Watching the Indiana Pacers punish the Wolves with physicality the other night made me a little jealous. The Pacers want to punish you. They want you to feel their presence every second of the ball game.
Stop-n-Pop at Canis Hoopus put it beautifully when he said:
The Pacers entered last night’s tilt with a single goal: to beat the living hell out of Our Beloved Puppies.
Here’s what I think was going through the head of each and every single Indy player:
“You want to run the pick and roll? We’ll crush the pick. You want to throw your body around on the defensive glass? We’ll grab at you until we get called. We’ll poke, pry, hustle, and hack and we’ll beat your finesse. We’ll beat you because you’re soft. We’ll beat you because we’re better. We’ll beat you because our bigs are bigger and our wings can play. We’ll beat you because our coach has an edge.”
I don’t know if this model of play is sustainable in a league in which scoring is valued by the rule-makers and ratings-counters. It’s hard to sell something as ugly as woodshed basketball when you’re trying to convince people they need season tickets to see your product. People love to see scoring. They want to see dunks, no-look passes, and 3-pointers raining hellfire on the nightly opponents.
I, myself, love a free wheeling team. Other than having an affinity for watching Kevin Love’s child-bearing hips remove opposing players from rebounding position, seeing Ricky Rubio, Luke Ridnour, and others whip the ball around the court has given me a joy with this team that I haven’t felt since the KG era. Sharing is caring and sharing is also selling you a team for consumption.
But there is still part of me that wants this team to have a bully and a presence inside. I think it’s pretty safe to say that Darko isn’t that guy. Despite David Kahn’s best attempts to sell this roll of the dice to everybody years ago, the production just isn’t there and probably never will be.
Darko guessed correctly two times per game last season and ended up 10th in the league in blocked shots and fifth in the league in blocked shots per game. His defensive rotations and help appeared to be average at best most nights and he ruined many possessions with his failed hook shots and overall malaise with the ball.
It’s not Darko’s fault that he was selected second in a historical 2003 draft class. He instantly had expectations and stigmas strapped to his shoulders. Fairly or unfairly, he didn’t live up to what people wanted him to be in comparison to his draft mates. At a certain point, the Wolves have to stop trying to justify the contract they gave him and realize he hurts the team far more than he ever helps it.
With the emergence of Nikola Pekovic as a presence over the past five games, it’s seems clear to me that if the Wolves are going to be traditionally big with their lineups, then they need stop wasting starts with Darko and input Pek into the starting lineup.
Check out this stupid Pros and Cons (Kahns?) list of Pek V Darko:
While the defensive mySynergy numbers and adjusted plus/minus can be viewed as incomplete looks into the impact each player truly has on the team, the fact that they’re both measuring the same thing for each player at least shows an even playing field in terms of assessment.
Pek turns the ball over, doesn’t protect the basket as well as Darko does in terms of blocking shots, and fouls the opposition a lot more than Darko does. However, everything else points to Pekovic being a much better fit for what the Wolves need on the floor.
He’s efficiently scoring the ball. He’s grabbing rebounds at a ridiculous rate compared to last year. He’s occupying space inside like hipsters occupied public parks a couple months ago. Pek is just playing a lot better than we could have imagined and he’s outplaying Darko now on a nightly basis.
In David Thorpe’s Sophomore Rankings today (Insider), he had this to say about Pekovic (ranked 9th):
He’s also banging everyone around on the glass, which only helps banger supreme, Kevin Love, find even more angles to rebound or score off an offensive rebound. Once he adjusts to playing with Ricky Rubio, preparing for a pass at all times, I can see him getting more involved on offense and creating more space for Love on the perimeter.
One of the most impressive and basic things you see Pek do each time down the floor is he runs as deep into the key as he can, seals the defender to his back and calls for the ball. Many times over the last few games, we’ve seen Ricky Rubio recognize this development, dump the ball into Pek and get a great scoring opportunity for Minnesota. It’s what you teach big men to do at a young age and Pek certainly attempts to comply with such teachings. It’s basic effort and conversion like this example, which makes Pekovic such a valuable weapon on the offensive end.
It’s not just a matter of starting Pekovic over Darko either. Unless there is an elite center standing opposite the Wolves on game nights, I’m not sure Minnesota needs to really play Darko at all. Tolliver can play the 5, Kevin Love still fits in nicely when they go small, and you can roll the dice with Anthony Randolph most nights to see if he has any spark off the bench.
Pek’s conditioning might be an issue right now. He certainly seems to get winded quicker than you’d like, but if you’re smart with his minutes and the stretches in which you use him, you can probably find a way to keep him fresh enough for 25-28 minutes each night.
Pek’s impact is felt by the opposing front line. He checks guys going through the lane, he slams his body into the chest, back or kidneys of the other team’s big man when shots go up, and he’s not going to get pushed around in the post by anybody. You also have the benefit of nobody wanting to start a kerfuffle on the court if he’s looming close by.
Pek isn’t going to be great at rotating from the weak side on his own. You have to play really solid defense as a unit because he’s just not that quick. But shouldn’t they be aiming to play really solid defense as a unit at all times anyway?
I honestly feel bad for Darko because of how his career has gone. If he were picked after the assumed Hall of Fame and perennial All-Stars taken behind him in 2003, nobody would care just how bad or great he is or could be. He’s been lumped into an unfair set of expectations because Joe Dumars decided they’d take a big man project over flashier and better-known commodities. I don’t blame him for not trusting fans, media or even banks.
However, it doesn’t change the fact that he just isn’t very good on this team and Pekovic has had a bigger impact on the games for the Wolves this season.
It’s time to start punishing teams when the Wolves are not able to get out, push the tempo, and do the fun things that sell tickets. Let the rest of the league know what it feels like when Pek is unleashed.