MINNEAPOLIS — Turns out the waiting game paid off for Nikola Pekovic.
The Minnesota Timberwolves agreed Wednesday morning to terms with the restricted free-agent center after a summer of back-and-forth, ticky-tacky negotiations that ultimately led to an expected result.
Multiple media outlets report the deal is worth $60 million over a maximum five years and includes up to $8 million in bonuses. The team’s original offer, which president of basketball operations Flip Saunders and owner Glen Taylor stood by publicly throughout the process, was reportedly in the four-year, $48 million-$50 million range.
Whether or not he was swayed into yielding an additional year, Saunders made good on his offseason-long promise to retain the 6-foot-11, 281-pound Montenegrin’s vital services.
“We came in in the offseason and labeled him as our No. 1 priority,” said Saunders, who took over for fired president David Kahn at the beginning of May. “What we’re extremely excited about is that both the education process from our side and their side allowed us to come to an agreement where we both feel excited about the fact that Pek’s going to be here long-term for us.”
Hefty yet agile enough to score consistently from the blocks, Pekovic ranks as one of the league’s last old-style centers that rarely stray from the paint. With power forward Kevin Love sidelined for most of last season, Pekovic led the Timberwolves with 16.3 points per game and 8.8 rebounds per game, both career highs.
He might have cracked the NBA’s top-25 rebounders last season if not for missing 20 games with a calf injury.
“You solidified the center position, which is a position that’s a very tough position to solidify in the NBA,” Saunders said. “Not many centers have the ability to score in the low post, and he’s one of the best if not the best in the league at doing that. We know he’s a great rebounder and has great ability to finish off of passes from (Ricky) Rubio.”
It’s likely the incentives in Pekovic’s new contract include games played, as he’s missed at least 17 in each of his three NBA seasons due to various nagging ailments. Saunders said the team will expect him to play in the 70-game range from here on out.
Pekovic and agent Jeff Schwartz opted to test the restricted free-agent waters starting July 1, waiting on teams in search of a formidable big man to extend an offer sheet, the financial principals of which the Timberwolves would’ve been allowed to match.
But an outside offer never came, partly because Saunders vehemently expressed the team would do just about anything necessary to retain Pekovic’s services.
“We came out and sat down with Glen and went through a lot of things,” Saunders said. “We looked at analytics and different points of view on where this team was and where we want it to be down the road, and we considered financially what (Pekovic) was worth. In doing that, I think when other teams looked and said they were pretty serious about him, I don’t want to say it scared them away, but we didn’t think there was much wiggle room for other teams to come after him.”
At some point in the negotiations — likely within the past week — Saunders and Taylor decided Pekovic was worthy of an additional year on top of their reported original offer. The Timberwolves’ Larry Bird rights to Pekovic allow them to exceed the salary cap to keep him and dictate a maximum of five years on his second NBA contract without naming him their “designated player.”
Under a collective bargaining agreement that favors teams retaining their own players, organizations are allowed to designate one athlete coming off his rookie contract to a five-year extension. That will likely be Rubio, who can become a restricted free agent after the 2014-15 season. Love, who didn’t receive a max second deal from Kahn despite using the same agent as Pekovic, can opt out of his current contract that same summer.
Pekovic’s new agreement, which he’s expected to sign later this week, ensures the Timberwolves can lock in Love and Rubio to long-term deals when the time comes, Saunders said.
“This league has proven that you have to have three star-type players,” Saunders said. “All three of those guys have shown the ability to be in the top five at their respective positions.”