There are many different roles that Minnesota Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic could one day occupy. It's not hard to envision a scenario where Pekovic would function as Minnesota's primary option offensively, a low-post scorer capable of drawing double-teams and cleaning up everything around the rim.
From an asset standpoint, though, at least in Minnesota, Pekovic's value is even greater than his actual on-court production. That's not to say Pekovic isn't productive while he's on the floor, as his averages of 17.4 points and 8.7 rebounds and a player efficiency rating of 20.7, per Basketball-Reference.com, in just his fourth season would beg to differ. Centers with his capabilities offensively certainly don't come around all that often.
It's just that it's hard to believe that Pekovic's production is all that meaningful in the grand scheme of things. That's particularly true since his lack of mobility defensively and poor rim protection don't complement Kevin Love, Minnesota's top frontcourt star, all that well, and vice versa.
With the Timberwolves on the outside of the playoff picture once again, and with Love's ability to become a free agent in 2015, Minnesota is stuck between two futures. One involves Love as the franchise player, and the other does not.
Here's Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles with more:
ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported Friday the Los Angeles Lakers would be willing to trade their upcoming pick in the heralded NBA draft -- likely to be in the top half of the lottery -- to land Love.
While Minnesota could certainly decide to go that route and hit the restart button, there is no assurance that the Lakers are truly Love's most desired destination.
A source familiar with Love's thinking told ESPNLosAngeles.com that it's not just L.A. that is appealing to Love; he's enamored with the idea of being 'big time in a big city,' and that list of potential places he'd seek includes New York and Chicago, as well.
Not to put the blame on Love—and if you want to blame anyone for his upcoming ability to be a free agent, it should be former general manager David Kahn—but the star power forward is essentially holding the Timberwolves hostage, even if that isn't his intention.
Minnesota did make moves this year to try to improve the team, and re-signing Pekovic to a five-year deal worth $60 million was one of the biggest, alongside signing Kevin Martin. But since that hasn't worked out, things are starting to deteriorate rather quickly. Here's ESPN.com's Marc Stein:
So the next big change with the Wolves, by all accounts, is far more likely to take place on the bench, amid increasing pessimism in the Twin Cities that Rick Adelman -- after trying to coach the last two seasons while nursing wife Mary Kay through a persistent illness -- will want to return for a fourth season in charge.
Adelman nearly walked away last offseason and, according to sources close to the situation, has convinced more than a few folks in team circles that he's going to invoke his right to opt out of the final year of his original four-year contract and step away for good this summer.
With the very real possibility that Adelman leaves this upcoming offseason and Love leaves the next year, Minnesota GM Flip Saunders has to decide between the risk-averse option of keeping Pekovic as an insurance policy or trading him in a last-ditch effort to try to keep Love around.
It's a "the devil you know" situation here. Pekovic has his shortcoming, for certain, but what happens if he's dealt for a player that's an even worse fit with Love who clashes with him, or what if the player simply doesn't move the needle?
The Timberwolves are almost out of chances and time, so any trade for Pekovic would need to bring back a "can't miss" fit.
Despite the risks involved, Pekovic is expendable. One of the reasons for that, albeit in a very small sample size, has been the impressive play of rookie big man Gorgui Dieng while Pekovic has been sidelined, as ProBasketballTalk's Dan Feldman explains here:
Does Minnesota, which is 36-36 and has already faded out of the playoff race, regret not giving Dieng an expanded role sooner? Maybe, but he gave little indication prior that he was ready.
The bigger question: What do the Timberwolves do now?
They must consider trading the 28-year-old Pekovic, who will have four years and $47.9 million left on his contract. He's 17.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game this season, a career year. He should still hold value around the league, and Minnesota could use whatever he fetches in a trade plus the possible salary savings to upgrade its roster. Then, Dieng could start regularly.
It's not just Dieng's recent play that makes him an attractive frontcourt partner for Love. It's his skill set. Dieng can shoot it a bit from mid-range and make plays out of the high post, which is nice, but really it's all about what he can do defensively. Dieng can cover a lot of ground with his mobility, and he's a very impressive shot-blocker who can protect the rim in a way neither Love nor Pekovic can.
More importantly, there's plenty of potential there for Dieng to develop into something pretty special. Pekovic's limitations athletically will always be present, even though he should get better over time at accounting for them.
Again, though, Minnesota is just a .500 team with maybe one season left to convince Love to stay. Ricky Rubio's development can help a great deal, but outside of that, the Timberwolves lack the assets (cap space, high draft picks) to really make the leap, and it's hard to say how the Love-Pekovic pairing can stand to improve. There's just too much overlap there.
It's going to be hard for Minnesota to let anyone but Love be the first domino, however, particularly when it doesn't appear that he's given Saunders or anyone in Minnesota's front office any indication that he's leaving yet. Love also recently said this about the Lakers, his biggest rumored suitor, to Steve Marsh of GQ:
People think it's so far-fetched that I would stay in Minnesota. ... We have the better team, the better foundation. I'm having fun.
While Love may straddle the fence on staying and going, the Wolves can't afford to do the same. It has to be either all-in or all-out with Love, as it will be incredibly difficult for the franchise to make personnel decisions otherwise.
Ultimately, Minnesota should make every effort possible to keep Love around, even if it means moving an insurance policy in Pekovic for a better fit. You don't put the cart before the horse, after all, and Love is a transcendent talent worth taking risks for.
More importantly, we've seen what Love and Pekovic are capable of together, and it's not quite good enough. Even if it lowers the floor, the Timberwolves would be wise to raise their ceiling by shopping Pekovic for a better fit.