Pek with us, you know we got him: Nikola Pekovic re-signs for five years

Zach Harper —  August 15, 2013 — 21 Comments
Art by Steve McPherson

Art by Steve McPherson

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.

More Flip:

“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.

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

AWAWHoodies

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.

Zach Harper

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21 responses to Pek with us, you know we got him: Nikola Pekovic re-signs for five years

  1. My concern is that this all-star trio will never get us about the 4-5 seed if healthy (a big IF), and we don’t have the supporting cast to get to the next level. Do I think we can make the playoffs with Martin, Williams, Brewer, Budinger, etc? Yes. But unless we get a young steal in the draft who takes over, the team will never contend.

    Not sure why I decided to take such a negative route with this signing, because I am a big Pek fan, and making the playoffs is a step in the right direction, but I just hate the making the playoffs is our goal. Will a championship ever be a realistic goal for Wolves fans?

  2. Mickey, I’m with you in that concern about the current core. This doesn’t look like a contending team as of right now and I’m not sure it ever will. But the more I’ve looked at the way the league is, the more I believe in the steps you have to take to get to that level.

    The Wolves have to become a playoff team and change the culture before they can start thinking about contending. I think they’ve taken that step with the current roster but we won’t know until we see how things shake out. Once they’ve established themselves as a playoff team, then I think you start looking into how you tweak the team and its core to become a contender.

    But the first step has to be taken before you can worry about that.

  3. My brain is going in a couple of different directions with this:

    1. There’s little chance Pek gets into the top 5 at his position. However, we obsess over offensive analytics so much with Rubio that we forget how good he is on defense: not above-average, top 5 in the league. I asked ESPN’s stats guy Kevin Pelton in a chat once where Rubio would rank defensively among PGs; he said top 3. More than likely, none of the guys listed as top PGs would be ahead of him; Paul wins the steals title regularly, but he’s not really better on D than Avery Bradley, Eric Bledsoe, or George Hill. Maybe Rondo is similar, but he shares the same offensive problems as Rubio and has been accused of passing up shots to pad his assist numbers. He still needs to get better offensively, but he can be top 5 without being in those guys’ class with his scoring. He might not be recognized as such, but wins are the important part, and we all saw how much better everyone thought George and Hibbert are after their D in the conference finals.

    2. The path for this franchise to conference finals contention has always been in and continues to be in their coaching and role players. Adelman is, at worst, the 4th-best coach in the conference (definitely behind Popovich and Carlisle, maybe behind Doc Rivers). He’s a level above Brooks and Jackson, at least that much ahead of the two rookie coaches (Shaw and Joerger) and two levels ahead of McHale (he’s playing checkers while the best are playing chess). As for the role players, his Sacramento team rose because guys 4-10 outplayed the opponent’s 4-10. For fun, check Stojakovic’s and Martin’s per-36 numbers through Martin’s age; they’re so similar that it’d be tough to argue Peja was much or any better than Martin.

    3. The easiest and cheapest areas to get in future drafts and free agency are backcourt scoring, wing defense, and backup power forwards. Those are the 3 things that could use fortifying or might need fortifying in the future (if they trade Williams and/or Barea, if Shved busts, and if Cunningham becomes too expensive to keep). They need to break with tradition and start hitting some singles in the draft to go along with the doubles and triples (Rubio, Pek, Love) they’ve had every once in a while to make that next step.

  4. looking forward to this team playing some meaningful games as presently constructed. while i agree trying to figure out where to rank pek among his peer centers is difficult, there aren’t too many match-ups i would worry about with him. using your list for the top 5, i would say he matches up really well with most of them, gasol, noah, and horford in particular. impossible to say he’s better than them now, but give him the opportunity in a seven game series and i’m very optimistic about his chances to hold his own.

  5. I guess I am going to play the part of homer here:

    When you think about PG’s and how you rate them for me I look at three main stats. Points, Assists, Steals. Rubio is not going to rank in the top 5 in points unless something dramatic happens.

    Assists, Rubio ranked in the top 10 last year with one of the worst offensive teams in the league, they finished 20th. with a healthy Kevin Love, and wings that can shot I think it’s reasonable to assume +2 more assists per game average. Two guys per game more will actually convert a Rubio pass into points than last year sounds doable to me considering who he was passing to last year and who he’ll be playing with this year. That would would put him easily in the top 5.

    Steals, Rubio is already among the league leaders. His defense which I already think is pretty good, should also improve, last year there were games Rubio felt he had to do it all to win and he was taking a lot of chances that in a more stable situation I expect to see this year will allow him to stick closer to the team concept.

    But back to points for this team we don’t need that from Rubio. His job is to find the open guy with the best chance of converting, I think top 5 for how Rubio will be used is reasonable when you look at fit and need from the position.

    Pek, I am not so sure top 5 is in his future. but as far as rebounding and scoring goes he is going to be there. I think Pek has given up on blocks as we all remember his inclination to foul when he first got here. But he is also a great fit for this team.

    I expect to see a lot of high scoring games this year (by both teams) But I think in those games the Wolves will have the edge most of the time due to the intangibles our “big three” bring to the table Loves ability to hit from anywhere and rebound. Peks low post scoring and offensive rebounding, and Rubio’s court vision and ability to hit guys in stride as they’re getting into position.

    If this teams stays healthy, they can contend with most teams and for right now I will take that step, as it is a far better outcome than the past 9 years.

  6. Gotta think of building a core before anything else. We got our core now. And they have proven they can play solid basketball together. Stay healthy and make the playoffs, then we will see how we really fare. Ricky will have a hard time breaking into the top 5 guards list, since he isn’t a big scorer. But I think this season he might hit strides with a double digit assist average. And who cares if people don’t put him as one of the their top guards, he does his thing night in and night out.. he makes people around him better and he does it consistently. Thats the only thing that should matter. Him-Pek-Love are an amazing core. Its now time to see what this team can really do.

  7. In regards to the comments about Rubio from gjk and farnorth, I hope my section on Rubio there didn’t come off as an indictment of his abilities. I very much believe in the importance of point guard defense and know he’s one of the best in the league at it. It’s more that the position is so loaded with young, great point guards already that I just don’t see much opportunity to sneak in there.

    I think the biggest key for him will end up being finishing at the rim. That’s the big difference between him and Rondo. I know Rubio is a much better free throw shooter but Rondo balances that out as a much better shooter from 16-23 feet. Where the difference is with them is being able to make shots inside. Rubio has been well under 50% in his two years, which is just unacceptable. Rondo has been over 60% in four of his last five years.

    It’s that inability to make layups against the defense that keeps him from getting me to think they’re truly comparable in terms of impact at this point. Obviously, we’ll have to see how Rondo heals from the ACL injury though.

  8. Bushytop, I agree with you there. I think regardless of whether or not Pek cracks the Top 5 centers list, he can match up with pretty much anybody.

  9. It won’t really bother me if national media emphasize the guys who are most successful at beating someone off the dribble and/or making 3s. That’s happened for decades; a team traded Jason Kidd straight up for Stephon Marbury, and everyone acted like it was an even swap. What’s more important is whether Rubio positively impacts the outcome of a game more than all but 4 PGs in the NBA. That seems possible; I wish I could find shot location data from Jason Kidd’s early years, because I can’t determine whether Rubio can actually reach that level without knowing how productive Kidd was around the rim. From 2000 until 2007, though, Kidd’s % at the rim was 55%. He probably needs to get to that level to be in the conversation.

  10. gjk, I think that is a little harsh view on Mchale. He was a joke of a GM, but the Wolves played pretty well when he coached here.

  11. I think that this signing is a good thing for the team, even though they overpaid (a lot) for him. He’s not going to put up the same type of numbers as he did last year, but that doesn’t mean he’s not going to be as good. Hopefully with everyone else around him being healthy, it will cause him to be more efficient. I’ll take him dropping under 10 ppg if he bumps up his shooting percentage into the high 60’s or even low 70’s, which is something totally possible with this man if he just chooses his shots. Without him having to be “The Guy” in the middle and the focal point of scoring on the offense, he can be a Corey Brewer-type contributor on the offense, only scoring when he’s got a good match-up or is wide open.
    That being said, I also like having another guy on the roster that is a “backup star” so to speak. If Kevin Love goes down with injury again this year, he can step up and be a force in the middle, just like he was last year. His value isn’t going to be in inflated numbers like it was last year, but efficiency.
    And finally, Like Zach said earlier in the comments, we have to get to the playoffs and show the league that we can contend before we will be a “good destination” for free agents, which can eventually improve the team to be a title contender. I’m excited for this team this year, because if everyone can stay healthy, we can surprise a lot of people on our way to a top 6 western team, and playoff games at the Target Center are something I think we all would enjoy.

  12. “He was trying to draw plays, and it was like a little Etch and Sketch. Like a kid just messing around. . . . He just gave the clipboard to the assistant coaches sometimes” and “Practice, it was kind of funny…(McHale) didn’t warm us up and just let us get to playing five-on-five. He’d just sit on the sideline . . . and the other coaches would be coaching.” — Anthony Carter, 2008

    They played well in ’05 due to the wakeup call of their coach being fired and realization that they were going to miss the playoffs a year after making the conference finals; that team won more because their talent started playing closer to their abilities. The ’08-09 squad played well because Wittman was hated by the players and they hit an easy patch in their schedule before Jefferson tore his ACL. His success in Houston is based on great personnel decisions that gave him a squad who could play layups-and-3s-only ball on offense, made easier because the rules favor speed and quickness. A great Xs and Os coach accentuates player strengths while hiding their weaknesses; McHale’s approach is basically Lord of the Flies on the hardwood, which can work in the regular season with good enough players if they play hard but not in a 7-game series.

  13. The 2011 rockets did not have a single star and they went to the playoffs as well. 3 of the 4 years he has coached he has led his team to a winning record, and only one of those had a great roster. His only time he did not end with a winning record was when his best player tore his ACL.

  14. 2011 Rockets were coached by Rick Adelman.

  15. During the lockout season? I thought the 11-12 rockets had Mchale as coach

  16. Before 2013, the last Rockets team to make the playoffs was the one in 2008-09. McHale’s 2011-12 team was in the top 8 for 3/4 of the season and faded down the stretch. I never said his teams didn’t win or that his style doesn’t produce wins during the regular season. I’m saying he’s not a good Xs and Os coach compared to the best in the league.

    It’s false that he’s never had talent; the 04-05 Wolves were as talented or more talented than the 12-13 Rockets, and 11-12 had more talent than the team Adelman went 43-39 with the previous season. The 08-09 Wolves were 13-17 under McHale before Jefferson was hurt; 3 of those wins came against playoff teams (2 vs. Chicago and 1 vs. New Orleans on a night when Tyson Chandler and David West didn’t play), and 2 came against teams above .500 (the Suns and Hornets). They beat up on teams that were near their level, teams coached by Vinny Del Negro, and teams starting Sean Marks and Melvin Ely in their frontcourt. Last year, he finished with 3 more wins than Adelman had in 09-10 (when Yao played 0 games) and 2 more than Adelman had in 10-11 (when Yao played 5 games). So despite having his franchise player for the whole season when Adelman didn’t have his at all, McHale won 2-3 more games.

  17. Yao did not play the 11-12 season, the 5 with the most Minutes per game was Lowry,Martin,Scola,Lee,Parsons. Dragic was the 6th man. I was wrong about the playoffs, but it was a winning record.

    If your argument is Adelman is better the Mchale you will get no argument, but that statement is true for most coaches in the league.

  18. Note to self… Never get in a stats argument with gjk…

  19. At least now we know the Wolves will lead the league in at least one category:

    How many times commentators will botch the names of their centers.

    With “Pek-O-Vick” and “Deng”, I think they’ve got this one locked up for the foreseeable future.

  20. Basketball-reference.com and too much free time can do wonders…

    Mainly, I just think McHale is the Rockets coach because he allowed Morey to help pick assistant coaches and dictate their style of play, which is part of the reason why Adelman and the Rockets parted ways. I watched a lot of Rockets games in order to root against them so the Jazz could make the ’12 playoffs and the Wolves could have a 1st round pick, and I saw how easily the Wolves solved the Rockets when they were evenly matched.

  21. gjk, in regards to Kidd’s past value, player shot-charts are available on the NBA’s stats site (http://stats.nba.com/) for Kidd’s entire career.

    It’s easier to find stuff on basketball-reference, but NBA.com’s stats tools are incredible. Not only do they have stuff like shot-location data, but they calculate rate stats (like player O-rating, D-rating, and Reb-rate) using official play-by-play data, so they account for what happened in the specific possessions that each player was actually on the floor, rather than estimating it based on % of total team minutes, like bball-ref does.

    As for Kidd, he combined the positives of both Ricky and Rondo in terms of scoring off the dribble, being both a much better finisher at the rim than Rubio, and a much better FT shooter than Rondo. Despite poor overall FG% numbers throughout his career, he was pretty much always a very good scorer either at the rim, or from three (just never both in the same season, as he didn’t become a good spot-shooter until he could no longer finish inside).

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