Mar 31, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic (14) drives to the basket against Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (6) in the first half at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Off-season player capsule: Nikola Pekovic

This is Part Nine in a thirteen-part series that will examine all players currently on the Wolves’ roster that played for the team last season. We’ll be omitting Kevin Love, because…well, you know why.

As a restricted free agent in the summer of 2013, Nikola Pekovic did not land a massive offer sheet from another NBA team as had been expected.

But that didn’t stop the Timberwolves from handing out a five-year, $60 million contract to the hulking Montenegrin. And it’s hard to blame them.

Pekovic has improved each and every year that he has been in the NBA, and that trend continued in the 2013-14 season after signing his huge contract. Along with that has been the trend of missing a few weeks of action in every season.

He has failed to play in more than 64 games in a campaign, that coming in his rookie season when he only saw the court for 13.6 minutes per game. Once he got his fouling problems under control, his nightly minute toll increased dramatically, leading to plenty of wear and tear on the big man’s feet and ankles.

Pekovic played in 47 out of a possible 66 games during the lockout-shortened 2011-2012 season, starting 35 of them. In 2012-13, Pek started and played in 62 games, and after signing the big contract, he played in just 54 games in 2013-14.

With the emergence of backup center Gorgui Dieng in Pekovic’s absence in February and March of this year, the Wolves should be able to manage Pekovic’s minutes much easier moving forward, therefore limiting the load that his feet need to bear. As of right now, Ronny Turiaf remains on the roster, and he’s good for a very solid 12-16 minutes per night, too.

If Flip Saunders is able to limit Pekovic’s minutes in the neighborhood of 26-30 minutes per night in shorter stints, it stands to reason that he would be able to play in more games. Granted, the Wolves are extremely unlikely to reach the postseason in 2015, so the only thing Saunders would be doing is saving his feet to hopefully prolong the effectiveness of his prime until the team can hopefully achieve playoff-contender status.

It would also provide more developmental minutes for Dieng, and further increase the chances that Saunders would receive an appetizing trade offer for either center, whether at the 2015 trade deadline or over the summer.

Pekovic’s outlook will certainly change when he’s not lining up next to Kevin Love. We can look at the 2012-13 season to get an idea, as Love missed the vast majority of the campaign with his twice-broken hand.

Overall, his offensive output was very similar. It was easier for teams to double-team him without the threat of Love lurking, but his shooting numbers didn’t suffer all that much. The only big difference between 2012-13 (sans Love) and 2013-14 (with Love) was rebounding, of course. Pekovic saw a decent bump without Love sucking up boards right and left, and that bump disappeared last season.

The roster without Love next year will likely be better than the Love-less 2012-13 squad, with the additions of Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger, the emergence of Dieng, and the health and progress of Ricky Rubio. So Pekovic should continue to improve his offensive output, and will likely see a scoring increase in his age-29 season.

One interesting thing to note is Saunders’ relative lack of mentioning Pekovic in his off-season media rounds. On the one hand, Pek doesn’t necessarily fit what Saunders’ vision appears to be: speedy, athletic, defensive-minded and fast-break oriented. On the other hand, Pekovic is the best back-to-the-basket, true low-post-centric center this side of the Gasol brothers, and he is one of the best big men in the league at rim runs in transition.

My take: as long as Pek’s minutes are limited to somewhere in the sub-30 range and Dieng and Turiaf are rotated into the game frequently, his ability in the low-post and as a lumbering trailer in the open court should lend itself to the style that Saunders apparently would like to play.

It would be utterly short-sighted to assume that just because the rest of the team has the clear ability to fly up and down the court with incredible speed, Pekovic doesn’t fit the roster anymore. At the same time, I am certain that Saunders would move Pekovic if a team were to offer equal value, simply because the Wolves would get out from underneath his massive contract and they feel confident in Dieng’s development.

But don’t expect that to happen. Pekovic needs to play in 70+ games for a team to feel good about his feet and ankles, and he’s still owed a lot of money over the next four seasons. So let’s hope that Pek stays on the court, and that he’s given the requisite space to operate in the Wolves new (and likely sloppy) half-court offense.

Expect more of the same from Nikola Pekovic in 2014-15: efficient scoring, great offensive rebounding, and a few weeks worth of missed games.

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