Nikola Pekovic: The Rubicon of the Minnesota Timberwolves

So far, so good in free agency for the Timberwolves.  Minnesota signs Chase Budinger – who only played for a quarter of last season – for three years and attain Kevin Martin’s services for four.  If they stay healthy, the acquistions should deliver Los Lobos de Timber from last in the league in three-point shooting (officially) and in off-ball movement (unofficially).

On the adverse side of things, namely the other side of the court, defense has taken a step back.  While Malcolm Lee was by no means a mainstay in Minnesota’s rotation, he was one of the team’s better perimeter defenders (along with French mercenary Mickael Gelabale, who is also gone from the team).  Martin will consume their minutes, as well as take time from Barea and Ridnour, who both played exorbitantly at the off-guard spot throughout the season.

If you have watched Kevin Martin play throughout his career or experienced his subpar defensive awareness via NBA 2k, you know that Martin is a code yellow to many a team’s man-to-man defensive scheme.  He appeared to step up his defensive intensity last season on the contending Oklahoma City Thunder, but that was likely an aberration due to the outstanding team defense, which essentially elevated his own defensive standards.

On Minnesota, however, where there is no Ibaka to guard the paint, nor Durant or Westbrook to aggressively hedge screens or clamp down on switches, Martin will likely regress to his statistical norm.

This is a bad thing, yet with two of the best perimeter defenders/least efficient wing scorers from last year’s squad out of the picture, the net improvement on offense through free agency and the drafting of Shabazz Muhammad should heavily mitigate, if not offset, the defensive loss.

Minnesota was middle of the pack in defense last season and, if anything, struggled more to score consistently.  Since Kevin Love and Budinger were out for nearly the entire season and Rubio only started looking near 100% from February onward, this makes sense.  Assuming that the three players are at full health, with the addition of Martin, the team’s PPG should be at least 99-100, good enough for top-12 in a normal season.  Key phrase” at least.”  Scoring will not be a problem if the team stays (relatively) healthy.

Middle of the pack defense and top-12 scoring.  Sounds like a playoff team, right? No reason why not.  Unless, however, you recall that Andrei Kirilenko has also left the team.  While his advanced stats portray an average defender, they do not serve AK-47 justice, as he dealt with incredible instability within the starting lineup, a subpar defender in Derrick Williams (who started alongside him for much of the season), and injuries that cost him 18 games.

While I applaude the front office’s decision to let Kirilenko find another team (Kahn probably would have locked him up with a 3 year, $25 million deal), it leaves the team without its three best perimeter defenders and defensive leader going into next season.  Assuming that the team does not sign another guard/forward and resigns restricted free agent Nikola Pekovic, Minnesota’s starting lineup will probably be Rubio, Martin, Budinger/Muhammad, Love, Pekovic.

Whoops, emergency.  The proposed lineup has one average/borderline above average defender in Rubio, two if Budinger starts over Muhammad.  The rest of the lineup, however, is capable of getting lit up on almost any given night.

For this reason, I believe that the Wolves have to bite the bullet and either decline to match other teams’ offers for the Montenegrin center or move him in a sign-and-trade.

This will not happen.  I understand that.  The Wolves’ front office saw how Pekovic, when healthy, was one of the only sources of consistent scoring for the Wolves amid all of the casualties throughout the season and, as a result, will overlook his inability to challenge shots or rebound at a good, let alone great, rate on the defensive end.

With that said, wanting the Wolves to match the highest offer for Pekovic (which, based on the going rate, will likely be around 4 years, $46 million) is indirectly settling for long-term NBA mediocracy.  Signing Pekovic to such a deal will clog up any significant cap space in the foreseeable future, even if Minnesota declines to exercise Williams’ $6.7 million team option for next season. This is not even considering the inevitable Rubio extension (which will probably bump the Spaniard’s salary to at least $9 million per season).

Such an extension disables the team from seismic activity in the offseason outside of trades and freezes the roster with its same core for at least the next three years.  This core is talented enough to make the playoffs, maybe even to win a playoff series, but not to contend. Goodness, no.

Contending teams do not have starting big men who are both mediocre defenders.  Unless a team has exceptional talent or team defense (like the Miami Heat), inferior defense by a team’s big men gets victimized in the postseason as pace slows.  Three of the final four teams in the past postseason had exceptional defensive anchors at center: Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert, and Tim Duncan.  Chris Bosh, while not in the same tier as the other three big men on the defensive end, has been vital to the team’s success as center.

With Pekovic, Minnesota resigns itself to the upper tiers of NBA purgatory: trapped in middling draft positions, capable of winning a postseason series by the might of the team’s current offensive weaponry, but doomed to ultimately fall short of conference championship territory due of the team’s enormous defensive frailties.

George Karl’s Denver Nuggets and the Nash-led Phoenix Suns evinced the limits of potent offense if the defense cannot consistently keep a team below 100 points.  Even if the currently constructed team reaches its offensive potential, lack of a defensive leader will be the source of Minnesota’s inability to ever permeate the second-round threshold.

As much as I desperately want to see the Timberwolves return to the playoffs, I do not want the climax of the team’s return to glory to be a second-round exit at the hands of Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, or Memphis.  If this is the case, Kevin Love will almost certainly leave the Target Center three seasons from now.

Whether by sign-and-trade (to OKC for Kendrick Perkins, Perry Jones III, and a 2015 first-round pick, for instance) or (more likely) declining to resign Pekovic and starting rookie Gorgui Dieng alongside Love, Minnesota would undoubtedly be taking a massive risk in losing a very talented inside scorer and offensive rebounder; perhaps as importantly, it would further alienate its franchise player, but it is a necessary step if the Timberwolves realistically aspire to emerge as contenders in the Western Conference.

Yes, Dieng may not be the answer and the team will likely take a step back in terms of inside scoring (although Love’s return would lower Pekovic’s usage anyway).  But scoring is not what this reincarnated Wolves team needs its center to do. It needs the center to protect the rim and lead the defense first and foremost.  Pekovic cannot fill that role, and if Flip Saunders and the rest of Minnesota’s front office fail to realize this fact, the long rebuilding road will have a disappointing final destination.