MINNEAPOLIS — Everything about Nikola Pekovic is big.
Big muscles. Big scowl. Big tattoos. Now he has a contract to match.
In giving the 27-year-old Pekovic a five-year deal that could be worth more than $60 million with incentives, the Timberwolves are bucking a trend that has started to take over the NBA.
While so many other teams are starting to play small ball, the Wolves are going big. They've decided to jump on Pekovic's broad shoulders and see how far the Montenegrin center can carry them in a league that is getting smaller and smaller by the day.
"A lot of people have asked me about centers in this league and what's happened is they're almost a dinosaur," Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders said Friday.
"Many teams have gone to stretch-type playing and they've done that because they don't have the ability to have somebody that they can put down on the block that has the ability to score on the block on a consistent basis. That's something that Pek can do. With Pek's physicality and along with Kevin Love we feel like we have two power players that can really be forces around the basket."
The Miami Heat have won two straight titles with undersized Chris Bosh playing the bulk of the minutes at center. Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman often used 6-foot-6 Chuck Hayes at center when he coached the Houston Rockets. The Boston Celtics stayed relevant in large part thanks to Kevin Garnett's willingness to move from power forward to center.
In Pekovic, Saunders sees an opportunity to create mismatches against teams that try to go small against them, to punish them in the paint and pound them on the glass with the burly big man and Love, perhaps the league's best rebounder.
"I know the league is getting smaller and many teams in the (center) position are playing guys from (power forward) ... So I'm just happy to be here and be maybe one of the few old-fashioned centers who are going to play in the low post," Pekovic said. "I'm just going to keep being that."
Saunders called Pekovic one of the top two or three low-post centers in the game, and the numbers would support that. In his third season, he averaged 16.3 points and 8.8 rebounds and shot 52 percent from the floor while shooting an impressive 74.4 percent on free throws.
Tim Duncan was named All-NBA first team center during an incredible season for the San Antonio Spurs last year, but his career is entering the twilight phase. That may leave Marc Gasol from Memphis and Houston's Dwight Howard, who isn't as polished in the post but remains a tremendous force, as the other players who could be above Pekovic in the center pecking order from an offensive standpoint.
And despite the trend to go small, three of the four teams in the conference finals last season — Indiana, San Antonio and Memphis — had a huge presence in the post.
In Minnesota he will team with Love and Ricky Rubio to form the core of what many consider to be an up-and-coming franchise. The Wolves haven't made the playoffs since 2004. But if they can stay healthy — Pekovic has missed 39 games in the last two seasons due to injury and Love only played 18 last year — they believe that dubious skid will come to an end this year.
Pekovic said his goal is to play in all 82 games during the regular season and Saunders said the team is looking at some of its training practices to try and reduce the wear and tear on a player's body. Saunders believes Pekovic has trained too much at times and spent too much time in the weight room and that a more efficient program could help him.
"I think there has to be a meeting of the minds of getting all people together and really getting a good plan and good format that players are doing the right thing and they're not over-training parts of their body," Saunders said.
Negotiations with Pekovic's agent Jeff Schwartz dragged on for about a month and a half before Saunders added the fifth year on Tuesday to get the deal done. All of a sudden, Pekovic had gone from an unknown big man who appeared lost at times during his rookie season to a $60 million centerpiece of a franchise's quest for redemption.
"My agent asked me when we closed the deal, he asked me how do you feel," Pekovic said. "I said I still don't know. I still feel like unbelievable. I came like three years ago and I was basically not even a backup center, nothing. I was kind of fighting for my position. ... I know that I was really fighting and pushing for this. I'm really happy that all this happened."
He also made it clear to Schwartz from the day the market opened on July 1 that he wanted to remain in Minnesota. While many other players have left smaller markets for more glamorous locales, Pekovic has warmed to Minnesota's icy climate and feels at home while fishing on one of the state's 10,000 lakes.
"People asked me, where do you want to live," Pekovic said. "I don't want to go to a bigger city. I just like it here. I like everything. I know it's a little cold in the winter but you just get used (to it.). It's my fourth year here. I'm basically a Minneapolis guy."
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