MINNEAPOLIS In the NBA, no discovery comes without its price.
Last season, Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman admitted to using Nikola Pekovic sparingly when he first was cleared after his early-season injury solely because Adelman didn't know what he had. The new coach leaned on Darko Milicic at center until that became an idea too crazy for even the craziest to stomach, and only then did he give Pekovic his shot.
Seems like longer than just a year ago, right? Since then, the giant Montenegrin has become the Timberwolves' best find, a center with above-average abilities who's leading his team this season in scoring and rebounding with 15.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game in Kevin Love's absence. He's been banged up a bit, sure, and has already missed 15 contests, but on the whole, the big man has been the most pleasant and competent of surprises.
Now, though, comes the price.
This offseason, Pekovic will become a restricted free agent and one of the most desirable centers on the market perhaps the most desirable, at least for teams that can't afford to pay Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum. That's as much a product of Pekovic's talent level as it is the current state of his position, where so few big men are true post players and so many teams are relying whether forced or by choice on a more hybrid approach. As basic economics will dictate, to be so much in demand is to command a hefty price tag.
Now, with that price, the Timberwolves must decide how much they're willing to pay.
The center position in general has become a tricky beast. The NBA has evolved into a point guard-driven league, nearly a complete 180 from the 1980s and '90s, when most teams had a big man to whom they could funnel the ball inside. Now, a Derrick Rose or a Ricky Rubio is the coveted player, and centers can almost be an afterthought in teams' game plans.
"You don't have your centers anymore," Adelman said in December. "There are only a couple centers, basically. Back 15 years ago, there was a lot of centers. That was a big part of the game. I don't think that's as big a part of the game as it used to be at all."
Adelman is right: Centers do not play a focal role in the league any longer. But there's a catch, and a big one, to what he's saying. When teams find a traditional and talented big man, they pay up. They pay big. Some might say they pay too much. Because no matter how out of vogue centers might be in theory, in practice and in the flesh, a talented one can make all the difference.
That mindset will definitely factor into the Timberwolves' approach to Pekovic this offseason, but the price will be high. Another team with money to spare will likely offer the big man a contract commensurate with his size and scarcity, probably to the tune of 10 million to 12 million per year. That's a fat chunk of money, even in NBA terms.
There are plenty of arguments, and valid ones at that, for not paying Pekovic. There's the notion of his health, the fact that he's on pace to play in about 65 games this season if he finishes out the year missing only two more games. There's the fact that this is just his second year of effective play, which makes for a very small sample size to evaluate. There's the worry that this year's numbers are inflated by Love's absence. There's the team's current salary situation on top of all that, in which it has 14.7 million locked up on Love next season and 10.2 on Andrei Kirilenko, and the assumption that Minnesota will want to lock Rubio into a max deal in little more than a year. That's a lot of money to contend with, and the nickels and dimes of the thing might be the best argument against Pekovic.
But despite all that, despite the uncertainty and the punitive nature of the new CBA, re-signing the big man might still be the best option. The arguments for it might not match those against it in number, but they certainly do in magnitude, and precedent weighs much heavier than even the notion that there's no one on the market to take his place.
It seems almost laughable, at face value, to pay a guy in the neighborhood of 12 million just because that's what other teams have done for other players, but that's the state of the NBA, and if the Timberwolves want to migrate from the have-nots into the realm of the haves, paying Pekovic is a step in the right direction. Winning doesn't come cheap, and it doesn't often come by bucking trends for no reason other than a strapped checkbook.
This season, there are 25 players not currently in their rookie deals who were considered teams' starting centers to begin the season. Those 25 players make an average of 10.9 million this season. An average, and it's hard to argue with the notion that despite his flaws, Pekovic is an above-average center. Of those 25, 11 make 12 million or more, and only six make less than 8 million, and it's reasonable to believe that Pekovic falls in the upper range of that middle ground.
So precedent says Pekovic will be paid. Precedent also says that his nagging injuries may be a worry but that they won't necessarily cut his paycheck. Looking back at the last 82-game season, 2010-11, and the players who were designated as starting centers, such players played in an average of just 61 games. Injuries are a real concern at the position, with those massive bodies masking a special kind of fragility, and sometimes just the hope that a player plays three-quarters of the season is enough for big money. Look at Bynum, who will miss all of this season after being traded to Philadelphia last summer and who will likely command a max deal and from those very 76ers when all is said and done this offseason.
By comparison, at least, the Timberwolves can count themselves lucky. Unlike Philadelphia, their big man hasn't been so injured, nor will he necessitate a payout of quite that magnitude. Perhaps they should remember that going forward, and perhaps they should become cognizant of one trite little saying: It is what it is.
Centers may be overpaid. Centers may be injury-prone. But to let one get away because of that when you're a team inching your way toward relevance might be the worst idea yet.
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