MINNEAPOLIS — Flip Saunders locked up a lot more than Nikola Pekovic’s long-term services Wednesday.
He formally anointed the precise direction in which the Timberwolves are headed.
After nine struggling seasons, that’s a tall job to complete in just 3 1/2 months as the team’s president of basketball operations. But immediately after his hiring, Saunders, coach Rick Adelman and owner Glen Taylor hatched a sharply-defined plan theimpending Pekovic signing jolts into motion.
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Commitment that banks on potential. Saunders was still a coach when Minnesota’s former front-office staff broke ground on this reclamation project, but he rejoined the organization he once took to unprecedented heights in time to insert those two interrelated ideals into the club’s foundation.
There will be no systematic rebuilding here, Saunders has said. Like so many upper-echelon NBA teams, the Timberwolves’ wagon is already hitched to three thoroughbreds.
Their names are Nikola, Ricky and Kevin. They’re all under 27, they’ve all suffered injuries, and they all possess All-Star-caliber upside.
Wednesday, Minnesota managed to keep one around while maintaining space to retain the other two.
“This league has proven that you have to have three star-type players,” Saunders said. “All three of those guys have the ability to be in the top five at their respective positions.”
A maximum-length, $60 million deal may appear a little alarming on the surface, especially for a player who’s missed about a quarter of each of his first three NBA seasons. There are not-so-distant Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio deals to consider, too. But this lengthy accord leaves ample opportunity to sign the uniquely versatile power forward and deft passing point guard to similar contracts when the time comes.
That was the point, Saunders said.
“This signing of Pek will in no way hinder anything having to do with Rick down the road or with Kevin Love,” Saunders made clear early in a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon. “We’ve got three cornerstones in the franchise that all complement each other, which is very important.”
In insistently keeping Pekovic, a restricted free agent upon which shopping teams avoided wasting a cap hold with an offer sheet, the Timberwolves took full advantage of the league’s retention-friendly collective bargaining agreement. They were able to exceed the salary cap courtesy of their Bird rights to him, the same CBA clause that allowed him to re-sign for up to five years.
They can still designate Rubio — currently working under his rookie contract — for a five-year extension before his current deal expires. Love can re-up for five years, too, when his current contract runs out (it’s likely he’ll opt out in favor of a more lucrative salary in the summer of 2015).
Therein rests the wild card, especially after former president David Kahn withheld a maximum-length offer from the All-Star stretch four before last season. Another notable nugget is that Love and Pekovic share the same agent, Jeff Schwartz, who was able to negotiate a five-year agreement with the latter but not the former.
But Love’s new boss has continually expressed a commitment to him, including him in conversations about where the franchise is headed. Saunders doesn’t think he did anything to jeopardize the current Love-club relationship by signing Pekovic.
“More than anything else, Kevin wants to win,” Saunders said, “and as we talked about Pek, (Love said) you have to do what you have to do. As Kevin knows, I think he really understands and believes that I haven’t been here for things that have been done in the past, and I don’t care.”
It’s a simple enough strategy: Keep your primary trio here and happy, fill in whatever gaps arise. Pretty much every championship team over the past decade has endorsed some form of it.
In Minnesota, it’s a modern-day model with an old-school twist. Few centers in today’s NBA are as formidable down low as the 6-foot-11, 281-pound Pekovic. Some teams don’t even start a center.
But with Love boasting such balance between the interior and perimeter and Rubio’s almost unmatched knack for distribution, a true center works in the Timberwolves’ core triumvirate.
“People have gone small-ball out of necessity,” said Saunders, who worked as an ESPN analyst between his coaching and front-office gigs. “Teams have not had the center that’s had the ability to be effective down on the block offensively or defensively, and so when you’re in that position you decide to play a forward with a little more skill that gives that flexibility to play somebody down there that’s a little more talented. Pek is not that type of player.”
But Minnesota’s front office didn’t just solidify the Twin Cities rendition of a “big three” this summer. It addressed its secondary and tertiary needs by re-signing unrestricted free agent Chase Budinger, bringing in shooting guard Kevin Martin to provide a much-needed 3-point presence, providing some wing depth by drafting Shabazz Muhammad, and making several defense-conscious acquisitions in the form of Gorgui Dieng, Corey Brewer and Ronny Turiaf.
“I don’t want any questions questioning the commitment of Glen Taylor and this organization trying to put forth a winning team and trying to be a team that gets in the playoffs,” Saunders said. “I believe over the last seven weeks that’s been answered.”
But those fringe contributors, while integral, are in better position to come and go. There’s no guarantee Pekovic, Rubio and Love stay here forever, either — a one-stop NBA career has become a rarity indeed.
At the very least, though, Pekovic’s long-term potential in Minnesota mirrors that of his two fellow stalwarts after what was announced Wednesday.