Minnesota Timberwolves' Playoff Hopes Rest on Newly Re-Signed Nikola Pekovic

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 14, 2013

Apr 5, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic (14) passes a loose ball past Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry (3) in the second half at Target Center. The Raptors 95-93. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

You can breathe a deep sigh of relief, Minnesota Timberwolves fans.

As tweeted out by Flip Saunders, Nikola Pekovic will officially be returning to the Land of 10,000 Lakes after a dragging out of negotiations between the team and the restricted free agent. 

ESPN's Marc Stein has some contract details for us:

With Pek officially signed, Minnesota can now focus on maximizing its much-improved lineup in hopes of a playoff run. Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love should both be healthy this year, and while Andrei Kirilenko was signed by the Brooklyn Nets in free agency, the additions of Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Shabazz Muhammad will more than make up the difference. 

Add in the expected growth of the many young players on the roster like Alexey Shved and Derrick Williams. You're looking at a team that should definitely be in the mix for a playoff berth, even in the brutally difficult Western Conference. 

All of that potential, though, would mean little for the T-Wolves if they weren't able seal the deal with Pekovic.


Other Options At Center

As shown on the Rotoworld's NBA depth charts, Minnesota has four backup centers: Gorgui Dieng, Ronny Turiaf, Chris Johnson and Bojan Dubljevic. The last of the four is a solid stretch 4, but he's going to be spending more time in Europe before he ever makes it over to the NBA. 

That leaves Johnson (a limited player with great athleticism), Turiaf (a veteran without much upside to push him past role-player status) and Dieng (a defensively oriented center who needs plenty of time to adjust to the NBA game). None of those are particularly appealing options for a team vying for postseason contention. 

There also aren't any starting-caliber big men left on the open market, so Minnesota would have been left with a big hole to fill if Pek wasn't brought back. 

He should be expected to contribute 30-plus minutes each and every night, underscoring just how important he is to the team.

Of course, he's spent plenty of time proving that on the court over the past few seasons. 


Opens Things up For Kevin Love

Given the amount of time Love spent injured during the 2012-13 season, we're obviously working with a pretty small sample size. The power forward played 483 minutes with Pekovic on the court and just 134 with him off it, according to NBA.com's statistical databases.  

Although he averaged 0.5 fewer points per 36 minutes alongside the big man, Love's efficiency skyrocketed. 

First, let's just acknowledge that Love couldn't shoot last season. His injured wrist undoubtedly played a part in the decline in his production, and the numbers pretty clearly reflect that.

But that said, there's a rather large disparity across the board. When Pekovic played, everything opened up for the three-point-shooting power forward, and he took advantage of the lowered level of defensive attention. 

The jump in offensive rating is also quite significant, as that accounts for more than just shooting. With Pekovic playing, Love's Offensive Rating was 102. Without him, it was only 93.5. 

Three-point shooting is the big benefit of playing alongside Pek, though. Take this play against the Milwaukee Bucks as an example. 

Pekovic starts out on the elbow while Love sets a pick for J.J. Barea to use.

Immediately, Samuel Dalembert is put in a difficult situation. He's well aware that Pekovic can cut to the basket and free himself for the chance to gain deep post positioning, but he also has to keep his eyes peeled because Love can easily pop out for a triple. 

That's exactly what happens. 

Love sets up beyond the arc as both Monta Ellis and John Henson follow Barea. Dalembert is left between a rock and a hard place, as following Pekovic prevents the easy drop-off pass from Barea, but it also leaves Love wide open. 

Dalembert chooses Pekovic, and Love is left with a wide open shot at the top of the arc. 

He swishes the ball through the net for three points, and Minnesota takes the early lead. 

It's a great example of how Pekovic's presence makes defenses hesitant, but he can also effect the game when serving as the screener in a pick-and-roll situation, as you can see below against the Boston Celtics

While Pek is setting up to screen Rajon Rondo, Love is creeping out to the perimeter in case there's a chance to swing the ball over for an open three-pointer. 

Once Pekovic starts to roll, Chris Wilcox has no choice but to go with him. The Montenegrin center is too dangerous to leave unattended, even if Love gains some extra space on the perimeter. 

Wilcox's head turns, and that's enough. 

Luke Ridnour recognizes that Love is wide open, and he swings the ball over to the big man. 

Wilcox can't close in time, and it's another easy three-pointer for Love. 

Don't be surprised to see a lot of plays like this down the road, but only if Pekovic is actually on the court. Dieng, Turiaf and Johnson won't demand as much defensive attention, and it's those slight shifts, doubts and head turns that open things up. 

Love will ultimately be effective no matter who he plays with, but Pekovic's presence definitely creates additional chances for him. 


Pick-and-Roll Prowess with Ricky Rubio

There are some great pick-and-roll combinations throughout the NBA, but the Pekovic-Ricky Rubio duo could eventually rank right up there with the best of them.

According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Pekovic was incredibly solid as a roll man in pick-and-roll situations during the 2012-13 season. He scored 1.23 points per possession, which left him ranked 16th in the Association. 

This comes a year after he ranked No. 4. 

Pek also drew plenty of fouls when cutting to the hoop, and he was quite adept at finishing through contact

It also helps to have one of the most creative passers in the NBA feeding you the ball after you set a screen. Rubio can hit a teammate if there's even the tiniest of gaps, and he's only getting better.

In this play against the Toronto Raptors, Pek initiates the pick-and-roll by setting a screen on the perimeter for Rubio. 

He's immediately going to roll to the basket, as he's not exactly much of a threat to pop out for a spot-up jumper. In fact, Synergy shows that he shot only one spot-up jump shot the entire season, a jumper from the free-throw line against the Los Angeles Lakers that clanged off the front of the iron. 

Chalk that up to Pekovic knowing his limitations. 

The Raptors choose to hedge out on Rubio and shift the last level of defense over to the paint. That leaves a very narrow passing window for Rubio, and there are only a few point guards who could squeeze the ball through the gap and keep it right on target.

Yet that's exactly what Rubio does. 

Pekovic gets the bounce pass and easily finishes the play with a sweeping hook as he bulls toward the basket. Minnesota expands its lead. 

Another way that Rubio and Pekovic often connect is through the drop-off pass. 

When Rubio gets ahead of the center, he's quite adept at adjusting in midair and finding the trailer for a momentum-aided finish. 

Only 15 players (not centers, but players) where able to shoot more efficiently than Pekovic in pick-and-roll situations during the 2012-13 season. And that was without a full season of playing alongside Rubio.

No. 1 isn't out of the realm of possibilities during the upcoming campaign.  


Defensive Abilities

So far I've focused entirely on offense, but Pekovic is by no means limited to scoring points. He's an underrated stopper who has improved throughout his career as he's figured out that fouling isn't usually the best method of defense. 

There's still plenty of work to be done, though. 

Below you can see how he ranked in the NBA in each situation that he defended against more than 25 times last season, as shown by Synergy

Pekovic has to improve his ability to close out on spot-up shooters, as they shot 42.6 percent from the field against him, including a staggering 14-of-25 from behind the three-point arc, but the rest of his defense is pretty solid. 

He's a monster in the post—surprise, surprise—and it's absolutely impossible to physically overpower him. The big man can still get trapped into fouling after he gets confused by an impressive sequence of finesse moves, but that's his only weakness in the post. 

If Pek can continue playing solid defense, especially now that he's joined by the big body of Love, the Timberwolves' playoff chances will increase rather dramatically.

He may not be the best player on the roster—it's a tossup between him and Rubio for No. 2, trailing only the power forward—but he's the barometer by which this healthy squad can be measured. He opens things up for Love and can provide plenty of offense on his own when playing a two-man game with Rubio. 

Minnesota should be playing more than 82 games during the 2013-14 season, but only if Pekovic keeps to the career arc that he's created for himself. 


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