AWAW kicks off the off-season coverage for 2017 by looking back at the roster of the 2016-17 season.
Nikola Pekovic sat at his locker following a game back in the 2012-13 season. Back then, the Minnesota Timberwolves were, in theory, good enough to be a playoff team in the West. Ricky Rubio was still slinging the ball as he came back from an ACL injury. Kevin Love was their All-NBA talent, navigating a season with a broken hand (twice). The Wolves had realistic expectations of making a leap into the highly competitive race that ended up being dashed due to injuries.
However, after a loss in January to the Oklahoma City Thunder, everybody had questions for him about his new tattoos. Pek’s tattoos were fascinating. They showed a glimpse into his warrior mentality, having grown up in the former Yugoslavia. He had a tattoo about the Battle of Kosovo. He had a tattoo of the Serbian cross — a coat of arms. Pekovic’s newest tattoo covered his left forearm. It was what appears to be a grizzly bear in the forest, looking to be on the attack. The bear roars across his ulna and radius bones.
Considering Pek’s other tattoos seemed to be Serbian-based and nothing like the forest depiction he now had on his arm, we asked Pekovic why the bear tattoo. What was the reasoning for this artwork? His answer was simple. His answer was pure Pekovic.
“Everybody afraid of bears.”
It was quintessential Pek. Everything about Pek was predicated on fear, which is amusing because of how nice a person he was. The 290-pound behemoth filled with granite never got in a fight in his NBA time. The one moment when it could have happened, Love and Danny Granger started shoving each other after a hard foul back in February of 2012. As Michael Beasley and Martell Webster tried to keep the peace among Love and Granger, Dahntay Jones had more important goals. He walked over to Pek and started joking with him. Via the Star Tribune:
“Hey, we don’t want any of you,” he told Pekovic. “We don’t want to mess with you.”
The idea was to keep the big man happy so he didn’t start throwing people around. Whether Pek was ever going to show his angry side or not, it was a wise gamble on Jones’ part.
Andrew Bynum once openly thanked foul trouble for getting Pekovic out of a game against the Lakers. Bynum was sick of not being able to move his opponent anywhere on the floor. Pekovic was a bruiser, often making his opponents feel the effects of him being physical for days after. He was one of the few players in the league that made you feel like you had just played an NFL game.
For a while, it seemed like Pekovic had no place in the NBA. He was a foul machine in his first season, committing 7.3 fouls per 36 minutes. He had real rookie moments like when he asked a referee to stop play so he could tie his shoe while the Wolves were on defense. It resulted in foul trouble for Michael Beasley and a tongue lashing toward Pek.
After a year of working his tail off to figure out how to move his feet quicker and take advantage of his strength, Pekovic became the no-brainer option at center for the Wolves. He won the starting job over Darko Milicic in Pekovic’s second season. He became a scoring and rebounding machine in his third season. From 2011 to 2014, only Andre Drummond and Reggie Evans were better offensive rebounders than Pek.
Pekovic was a delight to watch on the court. He had real issues at times fitting into the modern, evolving NBA, but he also gave opponents problems they weren’t prepared to play against. He teamed up with Love to form a bruising offensive attack. Only health kept them from getting enough time on the court together to figure it out for long-term viability. Pekovic’s ankle issues eventually doomed his career, but his time playing for the Wolves was entertainment. My time getting to cover him as a player showed me just how fun of a personality he was.
His teammates adored him. They joked with him and waited for his funny quips back to him. They chuckled to themselves when he told reporters that he watched The Godfather when he was five years old. Everybody cackled when he told Mark Remme that his favorite food was “meat.”
Pekovic was an aesthetic delight. Watching him look like a rhinoceros doing ballet around the basket was fun. Watching him drop-step into caving a defender’s chest in before dropping in a half hook was fun. Seeing Pekovic set screens like a steel-reinforced wall was fun. Hell, even watching Pekovic sprint up the floor was incredible.
He turned Brandon Knight into a rag doll.
Pekovic made entire benches make intelligent business decisions.
He worked out by throwing two-handed chest passes with a medicine ball 15 rows into the lower bowl.
At Pekovic’s peak on the court, he gave the Wolves 20.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per 36 minutes while a starter on the team. His 56.4% from the field for a season is a franchise record. Karl-Anthony Towns bumped Pekovic from second on the list last season when his 54.2% from the field edged out Pek’s 54.1%.
We’ve seen Pekovic plays his last game for the Wolves. Despite having one more year on his contract, he’s done in Minnesota. The ankle and Achilles’ tendon problems ended his career far shorter than he should’ve enjoyed. It’s not just a matter of getting Pek to retire due to the ankle and not attempt a comeback in the NBA later on, which would likely forfeit money from the Wolves back to the insurance company covering a large chunk of his salary.
While Pek may never have lived up to the $60 million contract, it wasn’t because he wasn’t talented or productive enough. He just couldn’t stay on the court. He carried too much muscle on top of those ankles. But I’ve never regretted the Wolves giving him that money. He was part of the good culture the Wolves were able to foster at times. Pekovic was a fan favorite and an organizational favorite often. He gave guys like Kevin Love and Gorgui Dieng someone strong to work against.
He follows in Vlade Divac’s footsteps of European NBA big man to executive for Partizan Belgrade in the Adriatic League. Pekovic is now the president of the basketball club. Nobody knows where that will lead him to in the future. His playing career with Partizan eventually carried him to the NBA and into our hearts. Perhaps some day, it will lead him back to the NBA in an executive role.
Regardless of where his executive career takes him, we’ll always be looking for where Pek is in the world.
We’ll miss you, Pek. Thank you for the memories, even if we wanted so many more.