Last week, the Wolves changed the man in charge of their basketball operations, replacing David Kahn with Flip Saunders, but that hasn't altered their plans with Nikola Pekovic. The Wolves still "have every intention" of re-signing the restricted free agent this summer, tweets Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The Wolves have appeared likely to bring back the 27-year-old center since March. That stance may have more to do with owner Glen Taylor, who last month expressed his desire to keep Pekovic around, than Kahn.
Taylor, in spite of his affinity for Pekovic, reportedly won't go as high as a $12MM salary to re-sign him. When I profiled the Montenegro native's free agent stock in March, I speculated that the Wolves might be engaging in gamesmanship regarding that figure. I think Pekovic seems likely to command offers in the $12MM range, so perhaps they're floating that number to entice other teams to make an offer of about that much, with plans of matching it. Otherwise, rival suitors might feel as though they'd have to offer the max — around $15MM — to scare off the Wolves. That's just my speculation, of course. Either way, committing $15MM a year to Pekovic would put a serious crimp in the Wolves' flexibility going forward, with Ricky Rubio eligible for an extension next summer.
Pekovic averaged 16.3 points and 8.8 rebounds in 31.6 minutes per game for the Wolves this season, all career highs. His 20.2 PER displays his efficiency on offense, though he's never averaged as much as a block per game on the other end of the floor. According to NBA.com, the Wolves gave up 102.9 points per 100 possessions as a whole this season, and 104.0 when Pekovic was on the floor, illustrating his defensive shortcomings. Still, teams routinely overpay for size, and it's not inconceivable that someone would decide to give him the max. Tim McMahon of ESPNDallas.com recently speculated that the Mavs could target Pekovic if the Wolves prioritize their pursuit of O.J. Mayo over their own free agent.
As we noted this morning, reports out of Minnesota are suggesting O.J. Mayo will be a top target for the Timberwolves in free agency this summer. Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com explores that story from the Mavericks' perspective, wondering how the Wolves' interest in Mayo could affect Dallas. As MacMahon notes, the Mavs would like to re-sign Mayo, but are unlikely to engage in any bidding wars for him. MacMahon suggests that if the Wolves prioritize Mayo over Nikola Pekovic, it could open up the door for the Mavs to make a run at Pekovic. Here's more out of Dallas:
In addition to taking over as the Timberwolves' president of basketball ops, Flip Saunders will invest about $8MM into the team, reports Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN Twin Cities. We heard earlier today that owner Glen Taylor is no longer interested in selling the franchise, but instead figures to try to buy out minority owners' stakes, or find local buyers for those shares. Wolfson has a few more T-Wolves updates in his latest piece, so let's dive in and check them out....
When I asked yesterday which playoff team down 2-0 in the first round had the best chance of coming back and advancing, over half of you picked the Grizzlies. Memphis delivered on the first step of that comeback last night, holding the Clippers to 82 points en route to a Game Three win.
Meanwhile, the Rockets only received about 5% of the votes in that poll, but their chances likely improved with word from the Thunder that Russell Westbrook will undergo surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee. As we wait for official word on a timetable for Westbrook's return, let's check out a few notes from around the Western Conference:
The Northwest was one of only two NBA divisions to send just two teams to the postseason, which means the Northwest's other three teams are looking ahead to the offseason. As the Nuggets and Thunder prepare to get their playoff series underway this weekend, here's the latest on the division's lottery teams:
Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune believes that several topics of discussion surrounding the Timberwolves are tied to whether or not Rick Adelman decides to return as head coach next season, namely Andrei Kirilenko's $10MM player option as well as the impending free agencies of Nikola Pekovic and Chase Budinger. Another question mark is tied to future of GM David Kahn, as majority team owner Glen Taylor maintains that he is undecided on Kahn's future and has no timetable on a decision. Zgoda has more things to discuss about the team, and you can find the highlights below:
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor identifies the uncertainty surrouding the future of coach Rick Adelman as his top offseason concern, but his comments to Ray Richardson of St. Paul Pioneer Press seemed to dispel this week's report that Adelman is likely to retire. Taylor plans on Adelman coming back, and doesn't have a contingency in place if Adelman steps down. The owner said he isn't sure if assistant Terry Porter, who filled for Adelman during his absence, would be the choice. "If Rick were to leave, I would want to think about all options we have available to us. My thought process right now would be to not look at just one person," Taylor said.
Richardson's Q&A with Taylor is worth a read in its entirety, but we'll hit the highlights here:
On the future of GM David Kahn:
I haven't come to the time to make a decision on that. Let's finish the season first. I want to find out about my coach first. I don't have a time frame to address David's situation. He and I have been talking about the draft and other things as we go into the offseason. At some point, I know I need to make a decision.
On his relationship with Flip Saunders:
First of all, Flip was just trying to help a friend who had an outside group, but that group never submitted a bid. I have a coach and I have a GM. Me and Flip have not talked about those things. What we talk about mostly is his work at ESPN and what's going on in the league. I have maintained a friendship with Flip. We kept in touch when he was at Washington and Detroit.
On a potential sale of the team:
I haven't come up with anybody who meets all the needs. One of my problems is that I haven't found anybody who lives in Minnesota or has a Minnesota background. The interest has come from people outside the state. I'm interested in a local person buying the team on a limited partner basis. Right now, I don't have a strong feeling that I want to get rid of the team. I still enjoy it. I was thinking of a long run to try to find a successor, but I might keep things the way they are.
On Nikola Pekovic's restricted free agency this summer:
I want him to stay, and he has told me he wants to stay. It's to our advantage to try and work something out with him. We know and he knows he's able to test the market. When he tells me he wants to stay, I take him for his word, but agents play a big role in all of this.
On the notion that the team's signing of Brandon Roy was a mistake:
It's fair criticism ... for me and David. We did take a risk, and it was proven to be a wrong risk. There were other players out there with some experience who we could have gotten, who would have helped us at a position (shooting guard) where we needed help. We're out of the money this year ($5.1MM), but based on the contract we have, we don't have to pay him next year if he doesn't play.
After the Lakers and Mavericks lost their respective games on Thursday, the Jazz will look to take advantage tonight in Portland against a Trail Blazers team that's expected to be without LaMarcus Aldridge. If Utah can get a victory, the club will pull even in the standings with the 37-36 Lakers, tied for the eighth playoff spot in the West with just nine games to go. While we wait for the Jazz/Blazers game, which will be the last on tonight's schedule to tip off, let's check in on a few items from around the Western Conference....
Amidst rumors that Flip Saunders might be next in line to run the Timberwolves' basketball operations and owner Glen Taylor's insistence that current GM David Kahn could still be retained beyond this season, Taylor tells Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN Twin Cities to expect a decision no later than the end of April.
"I owe it to David to get going," Taylor said. "I can't go on for a long time."
Here are a few more of the latest Wolves rumblings from Wolfson:
This morning, we heard from Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press that there's no chance the Wolves let center Nikola Pekovic sign with another team as a restricted free agent this summer. Of course, since the 27-year-old Pekovic can sign an offer sheet with any team, and since centers of his caliber and relatively young age have long been a commodity in the NBA, it's far from a certainty that he'll be back in Minnesota next season.
There appears to be a division within the Wolves front office about Pekovic's value, as Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN Twin Cities has reported on multiple occasions. Wolfson would be "shocked" if the Wolves agreed to pay him $12MM a year. Luke Adams of Hoops Rumors pointed to the contracts of JaVale McGee and DeAndre Jordan, both of whom are making close to $11MM annually, as evidence that Pekovic could draw offers for as much if not more this summer.
Pekovic is a few years older than both McGee and Jordan were when they signed their contracts, so he probably won't be viewed as having as much upside. He makes up for it with significantly greater production, particularly on the offensive end, where he's averaging 15.9 points per game on 50.9% shooting. Pekovic, like McGee, carries a high PER. Minnesota's center is posting a 19.5 PER this season, and is at 18.2 for his three-year career. Much of that efficiency comes from his work on the offensive boards. This season, he's 10th in offensive rebounding percentage after leading the NBA in 2011/12. One of his primary shortcomings appears to be basket protection, as Pekovic has never averaged a block a game despite standing 6'11". He's out with a strained abdominal muscle right now, but he's avoided major injury, and this is likely to be the first season he'll have missed as many as games for the Wolves.
It figures to be crowded at the top of the free agent center market this summer, as Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum and Al Jefferson could all change teams. Pekovic, Tiago Splitter and J.J. Hickson provide clubs with a few Plan B's. Perhaps the Suns will attempt to trade Marcin Gortat. Still, it seems there are always fewer quality centers than there are teams looking for one, so I don't think Pekovic will have trouble finding an offer in the $12MM-a-year range. He probably won't get the maximum salary, which would probably be around $15MM a year, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's more likely to re-sign with Minnesota. The advantages a player's incumbent team has aren't nearly as pronounced when the free agent isn't a max guy. The Wolves are able to offer him five years instead of four, but they won't be able to offer him more money unless they overpay him.
Pekovic has spoken highly of the Wolves, citing his teammates and the coaching staff last month when he said, "I like everything about Minnesota." Kevin Love is optimistic his frontcourt mate will return, and the team will have plenty of cap flexibility to accomodate him. The Wolves only have $37.67MM committed for 2013/14, though Andrei Kirilenko could add about $10.2MM to that figure if he opts in for next season. Either way, Minnesota will have enough space for Pekovic even if he signs a maximum-salary offer sheet, which seems doubtful.
Much will hinge on whether the Wolves are confident that a core of Love, Pekovic and Ricky Rubio is capable of taking them where they want to go. They might be able to do better, but re-signing Pekovic probably gives them the quickest route to becoming a contender, or at least a top-four team in the West, by the time Love can opt out of his deal and become a free agent in the summer of 2015. Given Love's comments expressing doubt about his future with the team — remarks he tried to backtrack from — there's probably a sense of urgency within Minnesota's braintrust to start winning now. My guess is that'll be enough to convince the Wolves to go into the $12MM-a-year range it will likely take to keep Pekovic this summer, even as the team might try to depress his value by indicating they won't.