Montenegrin star Nikola Pekovic has been a dominate force in the paint for the Minnesota Timberwolves the past two years. This past season he recorded career high game averages in points, 16.1, rebounds, 8.8, and minutes, 31.6, establishing himself as one of the most productive offensive centers in the NBA. Pek’s 20.26 Player Efficiency Rating put him sixth in the NBA last season among all starting centers.
Despite the strong play from Pekovic the past few seasons, his future with the Wolves remains blurry as he enters restricted free agency as one of the premier big men on the market. The confounding question that has been hovering over the Timberwolves organization and its fans all season long has regarded how much money it will take to retain Pekovic in the agressive restricted free agent market?
This past season big Pek earned $4,837,200 in the final year of a three-year, $13 million contract which initially lured the big man from Greek club Panathinikos to come play for the struggling Wolves. The former 2008 second-round pick is due for a substantial pay raise, as he is expected to receive competing offer sheets from opposing organizations that may average $10+ million per season, regardless of his recent struggles staying on the court.
The nature of the restricted free agent market in the NBA is a unique sort of monster; teams are forced to overpay for the services of desired players in order to put the player’s current team in an undesirable situation. This is the reason why players like Nic Batum of the Portland Trail Blazers receive contract offers well above the natural value of that player, as teams are put in a position to either say goodbye to a talented asset or to pay the player they covet several million more than what the organization values them at. In the end, the player is the biggest winner from restricted free agency.
When removing the effects of the bloated restricted free agent markets of the past, I believe that Pek’s actual worth to the Timberwolves lies somewhere around $7 million a year for a variety of reasons. I argue that Pekovic is not “worth” more than $10 million a season because even as he is entering the prime of his career, he remains a 27-year-old entering his fourth NBA season and is only getting older. Pek has a troubling history staying healthy, as he missed 22 games this past season after missing 19 in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign. As much as I love the guy, he has yet to prove that he can endure the grind of a full season in the NBA and it might be a significant risk handing out huge bucks to a guy spending too much time on the sidelines instead of on the court (see Terrell Brandon). When considering Pek’s playing style as a bruiser in the paint, he appears to be much more prone to injury than the average player.
The penalties created by the hard cap established in the most recent CBA will deter many teams from giving out $10 million a year to a player like Pekovic. If the Wolves decide to commit serious money to Pek, they run the risk of compromising their future financial flexibility (as the Clippers did with DeAndre Jordan) and would be lucky if Pek turns out anywhere as effective as Marc Gasol (another max contract center) has for Memphis.
In the end, I believe that Nikola will ultimately resign with the team who gave him his first opportunities in the NBA and will come to an agreement with the Wolves. Pekovic has been very gracious of the city of Minneapolis in the media and has apparently found a desirable place to call home nearly 5,000 miles away from his native homeland. He has stated with multiple sources, such as SLAM magazine, his desire to stay and sign with Minnesota this summer.
SLAM quote made this past October: ‘I would like to stay here because of everything,’ he said. ‘I just like everything. I like the area. I like the team. I like all the stuff. Now I got some friends here. Now it’s real easy. It’s just nice, nice people, nice town. I would like to be here.’
Nikola is one key components to the future success of the Wolves. I believe that he provides reasonable insurance against the potential trade or departure via future free agency of Kevin Love, and that he solidifies the short-term future of the Timberwolves frontcourt playing alongside the superstar PF. Since arriving in Minnesota, Pek has gained a familiarity and level of comfort with the city of Minneapolis and does not appear ready to just pack up and move to an entirely new American city. However, I do believe with Flip Saunders as the new GM, we could see a total shake-up of this Wolves roster that may include saying goodbye to our rising center. We have numerous holes that need to be addressed, but I believe that retaining Pekovic must ultimately be a top priority this summer.