Free Agent Stock Watch: Nikola Pekovic

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.

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