Nikola Pekovic finally landed his fat new contract this week, signing for $60 million over five years. It makes official what had been assumed for the past year: Pekovic is firmly implanted in the core of the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise. There, he's joined by Kevin Love (also making a pretty penny) and Ricky Rubio.
The question is whether that core and the orbiting supplemental pieces are good enough to make the playoffs in 2013-14.
Why is there urgency in Minnesota to win now? The Timberwolves have the league's longest playoff drought (eight years) and Love is getting awfully close to potential free agency (2015) without a single decent team finish to show for it. In addition, no one's sure how long Rick Adelman intends to stay on the sidelines; he remains the franchise's best chance at getting there, as few better coaches ever become available.
One of the problems with assessing the Wolves core is that it barely got a chance to play together in 2012-13. Love missed most of the season with a hand injury, and Rubio and Pekovic each dealt with nagging ailments. There was one two-week stretch in which all three players were available: the last two weeks of December. But that wasn't an accurate representation of how that core can function, primarily because Rubio was extremely rusty coming off of ACL surgery. He didn't break out of a strict minutes limit until Love was already back on the shelf.
But if you go back to 2011-12, you see just how much potential this trio has. Per NBA.com/stats, in 458 minutes, the trio was a +6.7 points per 100 possessions against opponents. That was Rubio's rookie season and Pekovic's first season playing major minutes. Pekovic has vastly improved since then (so much so he was a contender for Most Improved Player last season), and Rubio was better once he shook off the rust last year. And Love is Love: an impeccable scorer, rebounder and passer.
That evidence isn't terribly robust, but it's a positive indicator that a team built around those three players can succeed quite well. Health remains the biggest concern, but that's hard to plot against. You don't replace a player like Love with a bench player. But depth can help mitigate against injuries, and under Flip Saunders, the Wolves are starting to fill out the roster with true NBA contributors, or at least prospects with a good chance of contributing. This will still likely be one of the worst benches in the West, and one injury could definitely ruin the season. But isn't that the case for most clubs?
What concerns me most about the Wolves is the free agency loss of Andrei Kirilenko. The Wolves made huge strides on defense last season, finishing No. 13 in the league. Kirilenko was a huge piece of that, and despite injuries, he finished No. 2 on the team in minutes played. The Wolves added desperately needed shooting with Kevin Martin, but Derrick Williams or whoever is asked to fill AK's role is going to likely be a massive downgrade and we could see those defensive improvements vanish. I trust Adelman to figure out a way to limit the bleeding, but the impact will be felt. Kirilenko is too good for his loss not to be felt.
Williams is the X-factor in all of this. He's only 22, and last season under Adelman, he became a much better (if still inefficient) scorer. With shooting on the wings in the form of Martin, a deadly point guard and big man in Rubio-to-Love and a monster around the rim in Pekovic, Williams providing some inside-out scoring could really rocket the Wolves' offense up from its No. 25 status and help make up for any loss on the defensive side.
The other factor we can't ignore: the West is so good. Minnesota isn't the only team looking to crack into the top eight: New Orleans has made a huge push to get there, Dallas wants to be back in the mix, Portland intends to make it and the Jazz probably feel as though they have a shot. I don't see any 2013 playoff teams openly conceding their spots, so even if things go well, it's going to be a challenge to break into the top eight.