MINNEAPOLIS — Perhaps the least-discussed top-of-the-line free agent on the market finally made a headline late Sunday night.
Multiple media reports indicated the Timberwolves extended a formal offer toward Nikola Pekovic, breaking the small amount of chatter surrounding Minnesota’s gargantuan center. It’s merely the first step toward the objective of retaining him, a formality geared toward the franchise’s top priority this offseason.
There’s a reason we haven’t heard much of anything from the unrestricted free agent’s camp this month. Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders’ insistence he’ll do what is necessary to keep Pekovic at least has other general managers thinking twice about garnering a cap hold by drawing up an offer sheet.
But the big man has waited until after Dwight Howard’s decision to see where the center market sits in terms of dollars. Starting Wednesday, Pekovic can either re-sign with Minnesota or put his autograph an on offer sheet from another team, the financial principals of which the Timberwolves are allowed to match.
Their proposed deal with him, reportedly offered Friday, could be worth as much as $12 million annually. Because Pekovic has played in Minneapolis for three seasons and procured Bird rights, Minnesota’s allowed to exceed the salary cap in order to keep him around.
With that exception in their back pocket and some additional cap space after waiving Greg Stiemsma and Mickael Gelabale on Sunday, the Timberwolves are in prime position to match any enticing offers.
And Saunders has all but promised that’s exactly what he’ll do.
Playing in 62 games during a Timberwolves season run amuck by multiple injuries, Pekovic led the team in scoring last season and has proven a highly effective rebounder. He’s one of the league’s last “true,” post-oriented centers and fits well into coach Rick Adelman’s system.
Re-sign Pekovic to a long-term deal, and Minnesota’s 2012-13 complexion is pretty much complete, save for some fringe pieces, and has Western Conference playoffs and league’s most-improved team inscribed all over it. Agreeing to terms with small forward Chase Budinger and bringing in shooting guard Kevin Martin were two huge stages in the process, and now the spotlight’s swiveled to Pekovic, wherever the Montenegro native is these days.
Cleveland, Dallas, Portland and Atlanta all could use a center with Pekovic’s skill set. All possess or could create the cap room to offer him a substantial sum.
Somehow let him slip away, and Saunders’ first offseason in place looks disastrous.
Here are some options should the unthinkable happen. (None match the reliability of a big man several experts call this offseason’s best target, aside from Howard.)
Marreese Speights, Cleveland: The 6-10 center opted out of the final year of his contract with the Cavaliers, worth $4.5 million. Traded in January from Memphis to Cleveland, he didn’t start for either team but did start 54 of 60 games played for the Grizzlies in 2011-12. He scored 8.3 points per game and pulled down 4.9 rebounds per game last year.
Other free agents: Samuel Dalembert, Milwaukee; Brandan Wright, Dallas; B.J. Mullens, Charlotte; Jermaine O’Neal, Phoenix; Greg Oden, Portland.
Trade: The Timberwolves reportedly have guards J.J. Barea and Luke Ridnour up for sale this offseason and could deal one or both in hopes of landing a more effective center than the free-agent market currently offers.
Dieng: First-round draft pick Gorgui Dieng would also be in line for more immediate playing time if Pekovic were to get away. But the lanky, 6-11 Louisville product is raw and has a long way to go on the offensive end before he can reach NBA starting-five status.
Unrestricted free agent Andrew Bynum’s also available but is not within Minnesota’s price range. He made $16.8 million last season, and with offers to Budinger and Martin already agreed upon, the Timberwolves don’t have enough room beneath the salary cap.
It’s a short, measly list of contingency options. Which is why Minnesota can’t afford to go the next couple weeks without re-signing Pekovic.
“We feel he’s a valuable part of where we’re going,” Saunders said back in May, “and we’ll do what we have to do to try to bring him back.”