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 2013-14 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.
Here’s something I didn’t expect to see when I pulled up Nikola Pekovic’s page on Basketball Reference: in 2013-14, he improved his points-per-36-minutes, his PER, his true shooting percentage and his field goal percentage, and held just about every other category steady. Somehow I thought he had been a little worse this year than last. Maybe it only seems weird because of the price tag that comes along with those numbers. In 2012-13 he did it all for $4.8 million; in 2013-14 he made $12.1 million.
None of which is his fault, really. He was a gigantic value last year and worth the money this year, but early on it felt like things weren’t quite hitting for Pekovic. He seemed to struggle on bunnies around the hoop, plus seemed to struggle at the end of close games (which, see also all of the Timberwolves). At the time, I wondered how much of that could be attributed to the fact that his physical post game was predicated on a kind of feel and sense of force, mass and space that was hard to keep up in the offseason. He might, I reasoned, be the kind of player who has to play his way back into comfortability with the game each year.
Although his performance in the clutch remained a problem (he was 0-for-7 on shots where the Wolves were ahead or behind by 3 or fewer points in the last 30 seconds), Pekovic did improve over the course of the season, bringing his field goal percentage up to 58.6% in March (he was at 54.1% for the year). There was also the pleasant surprise of a reasonably effective jumpshot, although it was probably effective because no one expected it, like the Spanish Inquisition. (He was 6-for-13 (46.2%) from 15–19 feet. But it felt like 100%.)
His individual defense seemed to take a step back from last year, but it’s hard to know exactly what was at the root of it because Pek’s defensive acumen is tied so tightly to team defense and not individual effort. In 2012-13, it seemed like there was a cohesive approach on the Wolves to drop the big man on pick-and-rolls and then fill the gaps. For whatever reason, that consistency seemed to disappear this season. Pek would drop but then other players would not always follow that move appropriately. (My personal theory is that it had to do with the departure of Bill Bayno, who did as much as anyone to work on and improve the frontcourt players during his time in Minnesota.) Whatever the reason, Pek was left exposed more often than not, and he’s simply not a rim protector.
The good news for Pekovic, though, is that the Wolves discovered a solid second center in Gorgui Dieng toward the end of the season. This is good rather than bad for Pek for a number of reasons. First of all, having a defensively-oriented big takes some of the onus off of Pek for anchoring that end of the floor. Obviously, this isn’t football where you get to switch personnel when you change directions on the floor, but having a player like Dieng come in off the bench should help the Wolves hold down the fort while Pekovic rests, putting less pressure on him while he’s out there and letting the game come to him.
Rest is the other huge thing that Dieng offers Pekovic. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a 6-11, 290 lb person, running up and down the floor night in and night out takes a toll on Pek’s body. The most games Pek has played in a season so far is 65, and that was his rookie year when he wasn’t starting. He played 62 last year and 54 this year, and at this point it’s reasonable to assume that he will miss in the area of 20 games a season. Not ideal, but it’s what you should expect, so having a piece like Dieng to A.) hopefully lessen the impact on Pek and maybe boost him up into the 70-game range and B.) capably fill in for Pek when he inevitably does struggle with leg and foot issues.
These are the reasons why I felt like all the talk of trading Pekovic that popped up in the wake of Dieng’s emergence were kind of silly. With the wear and tear of an NBA season, it makes sense to conceive of a frontcourt as not a starting PF and C plus another big man or two, but as a cohesive unit of three to four players whose strengths and weaknesses should interact in such a way as to emphasize the former and minimize the latter. Depending on how things fall with the draft and a possible Love trade in the works, it could be interesting to see Pekovic paired with a defensively-oriented PF like Taj Gibson and Dieng paired with someone who can space the floor like Adreian Payne.
The last thing I want to mention about Pek is that I think he’s a little misunderstood. Although he can get fired up during games and sometimes in the locker room (his manner there can sometimes remind you that gentlemen of his size don’t have to worry very much about anything they say), he seems at heart to be a very placid giant. He’s generally thoughtful, personable and funny. He genuinely loves the game, but he also seems content with his role on the team. He’s not a guy who’s going to push to be the focal point of the offense or demand touches down low or complain about his teammates. Maybe that means he’s not a so-called “alpha dog,” but to me, it bodes well for the team going forward into the post-Love era, whether that begins this season or next. Neither Pek nor Rubio seem primed to be the cornerstone of the franchise, but I think that also means they will find ways to work with whomever is brought in to try and fill that role.
The bottom line is that Pekovic is a known quantity on a team facing a lot of uncertainty going forward, not just with regards to Love but in terms of Rubio’s upcoming contract negotiations, the draft, how young players like Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng will develop, and a still uncertain coaching situation. Although he may play fewer games a season than one would hope, everything points to him remaining a bright spot in the Wolves lineup next season.