By: Sam Ekstrom
With Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio under team control through 2015, the Wolves may want to put all their focus on locking up Nikola Pekovic, a restricted free-agent after this season.
Averaging a double-double over his last 10 games (17.8/11.0), Pekovic continues to bolster his stock as a top-tier big man in the NBA. The 2008 draft pick from Montenegro is sixth in scoring among NBA centers, sixth in free-throw percentage, and seventh in offensive rebounding.
Now playing in his first complete season as a full-time starter, Pekovic continues to show that he hasn’t yet reached his ceiling. After stepping in for the ineffective Darko Milicic in early February of last season, Pekovic proved his mettle as a scoring threat on the inside as well as a tenacious rebounder.
“Pek” ended up being one of the many Wolves’ injury casualties that cost the 2011-12 team a shot at the playoffs, injuring his ankle shortly after point guard Ricky Rubio tore his ACL. While Pekovic returned to put up nice numbers in April, the season was already lost.
Knowing he would need to have good endurance as a starter in a full 82-game campaign, the 300-pound Pekovic committed himself to getting leaner and quicker in the offseason. After cutting weight and adding muscle over the summer, the Wolves’ center has played in all but two games this season, averaging 31.5 minutes per game (third on the team and 11th among centers).
So what will it cost to keep the 27-year old Pekovic, whose base salary is just over $4.8 million this season? Possibly more than the Wolves can afford.
Al Horford, Atlanta’s talented center with similar career stats to Pekovic, extended for five years, $60 million before the 2010 season. That came after three solid seasons with the Hawks.
The Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol hit restricted free agency before the 2011 season and re-signed with a four-year contract averaging around $14.4 million per season. This also came after three seasons in Memphis.
Though Pekovic, now in his third season, is perhaps less versatile than these other two centers, it’s safe to say that there’s a club willing to overspend on a quality big man (Boston, maybe?).
Because Pekovic will be a restricted free agent, Minnesota gets the opportunity to match any opposing offer, but it’s possible a division or conference rival could hand “Pek” a very generous offer sheet to put the Wolves in a financial bind.
Reasonably, the Wolves have to be willing to spend $10-12 million if they intend on keeping Pekovic. Adding another eight-digit salary to the books would make it nearly impossible to pay Andrei Kirilenko’s player-option ($10.2 million) and pick up the team-options on Greg Stiemsma ($2.7 million if not waived before July 17) or Dante Cunningham ($2.1 million). It’s also conceivable that Minnesota could be on the hook for Brandon Roy’s $5.3 million next season, depending on how much longer he attempts to rehab his injured knee.
The Wolves have compiled a solid group of talented assets, but unfortunately, talent needs to get paid.
What’s certain is that Nikola Pekovic is a terrific center and one of the most coveted Timberwolves at this time. If Minnesota wants to keep him around, and I think they do, moves will have to be made.