The Minnesota Timberwolves recently announced that Nikola Pekovic will miss the 2016-2017 season.
While unsurprising, the announcement elicits the assumption that the story of the burly Montenegrin center has neared its end. At age 30, Pekovic (Pek) has been unable to play over fifty games since the 2013-2014 season—his health peaked his rookie year at sixty-five games played. While his injury-riddled career was lost in a run of losing seasons in the cold north, Pek should be remembered as an NBA delight.
As the 31st pick in the 2008 draft, Pek was an unknown commodity coming out of the draft, but was quick to turn heads in Minnesota. By the 2013 season, Pek had developed into the Wolves starting center. With a frontline of Pek and an emerging superstar in Kevin Love (remember when he was in MVP conversations?) the Wolves won 40 games with a +2.7-point differential (they underachieved).
Yet, it was those misaligned Minnesotan teams that prevented Pek from offering the NBA his best. Next to Love, the Wolves frontline was defensively frail. Pek was constantly put into defensive situations outside his realm of capability, while offensively he had little room to work in the post due to a lack of perimeter shooting.
And that is what makes his final injury leave so devastating.
Prior to the news, a Minnesotan could imagine what Pek could bring to an exciting Wolves roster. But for those unfamiliar, Pek has three great strengths.
Nikola Pekovic is a rock. He is the counter-product to Newton’s law of inertia. No matter the size, no big man will move him. They can shoot over him. Guards can get around him. But one-on-one? You will not back him down. You will not move Pek.
Nikola Pekovic can score. The Wolves are approaching the modern concept of offensive spacing. While they will not become a top-five, or likely even enter the top half of the NBA’s 3-point shooting ranks, their spacing will improve this season. In his highest scoring season, Pek averaged 17.5 ppg on 54.4FG% from within 10 feet. Paul Millsap, this season’s high rated post-up player (>200 possessions) shot 53.6% from within 10 feet. Not to mention Pek’s 76% career free throw mark. Move Pek from the 2013 Wolves to the 2016 Wolves and singlehandedly Pek would revive the post-up.
Nikola Pekovic is terrifying. The Wolves are young—thus, not terrifying. Who is their enforcer? Do they have an enforcer? Kevin Garnett is gone. Tom Thibodeau may be the most intimidating man on this team. True story: 2014. January. Nikola Pekovic is spotted at a downtown Minneapolis restaurant after a regular Friday-night game. Pek’s meal is simple (and terrifying): 2 steaks. 5 red bulls. Each and every can of Red Bull accounted for, and why is there no proof? Because you do not take a picture of a 6-foot 11-inch 310 pound Montenegrin after 2 steaks and 5 red bulls, who is terrifying.
Now pair that with Karl-Anthony Towns.
Offensively, Towns provides the frontline partner-spacing for Pek to work inside alongside the developing shooters on the roster. Defensively, KAT provides the rim protection and positional flexibility to effectively handle a typical opponent’s frontcourt. Finally, instill KAT with intimidation methods from Pek and KG and he becomes an instant terror.
The Pek-Love combination was never meant to work. It was fun to watch at times, but usually frustrating. There would have been holes in a Pek-KAT combo, but it could have bolstered KAT as the antichrist of NBA small ball. As a Minnesotan ready to move into a new era, saying goodbye to Pek holds a bit of a last goodbye sentiment. But in the midst of retirements like Garnet, Duncan and Kobe, along with plagued players like Bosh, let’s not forget about saying goodbye to our favorite Montenegrin: Nikola Pekovic.