Saunders and Kevin Love both understood the importance of signing Nikola Pekovic in the offseason. Both agreed that Saunders needed to ‘do what he has to do,’ in order to retain the one we call, “Big Pek.” The Wolves also signed Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer to considerable deals before Pekovic and were, and still are, budgeting against the salary cap/luxury tax wall. Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love, and Chase Budinger were 100 percent healthy going into the year, so, some thought because of the expected production around him — Pekovic need not increase his production and the Wolves wouldn’t be any less successful, in theory.

The nature of the free-agent market in the NBA often ends with teams overpaying for the services of a player(s). This, in-turn, affects a franchises’ cap space which can lead to the departure of a different asset(s) or prevent the addition of another viable player that would potentially improve the roster. Consider Minnesota’s situation with their all-star power forward; fans believe Love (if you’ve had your head buried in the ground) may leave for greener pastures when his contract expires at the end of next season. One of the questions for the Wolves during the offseason was how much will Saunders offer Pekovic and will the inevitable overpaying to attain the Montenegrin center affect Love’s future with the team. Saunders is replacing the notoriously debatable decision-making of the David Kahn regime, and much has been made about his relationship with Love — will it somehow affect the all-star forward’s future with the team?

With Love’s blessing Saunders signed Pekovic to a contract worth $60 million over the following five years; he’s been worth nearly every penny.

Last season Pekovic averaged 16.1 points, 8.8 rebounds, and played 31.8 minutes per game — all career numbers. He ranked sixth among centers with a PER of 20.26, but he also missed 22 games due to injury. So far this year Pekovic has upped his PER by a slim margin (20.89) while dropping to seventh among the league’s most productive centers — playing to the tune of the preseason predictions. Although this season, surprisingly enough, Pekovic is playing slightly less minutes (31.1). It’s remarkable to think Pekovic is playing less minutes per game simply because the Wolves starting-five of Rubio, Martin, Brewer, Love and Pekovic play more, per game, minutes together than any other unit in the league (22.4mpg). Pekovic is scoring two-more points (18.4) and collecting almost one more rebound (9.3) than he did season, and (for those concerned about health) he’s started in 43 of Minnesota’s games thus far.

Mike Prada exposed what makes Pekovic such a load offensively in a column last October, but, here’s a video clip to use as a reminder.

Prada has shown how Pekovic gets most of his open looks. The following photos slow things down a bit more.

The defender can afford to leave Brewer space on the weak side, Brewer is not a premier, or even an average, three-point shooter. His man is essentially fronting Pek.

The defender can afford to leave Brewer space on the weak side, Brewer is not a premier, or even an average, three-point shooter. His man is essentially fronting Pek.

Rubio approaches the top of the key and receives the ball on a handoff from Love and makes his way crosscourt.

Rubio approaches the top of the key, receives the ball on a handoff from Love and makes his way crosscourt.

Rubio passes to Brewer on the wing because of the help defense preventing the pass to Pek on the inside.

Rubio passes to Brewer on the wing because of the help defense preventing the pass to Pek on the inside.

Pek manages to get the ball on the inside with somewhat of a clear lane toward the basket.

Pek manages to get the ball on the inside with somewhat of a clear lane toward the basket.

Pekovic failed to convert this particular opportunity but these are the type of high-percentage looks Rick Adelman‘s offense is designed to create. Minnesota’s ability to execute on the offensive end has them rated as the second-highest scoring team in the league (106.8 ppg). Pekovic scores more points on close shots — points that are scored by a player on any touch that starts no more than 12ft away from the basket — than anyone in the NBA (8.9ppg). Brooke Lopez (6.6) is the player closest on this list of close points per game, while neither Al Jefferson (5.7), Dwight Howard (5.5), or Roy Hibbert (5.2) come within three-points of Pekovic in this category. As mentioned earlier, Pekovic is scoring 18.4 ppg, that’s 17 percent of the Timberwolves total ppg which is pretty significant considering the Wolves problem is not being able to win close games. Imagine where this team would be without him. Here’s how Pekovic stacks up offensively against players that will earn more than him this season.

1 Andrew Bogut 2013-14 43 27.2 .640 3.8 6.0 .640 0.4 1.2 .346 2.7 7.6 10.3 1.6 1.9 1.7 2.9 8.1
2 Marc Gasol 2013-14 19 32.0 .442 .000 5.1 11.3 .447 3.8 4.5 .859 1.3 5.2 6.5 3.5 1.1 1.7 2.6 13.9
3 Pau Gasol 2013-14 41 31.6 .463 .308 6.7 14.4 .467 3.0 4.0 .744 2.1 7.9 10.0 3.4 1.5 2.5 2.1 16.7
4 Roy Hibbert 2013-14 43 30.2 .460 .500 4.4 9.5 .460 3.0 4.0 .749 2.9 4.9 7.8 1.3 2.6 1.9 3.4 11.9
5 Dwight Howard 2013-14 46 34.0 .577 .400 6.5 11.3 .579 4.8 9.2 .523 3.4 9.1 12.5 1.8 1.8 3.1 3.6 18.0
6 Nikola Pekovic 2013-14 43 33.1 .533 7.4 14.0 .533 3.6 4.7 .754 4.2 5.2 9.3 1.1 0.5 1.6 2.4 18.4
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 1/26/2014.

Pekovic – though he’s an abnormally large one – is human, he does have deficiencies in certain areas. He’s a poor defender at the rim because it’s tough to jump high when you weigh 290 pounds (I can only assume). Pekovic allows opponents to shoot 57 percent at the rim and that’s one of the reasons the Wolves are the worst in the league defending field goal attempts from the rim. Minnesota allows teams to shoot 65.3 percent from the area closest to the basket. (Love is another reason, he is allowing opponents to shoot 60.2 percent at the rim, although his defensive rebounding compensates for that [somewhat]). With how much he compliments Love on the offensive side of the ball, the defensive weaknesses of both players won’t be the end of the world — the Wolves rank eighth in defensive rating, anyway. That’s a pretty solid place for the worst rim defending team in the league to be.

Regardless of the struggles defensively — it’s certain the Timberwolves are getting the most bang-for-the-buck from something they were supposedly unavoidably overpaying for. Pekovic is also playing for financial bonuses. He could potentially earn $1.6 million per year in incentives. Although the finer-print that requires that Pekovic earn MVP, or All-Star honors, in order to qualify for the bonuses. Pekovic can earn the most in incentives if he plays over 70 games in a season, something he’s never done in his four-year NBA career.

The question now: can Pekovic continue playing basketball at this level? He’s averaging at smidge-over 21 points during the previous 20 games at an efficient shooting rate of 54 percent, yet, the Wolves have forsaken this production because of failing to emerge victorious in close games (insert pathetic 1-12 record in games decided by 4 points or less statistic here). As “Pek’s” play pertains to Love’s future, nobody has any control of that, he will make his own decision. It’s certainly be tough to leave one of those most productive offensive centers in the game, assuming he stays healthy — right now Pekovic is certainly fulfilling his contractual obligations, and then some, that Saunders and Love unanimously agreed would be money well spent prior to the season.

  • Aaron G

    An interesting thing to consider too with the Wolves interior D – they, for whatever reason, don’t foul much at all down low. They are tops in the league in defensive FTR (.162). Pek commits just 2.6 fouls per 36, Love 2.1.

    Their strategy is to simply just give up some buckets rather than try to protect the rim – probably because of the recognition that Pek isn’t a great shot blocker to begin with, Love is a tremendous rebounder and better utilized getting in position there, and both are too valuable offensively to be sitting because of foul trouble.

    • Zachary

      Thanks for reading, Aaron. Very good points.

      Having a pesky defender like Rubio on opposing PG’s really, really helps them also. He gets in the passing lanes so well, Brewer too. The team, minus Barea, is really long.

      They are a strange statistical anomaly, those Wolves.

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