Our hope is he’s gonna be able to give us 20 to 25 minutes [a night]. If he can do that, he’s gonna be a very valuable player for us.
— Flip Saunders last April discussing Pekovic’s future with the team.
Before Wednesday night’s game against the Denver Nuggets, in which Nikola Pekovic scored 12 points in 16 minutes off the bench, the last time the 30-year-old Montenegrin played was March 11 of last year. “It’s been almost nine [months],” he speculated at practice over the weekend. “No, even more. It’s been almost a year.”
His massive size, 6-foot-11, 307 pounds, and Godfather looks betray his teddy bear personality. He openly admits that he has butterflies before every game. He was especially nervous before his return against Denver, and confessed to his concern over how ready he was to play in an NBA game at practice. “You can run as much as you want, you can do one-on-zero, one-on-one,” he said. “When you go live, it’s different. It’s gonna be step by step, it’s not gonna be easy adjusting to everything in the game and everything.”
His first shift Wednesday night was a bit rough, but as the game progressed he says that he started to feel better. He was his typical self, banging on the inside, fighting for tough baskets and plodding up and down the floor as he usually does. “For me especially, first time I went in, it was tough. Whatever you do, everything is different,” he said after the game. “It was not as bad as I expected. I expected it was gonna be way worse.”
He did express concern, however, over how he would feel the next day. That’s the crux of the situation. Pekovic is the second-highest paid player on the Minnesota Timberwolves roster, making $12.1 million this year and owed $35.8 million through the 2017-18 season. He only played in 31 games last year, and has not played more than 65 games in a season since joining Minnesota as a 25-year-old rookie in 2010-11.
“You can always look back, I know a lot of people look back on Pekovic[‘s contract], but at the time … he was the No. 1 center on the board, there were people that were gonna pay him,” Saunders said last year when asked about the five-year, $60 million deal Pekovic signed in August of 2013. “No one knew that his … they knew he had a history of missing games, but I don’t think anyone thought it was gonna be to the point where it’s gotten. But what we’ve gotta do is we’ve gotta try and find a way to correct that situation.”
It’s hard to know if, from a medical standpoint, Pekovic can ever be healed to the point that he could play 82 games in a season. But at this point he is still in his athletic prime and could be used effectively as a backup 4 or 5. Granted, a very expensive backup, but one with an important role on the team.
Minnesota needs a big man who can step in and and defend players when Karl-Anthony Towns either needs rest or runs into foul trouble. There is no one else on this team that can reliably guard players like Blake Griffin, Zach Randolph or Jahlil Okafor. Gorgui Dieng is too slight. Kevin Garnett can hold his own, but he’s 39 and not part of the team’s long-term plans. Nemanja Bjelica is more of a ball-mover and shooter than an inside defender. Everyone else weighs less than 240 pounds.
Pekovic presents the same issue Ricky Rubio does: He is infinitely valuable when healthy, but has issues staying on the court — and Pekovic’s injury history is much more troubling than Rubio’s. The thing with Rubio’s situation, too, is that Minnesota just needs to find a competent backup point guard that can run the offense in his absence. As long as the backup is not really young (Tyus Jones, 19), really old (Andre Miller, 40) or playing out of position (Zach LaVine, who looks more natural as a shooting guard), he should be more than able to operate the offense when Rubio either needs rest or is injured.
Replacing Pekovic’s size is near impossible. There just aren’t many people that are nearly seven feet tall and weigh over 300 pounds that can move up and down the court like Pekovic. Even with his athleticism, the team isn’t able to push the pace as much as they would like. “When Pek is in a game, that’s gonna slow us down a little bit, because it makes no sense to have him out there if you’re not gonna utilize what he does,” interim coach Sam Mitchell said after the Denver game. “It keeps you in that Catch-22.”
One solution would be to play small ball, moving Towns from the 4 to the 5, using Shabazz Muhammad as the power forward, Andrew Wiggins as the small forward, Zach LaVine at the 2 and Rubio at point. But that requires an insane amount of conditioning and a team that’s ready to run for 82 games straight. “I laugh, because it’s such a commitment,” says Mitchell, who’s GM when he was coaching the Toronto Raptors from 2004-08, Brian Colangelo, encouraged him to play a run-and-gun style until he saw the wear and tear his players endured after 30 games. “When you start playing — traveling, practicing and playing games — to run for 40, say, 35 out of 48 minutes running consistently, it’s tough.”
The second option is signing a defense-first player with size to replace Pekovic’s minutes when he is injured. The issue there is that the Wolves are already over the cap and would have to free up roster space in order to do so. That may be the way to go, but they are not offloading Pekovic and his contract. Filling that position also comes at the expense of potentially developing another player, adding shooters and ball-movers to the second unit, or reinforcing the point guard spot behind Rubio.
What this all comes down to is the Wolves have to get as much out of Pekovic as they can. It means monitoring his minutes, putting help defense around him so he’s not the only one taking a pounding from the other team’s big man all night and giving him time to be treated if he needs it. He may never live up to the terms of his contract, but he is still a factor every opposing team has to account for. “Pek’s a load,” said Denver coach Mike Malone before Wednesday’s game. “He’s a great duck-in player when he gets down there. Very strong, soft touch, left shoulder. But he’ll give them some bulk, some size, some physicality around the paint, around the rim.”
“We’ve gotta tone down our expectations,” cautioned Mitchell, understanding Pekovic is going to need time to get back to what he once was. “Obviously we’re excited just to have him back in uniform.”
As they should be. Pekovic plays a vital role on this team. The question is, as always, how often he can play it, and for how long.