LOS ANGELES – A dozen games into a return from April surgery on his right Achilles’ tendon, Timberwolves veteran center Nikola Pekovic is a man frustrated.
His tattooed arms ripple with muscles and he could bench press a refrigerator, but his feet haven’t consistently carried him without causing pain going on four seasons now.
Surgery last spring was considered a last chance to allow the 6-11 Pekovic to run and play maybe something like he once did, which was well enough to earn a five-year, $60 million contract that has two more full seasons remaining.
But after nearly nine months of rest and rehabilitation, his foot still hurts when he runs and jumps and his playing time and productivity seemingly decrease by the game: From highs of 12 points in his first game back Jan. 6 against Denver and 18 minutes played Jan. 15 at Oklahoma City to six minutes in Sunday’s loss at Portland and one point scored his past three games combined.
Pekovic does not want to be reminded of such things, but somebody did anyway Sunday, when it was mentioned that he seems a little frustrated.
“Do I? Really?” he said. “Why do you think? So, you know, it’s frustrating because it’s still hurting. When you do all these treatments and you still got pain, you kind of get a little down. That’s normal.”
A month after he turned 30, the native of Montenegro finds himself in something of a paradox: A man so big and physical but so limited by the complexity of the human foot’s muscles, tendons and nerves.
“It’s so hard for Pek, with the uniqueness of how he plays,” Wolves interim coach Sam Mitchell said. “His feet hurt all the time. How does he get all that back? Normally, you get your game back by doing work, putting in extra time. Well, if your feet hurt, how do you put in extra work? It’s tough.”
Pekovic needs extra court time to regain both his conditioning and scoring touch but is limited by playing-time restrictions and the pain he feels. A career 52.1 percent shooter from the floor coming into the season, Pekovic has made 38 percent (19 of 50) of his shots this season.
“When you can’t push from your right leg, then you can’t like …” Pekovic said, his voice trailing off.
When told that it looks like his return to action since last March has not come easily, Pekovic said: “How can it come easy if I was out 10 months? Can you explain me that? So that’s an answer for your question.
“I’m still not pain-free. I’m still feeling pain. It’s kind of a little of everything. I’m just learning to play with pain again. That’s the biggest adjustment. And, of course, when you don’t play for 10 months, what do you expect? Come back in two games? It’s not possible.”
The Wolves recalled power forward Adreian Payne on Monday from the NBA Development League after three games played there, probably because Kevin Garnett remains out, Pekovic played so little Sunday and didn’t practice Monday in Los Angeles and rookie Nemanja Bjelica continues to struggle. Pekovic is doubtful for Tuesday’s game against the Lakers in Los Angeles.
“We appreciate the fact that Pek’s dealing with something I can only imagine,” Mitchell said. “He’s doing the best he can to play through it, play as much as he can and get his game back to as close as it was. If he can do that, it’d be a minor miracle and it’d help us out. We just take it day-by-day and whatever Pek can give us, we have to be appreciative of that.”
Pekovic has played 97 of 213 games since August 2013, when he signed a contract for which he is still owed $12.1 million for next season and $11.6 million for 2017-18. Retirement, salary-cap relief for the team and insurance payments all are complicated questions that could come someday.
“I’m not qualified to go down that road,” Mitchell said. “I don’t even want to think about it. I ask Pek every day how he feels and his answer is, ‘Coach, it hurts, but I can tolerate it.’ At the end of the day, it’s on Pek and as long as he can tolerate it. You know how tough Pek is.”
Pekovic was asked if he can see a day coming when he can’t tolerate any more.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” he said. “Right now, I’m just trying to go through whatever they ask of me. That’s what I try to do.”