The Wolves have come to an agreement with restricted free agent Nikola Pekovic on a five-year deal worth a reported $60 million.
After a long and seemingly uneventful negotiating process in which the Wolves initially waited for the market to be set by an outside suitor with an offer sheet, they finally set the market themselves by offering a reported four-year, $50 million deal which Jeff Schwartz, Pek’s agent, apparently said was no good. He secured a longer contract for his client while taking less on a per season scale with the hopes that the incentives included in the deal will push Pek’s earnings beyond the $12.5 million from the Wolves reported initial offer. It’s a gamble, but it’s also a smart one. We’ll get into that in a bit.
I think most of us are glad the Wolves retained Pek because the alternative didn’t seem great. There wasn’t much of a Plan B in terms of what to do if Pek left because I don’t really believe that was ever going to happen. They couldn’t be forced into a sign-and-trade. They couldn’t lose him if they didn’t want to. Even Pek keeping the qualifying offer and playing out next season meant the Wolves still had him and his Bird rights. It was just a matter of how much and how long.
There are concerns about the length of the deal and what it means for the Wolves moving forward. Let’s get into the things said by Flip Saunders yesterday and the realities of the deal itself.
The Bruise Brothers
Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic. It’s interesting thinking about the ceiling of these two behemoths on the boards playing next to each other for the next few years. It’s also kind of hard to judge just how effective they can be together because last year was such a waste of evidence. With Kevin Love never actually being Kevin Love on the court other than a couple of brief glimpses before his lungs started burning and his hand started throbbing, we didn’t get to see the true impact of an even more improved Pek complementing his star teammate.
The plan is to beat people up inside. In a league in which small ball is the new black and speed is something that can change a key stretch of a game, going with a powerful frontline is a risk but one that can be successful. We’ve seen teams like the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies stick with their big, slow frontcourt tandems and shine (both making their respective conference finals last season). But that requires a lot more defense than we’ve seen with the Wolves’ duo. However, if you can control the boards and dominate the paint on offense whilst surrounded by shooters and a playmaker, is it possible to find a balance between the two sides of the floor that gives you an advantage?
That seems to be the plan. Flip Saunders:
“We envision Pek and Kevin Love being the ‘Bruise Brothers’ and forming one of the best frontcourts in the NBA for a long time to come.”
It’s easy for outsiders or even some insiders to scoff at this notion, but if we cycle back to the 2011-12 season when Pek broke through the wall like the Kool-Aid man and we had better evidence that reflects health and ability, you can see that the tandem of Pek and Love was incredibly effective together.
Granted, two-man lineup data over the course of a lockout-truncated season isn’t the end all be all of data consumption, but we do see that during their time on the court together the Wolves had an offensive rating of 109.2 and a defensive rating of 103.1. To put that into better context, a 103.1 defensive rating would have given the Wolves the 19th best defense in the NBA if extrapolated out for an entire season. That’s not great. However, the 109.2 offensive rating would have bested the top offense in the league that season (the Spurs) by 0.7 points per 100 possessions.
With these two guys on the floor, their assist-to-turnover ratio went from 1.29 (25th in the league) to 1.45 (15th) and the effective field goal percentage jumped from 47.7% (20th) to 50.1% (would have been 8th). But in terms of bruising opposing frontcourts, this is where the real dominance in numbers shows. The Wolves had an offensive rebounding percentage of 35.3% when these two were on the floor together. The overall rebounding percentage was 56.0%. Both of those would have shattered the top marks in the league (again we’re extrapolating which isn’t an exact science but it’s just to show you how their impact) of 32.6% and 53.9% by the Chicago Bulls, respectively.
The Wolves posted a mediocre defense but an incredible offense. They posted solid shooting numbers, average security of the ball, and dominant rebounding on both ends of the floor. The Wolves’ idea of Bruise Brothers is definitely something that could show some decent results if everybody is healthy.
The contract itself
There seems to be some trepidation about the five years Nikola Pekovic is receiving. First, Pek is not their “designated player” so it still leaves the five-year extension open for either Ricky Rubio (after his rookie deal) or Kevin Love (re-sign after opting out). Secondly, is it a bad idea to give a 27-year old center a five-year deal, especially when looking at the current construct of the Wolves’ cap situation? That’s a valid concern but one that I’m not terrible concerned about right now. The Wolves have to concentrate on finding an identity and that identity will currently reside with this core of Rubio, Love, and Pek.
“With him, Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio we’ve got three cornerstones in the franchise that all complement each other, which is very important to have your three main players who are very complementary to each other. I do want to emphasize a point. Number one, the signing of Pek will not hinder with Ricky Rubio down the road or with Kevin Love. He is not our designated player.”
The Wolves have to believe in this current core because this is what they have at their disposal. There really aren’t any other options for a young-ish team that is trying to buck the trend of futility and a lack of playoff games. You have to find a way to get your foot in the playoff door and then you find a way to adjust and stick around the playoff party. I feel like this contract for Pek — even giving him five years and possibly more money with incentives — is a step in that direction, but it’s not crazy enough that it truly hurts the Wolves’ long-term flexibility.
Minnesota has money tied up, especially with Rubio’s extension knocking on the door, but it’s nothing egregious at the moment. They’re up against the luxury tax if they add another body, but as of right now there is enough cushion and trade flexibility to give Rubio his extension and still avoid the luxury tax threshold while keeping a playoff-capable roster intact. Unless one of the younger players (Derrick Williams, Shabazz Muhammad, Alexey Shved?) breaks out as a potential All-Star in the next few years, there won’t be many pressing extensions beyond Rubio. But this luxury tax threshold avoidance will still take a little finagling down the road, although Glen Taylor has shown he doesn’t mind spending money to win in the past.
(Not to mention, Pek is 27 years old and still improving as of last season. By the time he’s 32 years old, it’s unlikely he’ll be this decrepit old center incapable of being effective, but conditioning will tell that tale over time.)
As for the political aspect of Pek getting a fifth year, it’s potentially a back scratching exercise. Jeff Schwartz is both the agent to Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Love. Is it possible giving Pek the fifth year on a deal and incentives that could push the deal another $8 million (?) or so something that will give the Wolves’ negotiating clout down the line when Love opts out and is looking for a new deal? That seems to be the connected dots at the moment but not something we actually know. This type of stuff happens far more than the casual NBA fan or even some of the more dedicated NBA fans realize. Guys with the same agent end up on teams all the time because of political back scratching.
Pek!!!!!!!!!!!!! My brother is back!!!!!
— Kevin Love (@kevinlove) August 15, 2013
In case you’re wondering about incentives in NBA contracts, Larry Coon has you covered in his CBA FAQ:
There are three categories of allowable incentives: performance, academic/physical achievement, and extra promotional. The latter two categories are always included in the player’s salary and team salary amounts. Performance incentives are classified as either “likely to be achieved” or “not likely to be achieved,” with only the likely incentives included in the player’s salary and team salary amounts. The determination of whether an incentive is likely or unlikely is based on whether the criterion was achieved in the previous season. For example, if a player had seven assists per game the previous season, then an incentive based on seven assists per game would be classified as likely to be achieved, but one based on eight assists per game would be classified as not likely.
It will be interesting to find out what kind of incentives are in Pek’s deal. There’s also some good information on incentives that I didn’t include in the excerpt so click that link when you get a chance, if you’re interested.
Top five at their positions?
Flip Saunders made a comment in his conference call with the media yesterday that the Wolves’ core of Rubio, Love, and Pek has the potential to have all three players in the Top 5 of their respective positions:
“What it does is solidify your center position, a very tough position to solidify in the NBA. So we’ve been able to do that. Centers can be extremely important. There are not very many centers that have the ability to score in the low post. Pek does, he’s probably one of the best, if not the best. And we all know he’s great rebounder, especially offensive rebounder. He’s got very good ability to finish off passes from Rubio. This league has proven that you need to have three star type players and when I say that I’m saying three players at their respective positions that could be considered top five in the league and I believe that Ricky, Kevin and Pek, all three of those guys have the ability to be in the top-5 at their respected positions, and some a lot higher.”
Considering that Kevin Love is arguably the best power forward in the NBA right now, I doubt we really need to get into where he stands at his position. The question of whether or not Rubio and Pekovic can get there at their respective positions is much dicier.
When talking about the top centers in the NBA, you’ve got quite the list of players at a position that is a lot deeper and better than most fans give it credit for. Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum (when healthy), Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez, Joakim Noah, Al Horford (he’s absolutely a center so don’t comment otherwise; he’s played center the majority of his career, Steve McPherson!), Tyson Chandler, and Tim Duncan are all in the conversation for Top 5 centers. Is Pek in that conversation?
I think he can be based on the fact that he’s improved so greatly over the past two years. He has to stay healthy and continue to improve defensively like we saw last season. I think being better than Chandler and Duncan in the next two years is very doable. But that still leaves cracking the Top 5 with Howard, Bynum (let’s just say he’s healthy), Gasol, Hibbert, Lopez, Noah, and Horford around. As much as I like Pek, what he does, and think the contract is just fine, it will take a modern miracle to get him into the Top 5 at the center position. But even if he’s Top 7, is that so bad considering the group he’s with here?
As for Rubio, it actually might be even harder for him to crack the Top 5 at the point guard position. This is the list just off the top of my head (in no particular order):
Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Rajon Rondo, Mike Conley, Ty Lawson. You can even throw guys like Jrue Holiday, John Wall, and a few others in there. Let’s just say age takes Parker and Paul out of there in two or three years. Rubio still has to crack a pretty elite group of players to be Top 5 at his position. Improvement in his jumper, which is a long process, could accelerate the process, but Love looks like the only lock for this dream of Flip’s right now.
Oh yeah, one more thing: Pek Hoodies
Remember the AWAW hoodies we were selling a few months ago?
We still have quite a few in stock and now that we know he’ll be around for a few more years, that winter is calling your name. If you’d like a hoodie in either grey with blue or black with white, you’ll have to send me an email. Let me know which size you’re looking for in which particular colorway and I’ll let you know if they’re available. Hoodies are $40 plus shipping charges and all of it will be handled through an email exchange. We have mostly large and XL left in both colors.
We need to sell a few more before we start getting into different sizes to replenish our stock and bring in women’s sizes and XXL sizing for men. But they do run a little big.