The Timberwolves have agreed to sign restricted free-agent center Nikola Pekovic to a five-year $60 million deal, according to ESPN.com and the Star-Tribune. The deal will reportedly include an additional $8 million worth of possible incentives.
Minnesota president Flip Saunders announced Wednesday that the Timberwolves and Pekovic have reached an agreement in principle after a drawn-out negotiation.
"Retaining Pek was our No. 1 priority this offseason and we're very excited that he's chosen to continue his career in Minnesota," Saunders said in a statement. "Thanks to a lot of hard work and determination, Pek has developed into one of the NBA's premier centers and is entering the prime of his career. We envision Pek and Kevin Love being the 'Bruise Brothers' and forming one of the best front courts in the NBA for a long time to come."
Pekovic, 27, averaged 16.3 points and 8.8 rebounds in 62 appearances as Minnesota's starting center last season. A strong, bruising interior force, Pekovic shot 52 percent and posted a Player Efficiency Rating of 20.2, which ranked No. 9 among centers.
A 2008 second-round pick, Pekovic did not make his NBA debut until after signing a three-year, $13 million contract in 2010. His new agreement is not a rookie extension and is therefore not subject to the "designated player" rule, which allows a franchise only one five-year rookie extension at a time. The Timberwolves, then, are still free to offer a five-year rookie extension to point guard Ricky Rubio down the road.
Pekovic's agreement should complete a busy summer for Saunders, who also signed guard Kevin Martin, forward Corey Brewer and center Ronny Turiaf and re-signed forward Chase Budinger. The Montenegrin center's return also solidifies a frontcourt pairing with All-Star forward Kevin Love, who can opt out of his current contract in July 2015, and completes a solid starting five that also includes Budinger, Martin and Rubio as Minnesota seeks its first playoff appearance since 2004.
An agreement seemed like a formality from the start, as the Timberwolves had no other readily available starting center options and Pekovic's outside suitors were well aware of Minnesota's desire to retain him. Those conditions can lead to a negotiating stand-off, but the two parties were eventually able to find a number with which both could live.
The top-end $68 million number (including all incentives) looks quite steep, but the Timberwolves will either: A) not have to pay the extra money because Pekovic doesn't achieve the incentives, or B) get to enjoy the benefits of the dominant play from Pekovic that would result in him triggering all of his unspecified bonuses. Either way, it's unlikely Minnesota will be complaining about the extra money. Until the bonus specifics are known, it's best to judge this deal off of its base $60 million price tag, and those terms are unlikely to produce much outrage. Still, the size of the deal makes it worth some investigation.
Within this summer's class of centers, Pekovic slides in logically between the only A-lister Dwight Howard ($88 million over four years) and the next two biggest names, Al Jefferson ($41 million over three years) and Tiago Splitter ($36 million over four years). Zooming back to look at comparable contracts from previous seasons, Pekovic's contract fits alongside deals for Al Horford ($60 million over five years), Joakim Noah ($60 million over five years), Nene ($63 million over five years) and JaVale McGee ($44 million over four years). He's not the best or worst player in that crop, ensuring that his deal isn't an outlier one way or another.
Health looms large here. Pekovic did not appear in nearly a quarter of Minnesota's games over the last three seasons (56 out of a possible 230) and he dealt with a variety of minor injuries last season. Incentives or not, the Timberwolves will be stuck grappling with a Nene-like situation if Pekovic's injury history worsens.
Some critics will wonder why the Timberwolves increased their risk quotient by conceding a fifth year; optimists might counter that the five-year deal will cover all of Pekovic's prime years because of his late NBA start. The consensus in Minnesota seems to be that a long-term commitment carries added value by sending a message to Love that Saunders and the post-David Kahn regime is committed to taking care of its players. Time will tell on that part, but for now this deal looks fair as long as Pekovic can consistently stay on the court.