Friday, August 16, 2013

Did Minnesota Overpay for Nikola Pekovic?

Nikola Pekovic got a big fancy new contract. But was it the right decision? (flickr)
By Bennett Corcoran

Restricted free agent Nikola Pekovic re-upping with the Minnesota Timberwolves has seemed like a foregone conclusion throughout the summer, but the negotiations between the two sides were surprisingly drawn out into the month of August. Earlier this week, the two sides finally reached an agreement, as the center signed a five-year, $60 million contract with the Wolves including incentives that could be worth up to an additional $8 million.

For the Timberwolves, the move is befuddling. At this time of the year, almost all teams have made their big moves, and likewise their cap room has evaporated. With a sign and trade pretty much out of the question, Pekovic didn’t have any other real suitors. In fact, the Philadelphia 76ers were the only other team in the league with enough cap space, but are clearly in no rush to spend lavishly as they are in a full-fledged rebuild. Simple economics would suggest that with a lack of demand, Minnesota should sit tight and wait for his ludicrous demands to fall to something reasonable. Yet instead of holding their ground and staying firm to their original offer of four years, $48 million (a perfectly fair contract for a player of Pekovic’s caliber), they overpaid, threw in an extra year, and wove in incentives. While Pekovic is a good basketball player, and centers do tend to get overpaid, this series of events is still pretty bizarre.

Pekovic fits the apparent mold of a Minnesota cornerstone player because of his lengthy injury history. In his three years in the NBA, he has yet to play more than 65 games, and that was achieved in his rookie year when he was limited to just 13.6 minutes per game. This makes that fifth guaranteed year seem all the more questionable, especially given the fact the he turns 28 in January.

For a team defined by nagging injuries that prevent them from making the leap into the playoff picture, this seemingly fits right in.

While Pekovic certainly knows how to score (16.3 PPG last season) and does so pretty efficiently (52% FG), I question how he fits next to Kevin Love on the defensive end. If you've read The Dwight Effect by Kirk Goldsberry and Eric Weiss (and if you haven’t, I highly recommend it), you are well aware that while Love is a very capable scorer with deep range and great rebounder when healthy, he is an abysmal defender. As Goldsberry points out, Love is in the bottom five in proximal defensive FG% for big men at 52.1%. Love is especially inadequate from close range, allowing opponents to score at a 57.9% rate.

What does any of this have to do with the signing of Pekovic? Well for one, while Pekovic isn’t a bad defender, he’s certainly not a game-changing defensive presence either. Taking a look at defensive ratings per 100 possessions reveals that Pekovic isn’t the sort of impact defender that can mask Love’s inefficiencies. Minnesota’s defensive efficiency clocked in at 105.9 when Pekovic was on the floor last season, 1.1 points per 100 possessions worse than the Wolves' rating of 104.8 with him on the bench. To be fair, this method certainly isn’t flawless. One could argue that because Pekovic plays the lion’s share of minutes, this could simply mean that Minnesota’s bench defends well against their opponents. But regardless, the data shows that Pekovic’s defense isn’t nearly good enough to make up for Love. While you would ideally like to pair Love’s inept defense with a defensive-minded, gritty rebounder who can block shots and patrol the paint, it appears that Pekovic isn’t that type of game-altering presence on that end of the floor, and thus their defense will suffer. Factoring in the acquisition of notoriously mediocre defender Kevin Martin who is already on the wrong side of 30 doesn’t help in this category either.

While they were only slightly below average as a team on defense last year, Love only played 18 games. Next year, this team would be fortunate to crack the top 20 in defensive efficiency, and this acquisition isn’t helping matters. In a loaded Western Conference, teams that don’t play defense will have a tough time making the playoffs, and the T-Wolves will have to vastly improve in this area to have a chance to snag one of the last two seeds and finally emerge as a playoff team.

Essentially, the T-Wolves dished out a five-year contract to an injury-prone big man who is almost 28 and takes almost 90% of his shot attempts from point blank range. And to make matters worse, they drove up his price when no other team was in position to make a competitive offer. President Flip Saunders is reportedly in the market for a couple of front office members to serve as a general manager and VP of basketball operations, and it’s easy to see why. Is David Kahn still secretly running the Timberwolves? Sometimes it really feels that way.


Mark Gisleson said...

Pek takes 90% of his shots from point blank range because there's only one or two other centers in the league who can stop him.

Have yet to hear any Timberwolves fans criticize this contract. The League has mostly ignored Pekovic, but they will not be able to ignore him this year!

Anonymous said...

I am a Twolves fan and I don't like the contract. I would rather have had him get something along 4/$40 but considering how tough it is for the wolves to sign guys, they had to overpay a little.