Following the Minnesota Timberwolves' 97-95 win over the New Orleans Hornets on Sunday, March 17, J.J. Barea was sitting in front of his locker with his feet in a tub of ice. Nikola Pekovic, who had just returned from injury, stood over him with a devious smirk on his face.
“You all done with that?” he asked the Puerto Rican.
“Just about,” said Barea, looking up from a game on his smart phone to address his monstrous Montenegrin teammate. “I’ll be out in a couple minutes.”
“You gonna drink that?” asked Pekovic while looking at the tub of ice, which was mostly melted at this point.
“No,” Barea said, laughing. “It’s all yours.”
Pekovic was obviously asking Barea the question in jest, but for a moment there, I was kind of thinking: With how often this team has been injured, maybe a melted tub of ice topped off with some foot sweat begins to sound appetizing after a little while. Hey, at least there’s enough “foot water” to go around these days.
In all seriousness, both Kirilenko and Pekovic, who returned against New Orleans that night, were dearly missed.
Kirilenko scores about 12 points per game, has a total shooting percentage around 60 and a player efficiency ranking of 17.25 (per basketball-reference.com). Pekovic offers about 16 points per night, has a total shooting percentage of 56 and has an even higher player efficiency rating of nearly 20.
Additionally, both players are solid on defense: Kirilenko is so lanky he has a reach like Michael Jordan in Space Jam and Pekovic is harder to move than a grand piano.
In short, both players are a key part of the Timberwolves' future.
The team is hoping that Kirilenko picks up his player option next year, and it should offer a contract to Pekovic in the offseason. The two may go hand-in-hand, as a multi-year deal for Pekovic in the $12 million per season range should lock him up and convince Kirilenko that the team is serious about competing in the near future.
By not signing Pekovic, the team is essentially throwing away a value pick—Pek was drafted in the second round—and telling its players and fans alike that team management is more interested in saving money than putting a good product on the floor.
With Kirilenko on the floor, the team knows it has a player that is a good ball-handler and passer who also blocks well on defense. Unlike Pekovic, he is not going to run players over, but he makes up for it by knowing where to go with the ball and blocking opponents from behind.
He is also a good person to have in the locker room. A 32-year-old veteran who spent 10 years with the Utah Jazz before joining the Wolves, AK-47 has been around the game long enough to have seen just about everything and impart his wisdom onto his younger teammates.
Kirilenko should also serve as a starter at the 3-spot next year when Kevin Love returns as the power forward, which will allow Derrick Williams to come off the bench as a replacement at the 3 or 4 and potentially move into a starting role at small forward later in the season.
As for Pekovic, unless there is a team out there that is willing to give him a max contract, the Timberwolves should lock him down long term. Only 27 years of age, Pek is young enough to be considered part of the team’s long-term future, and Minnesota would be best served to have him playing for them in his prime.
The third-year center has seen his production rise from 5.5 points in his rookie season to 13.9 in his second year, and now he is averaging around 16 points per night.
Although he is not the most mobile player, he should develop more post moves as time goes on, and by scoring a little more when he is close to the basket, he could easily add a couple points each night. It’s not absurd to think he could average 20 points a night in the next few years.
With Kirilenko and Pekovic, the 'Wolves look more and more like a complete team. They have two solid starting guards, Ricky Rubio and Alexey Shved, the best power forward in the league (Kevin Love), Kirilenko at small forward and Pekovic at center.
Without Kirilenko and Pekovic, the team looks like a hodgepodge of bodies around Rubio and Love, setting the team back to the good old Flynn/Johnson/Beasley days, and let me tell you, it’s best that the team puts that era behind it.
Hopefully, next season the team will suffer fewer injuries and have a solid, healthy core that can bring playoff basketball to Minnesota for the first time since Kevin Garnett was in town.
After all, it’s kind of messed up when foot water begins to look appetizing.
All quotes were obtained first-hand.
Tom Schreier covers the Timberwolves for Bleacher Report and writes a weekly column for TheFanManifesto.com.