We’re kicking off our offseason coverage here at A Wolf Among Wolves with a comprehensive roster review of the team from this past season, looking at how each player’s 2012-13 went and what we see for them going forward. One player a day for the next couple weeks, starting with the bench and rolling up to the starters.
Tradition in a storm of revolution.
That’s what Nikola Pekovic is for the Minnesota Timberwolves. He’s tradition. He’s brute strength and post skill. He’s rebounding prowess and paint protection. He doesn’t block shots but he cuts off paths to the hoop for every player in the league that thinks they can bang with him. Amazingly, it happens more often than you’d assume it does. Nikola Pekovic is kind of a traditional center. He can run the pick-and-roll or put opponents in the meat grinder on the low block. He’s great at battling for the boards on both sides of the floor. And he doesn’t kill you from the free throw line.
The weird thing though is that you’re trying to fit this traditional center into the concept of today’s basketball. And I’d imagine that’s what gives people a lot of pause when trying to decide just how much Pek is worth to this team. As of July 1st, you don’t get to measure that value in terms of points or rebounds or win-loss record or PER or win shares or win shares per 48 minutes or skulls collected. When June 30, 2013 dies, so do all of the measurements of Pek’s skills too. At that moment, Pek becomes a monetary value to the Wolves’ organization and that’s the number we’ll judge him by.
Before we get to that point on July 1, I’d like to go over the value of Pek that exists/existed before he became a monetary value.
Nikola Pekovic isn’t just unique to this era of basketball. What he did last season was pretty unique in and of itself. There have been 20 seasons in NBA history in which a big man averaged at least 16 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.7 offensive rebounds and made at least 74% of his free throw attempts. Moses Malone did it 10 times. David Robinson, Bill Laimbeer, and Bon McAdoo each did it twice. Hakeem Olajuwon, Dave Cowens, and Roy Tarpley all did it once. And last season, Nikola Pekovic did it. It was something that hadn’t been done since 1995-96 when the Admiral did it for the second time.
What does this mean?
I’m not sure it means anything really. Well, that’s not true. It means something; it just doesn’t mean anything definitive moving forward. Pekovic is a special player because we don’t see many players like him now, nor have we ever. He’s a bulldozer in the post with a pretty feathery touch from the free throw line. He’s one of the few guys that never make me nervous when he’s at the charity stripe. He isn’t great at finishing inside, but he’s good enough to trust him on the low block. You’d like him to dunk a little more often, but I believe he continues to develop his sense of awareness and space around the hoop.
The key to maximizing the presence of Pek down the road, assuming the Wolves retain him, is to complement him with a steady, healthy roster. Initially, this could come off as me saying you build around Pek; that’s not what I mean. For your core players, you have to know how to get them to complement each other and having players complement your center is incredibly necessary. It’s a great start to have Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio as the two leaders of this team. With Love, you have a big man that can play inside out with Pek. You can give Pek the ball at the elbow, like we see so often in the offense, and have him hand it off to Rubio coming around a curl toward the top of the key. From that action, it allows Love to post up from the weak side or fade out to the perimeter where we expect his shot to get back to its normal accuracy next season.
Or you can do the same action with Love at the elbow and either have him hand it off to Rubio as Pek posts up inside, square up for the jumper that freezes the defense, or dump it into Pek right away for an easy score. The key to Rick Adelman’s offense is having guys that play well off each other and in theory, these three do work really well together. But that’s not enough for this team. Shooters have to space the floor for them to have the proper room to operate and with Love and Pek together inside, you need to have quality perimeter defenders to slow down dribble penetration.
These two can end possessions with their rebounding prowess and Pek’s pick-and-roll defense was the best on the team last season. But we can’t pretend they’re going to be David West and Roy Hibbert out there. There will never be the real threat of shot-blocking coming from those two, but that’s not a requirement for a good defensive unit. You just need them to be in position defensively to close off driving lanes when the perimeter defense does break down and then rebound as a team.
And this is where I believe Pek’s full value can be measured as a teammate, even though he’ll end up being a payroll value. It’s so easy to complement Pekovic’s particular playing style. He’s an old school center that fits into today’s ever-evolving game. You can surround him with the 3-point shooting prowess (I mean… it has to get better at some point, right?) of today’s NBA and still maximize his abilities in the low block because the shooting creates the necessary space for Pek to grind meat, in theory. We saw him do it all season long without the proper spacing on the floor and he was still really good.
Outside of his eventual cap number, the biggest concern moving forward with Nikola Pekovic is the number of games he’ll play from season to season. In 2011-12, he played in 47 of the possible 66 games. In 2012-13, he played in 62 of the possible 82 games. That means the last two seasons, Pek has missed 26.3% of the team’s games. That seems to be the worry people have with re-signing him, outside of not knowing whether or not he’s the guy you want to pay significant money to. It’s not quite as bad as it seems though.
In ’11-’12, seven of Pekovic’s first nine missed games of the season were listed as DNP-CD’s, probably because we and the coaching staff had no idea if he could contribute on a nightly basis. He was so bad as a rookie that it wasn’t a definite “yes” to the question of whether or not he should be in the Wolves’ rotation on a nightly basis. He’s still missed 22.6% of his team’s games over the past two seasons when you account for the coaching decisions not to play him, but it’s not quite as dire as the numbers look on the surface. Also, I fully believe if the team was in playoff contention last season down the stretch, he would have played in the final four games of the season.
He still misses a good chunk of each season because of nagging injuries that flare up but I don’t think it’s something that truly hurts the team in the long-term. He’s still fine-tuning his body to deal with the rigors of a full NBA season. I also believe the training staff will improve injury prevention as Flip Saunders claimed he would investigate when he was announced as the new decision-maker in town. I don’t think Pek will play in full 82-game seasons the rest of his career, but if he’s keeping the missed games to around 10 and is healthy for the playoffs, I’m fine with sitting out here and there with the nagging stuff.
In my mind, the bad does not outweigh the uniqueness that Nikola Pekovic provides for this team. His personality, his presence, his play, and his ability to knock tradition and evolution of the game backwards with an elbow to the chest as he goes up for a half-hook inside. Sign me up.