MINNEAPOLIS — Nikola Pekovic didn’t want to leave Minnesota, and the Timberwolves weren’t about to let him go.
After weeks of negotiations, waiting and watching, the two sides came to agreement on Wednesday on a new five-year contract worth $60 million that includes an additional $8 million in incentives.
“He’s a dominating offensive player,” Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders said in a conference call. “He plays extremely hard. He probably will work as hard as he can to live up to a contract he signs, whatever it is worth.”
After posting a career-high 16.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game last season, the 27-year-old Pekovic was a restricted free agent when the NBA’s fiscal year opened on July 1. That meant the Timberwolves had the right to match any offer he received from another team, and Saunders made it clear from the start that they would do whatever it took to keep him in Minnesota.
In the end, that included adding a fifth year on the initial four-year, $48 million offer they presented Pekovic and his agent, Jeff Schwartz, a few weeks ago.
“With him and Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, we’ve got three cornerstones in that franchise that all complement each other,” Saunders said.
After three seasons in the NBA, Pekovic has emerged as one of the best offensive big men in an increasingly center-scarce league. He figured to garner a lot of interest from other teams looking to add some size and scoring to the paint. He waited for Dwight Howard to choose between several suitors. When Howard signed with the Houston Rockets, the belief was that a lucrative offer from one of the teams that missed out — perhaps the Hawks or Mavericks — could be on the way.
Both of those teams decided not to pursue Pekovic, but the Timberwolves were still left holding their breath in hopes that another team with abundant cap space like the Bucks would force their hand with a monster offer.
That offer never came. With the market settling down and the likelihood of another offer growing more remote by the day, Saunders came through with the fifth year on the deal to get it done. Because Pekovic was a restricted free agent and not signing an extension on his rookie deal, the Timberwolves still have the one five-year, rookie scale deal allowed by the current collective bargaining agreement for Rubio, if they so choose.
There was some question about whether giving Pekovic five years would agitate Love, who wasn’t happy when previous president David Kahn refused to give him the team’s “designated player” five-year extension in 2012. But Kahn was fired after last season and Saunders said he has had conversations about the Pekovic deal with Love, who gave his full support.
“More than anything else Kevin wants to win,” Saunders said. “As we talked about Pek, he said, ‘You have to do what you have to do.’ … I don’t know what’s been done in the past and I really don’t care. As he said, we’re moving forward.”
The 6-foot-11 Pekovic averaged just 0.8 blocks per game last season, meaning he isn’t the classic rim protector that would be the biggest asset for a Timberwolves defense that is short on stoppers. He also missed 20 games last season and 15 the year before due to various nagging injuries that come about due to his physical style of play.
But keeping Pekovic was a priority for Saunders and Wolves coach Rick Adelman, who valued the Montenegrin’s soft hands and quick feet in the post as well as his underrated pick-and-roll defense.
Now that his deal is done, Pekovic will team with Love and Rubio to form a promising young core for the Wolves, who will be pushing for their first postseason appearance since 2004. In a league that is getting smaller and smaller, with few dominant big men, the Wolves see Pekovic’s size and strength as one of their best chances to create consistent mismatches in the demanding Western Conference.
The key will be keeping Pekovic on the floor. He has missed time due to various foot and ankle issues, most minor in nature that come from the pounding he takes on a nightly basis. When Saunders took over for Kahn earlier this summer, he said he thought the Wolves could make some adjustments that would help him and the rest of their players stay healthy over the long season.
Saunders said Wednesday that the target will be “in the 70s” in terms of the number of games Pekovic will play.