The summer of 2013 was always going to represent a crossroads of sorts for the Timberwolves.
Flip Saunders returned to the franchise in May of 2013 as President of Basketball Operations. The Wolves were coming off a 31-win season, one that started with promise but ended up derailed largely because Kevin Love was limited to just 18 games because of injuries — the Knuckle Pushup Season.
Ricky Rubio was thought to be on the rise. Love had been brilliant the year before his injury-marred season, and the threat of his opt-out clause loomed in distance. After the 2013-14 season, he would have just one year left. So the thought was if there was any hope of convincing him to stay, the 2013-14 season had to be a year the Wolves turned the corner.
A bunch of veterans — Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger, Corey Brewer and Ronny Turiaf — were signed in 2013, Flip’s first summer back. Rick Adelman was the head coach. And the final piece of the puzzle, by both logic and necessity, was re-signing a core member of that team: Nikola Pekovic.
He was a restricted free agent, meaning the Wolves could match any offer an outside team might make. None came, though one could argue that was largely because the Wolves made it very clear they would match no matter what. Still, while Minnesota wasn’t exactly bidding against itself, but it was painted into a bit of a corner: Pek and his agent knew the Wolves needed to sign him.
He was coming off a very productive 2012-13 season in which he led the Wolves in Player Efficiency Rating (20.2) while averaging 16.3 points and 8.8 rebounds. He played in 62 games that season. He had never played in more than 65 games in his three NBA seasons since coming over after being stashed away as the top pick in the second round of the 2008 draft.
But if the Wolves were going to win now, they needed Pek. They might not have needed him for as long as they needed to sign him for, but that was the push-pull. They offered a four-year deal at a reported $12 million per season in July of 2013. In August, Pekovic signed for that annual value but for one extra season — a five-year deal worth $60 million guaranteed.
There were legitimate concerns about Pek’s health at the time. There were legitimate concerns about his overall value. But like I said, the Wolves were desperate to put a winning team on the court. They had a productive player willing to re-sign. It was good timing for Pek. It would prove to be terrible timing for the Wolves.
Pekovic had a brilliant start to the 2013-14 season. He was even featured in the “Bruise Brothers” All-Star campaign with Love, as you see in the fake record that I still have (pictured by my office window). He played and started the first 43 games, averaging 33 minutes, 18.5 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. When he got a defender down low or he was working the offensive glass, his huge frame was close to unstoppable.
But the huge frame that had betrayed him health-wise before started to break down again halfway into the first season of that five-year extension. Foot and ankle problems were the culprit the rest of the season, with Pekovic missing 28 games in the second half of 2013-14.
The Wolves, who couldn’t quite gain traction with or without Pekovic, finished the year 40-42. Their peripheral numbers were such that Basketball Reference suggests they should have been a 48-win team. But the sum of their parts didn’t equal the whole. The Wolves, who had constructed a roster for one big push, didn’t make it.
Love’s opt-out threats became more real after the season ended. He was eventually traded for Andrew Wiggins in the summer of 2014. The Wolves dumped some of the veterans they had brought in and went with a youth movement. They kept Kevin Martin, who was on a shorter-term deal (four years) at far less value (roughly $7 million per). He’s not a great fit on this year’s team, and the Wolves would presumably love to get out from under Martin before next year, when he has a $7.4 million player option. But Martin’s contract is not hurting them much.
Pek’s contract, however, is.
Because Pekovic was able to get that extra year when he signed his deal, he still has 2 years left after this season, at that annual value of $12 million. After that productive, albeit injury-shortened first season after signing the extension, Pekovic has been both injured and ineffective. He’s played in a total of 43 games the past two seasons with a shooting percentage of .418. He’s likely done for the year again.
Sadly, a big man who had tremendous value when healthy at the time he signed is now the worst of all worlds, contract-wise: expensive, injured, unproductive and virtually not able to be traded, at least not for any kind of assets.
If Pek had been a free agent one year later, the year Love was traded and the push for the playoffs had failed, things might have worked out entirely differently.
It’s nobody’s fault, really. Just the confluence of bad timing for the Wolves and bad luck for both the team and player.