The Timberwolves concluded a summer of spending by reaching agreement Wednesday with restricted free-agent center Nikola Pekovic on a five-year, $60 million contract, one that includes as much as $8 million more in performance-based incentive clauses, according to a person with knowledge of the deal.
Six weeks after negotiations formally started and six weeks before training camp begins, the Wolves re-signed a player whom new President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders has maintained all along was his top summertime priority.
Pekovic, too, all last season said he wanted to return to the Wolves, who selected him in the second round of the 2008 draft.
Wednesday morning, the two sides finally came together to keep the 27-year-old Pekovic with the Wolves through 2018, barring a trade of course. There are no player or team options in the contract.
“I don’t know anyone in my 18 years in the NBA who at All-Star break is going to stay in Minnesota — where it’s 20 below — and go ice fishing,” Saunders said Wednesday afternoon, referring to how Pekovic spent his midseason break last winter. “That tells you he loves not only Minnesota, but the experience on and off the floor.”
After spending $60 million to sign unrestricted free agents Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger, Corey Brewer and Ronny Turiaf to balance their roster during July, the Wolves saved their biggest payout for last with a contract that firmly keeps them over the NBA’s salary cap but under its punitive luxury tax.
Pekovic received as much as the four aforementioned players combined, even though no other NBA team extended him an offer sheet that the Wolves always indicated they would match regardless.
In the end, the team and agent Jeff Schwartz reached a deal with a compromise that keeps Pekovic’s annual salary at the $12 million the team previously had offered but includes a fifth and extra season and those incentive bonuses, which almost certainly will include one of games played for a punishing player prone to injuries during his first three NBA seasons.
Three stars set
Saunders tweeted the news Wednesday morning and Pekovic is scheduled to fly from Montenegro to Minnesota on Thursday for a Friday morning news conference.
Saunders contends his team now is set with three star players — Pekovic at center, two-time All-Star Kevin Love at power forward and precocious Ricky Rubio at point guard — he considers among the NBA’s best at their positions.
“This league has proven you have to have three quote-unquote ‘star’ players,” Saunders told reporters during a teleconference. “I really believe Ricky, Kevin and Pek all have the ability to be in the top five at their respective positions, and some a lot higher than that.”
The agreement does not prevent the Wolves from offering Rubio in 2015 a five-year, rookie-contract “designated player” extension that Love wanted so badly but didn’t get from Saunders’ predecessor, David Kahn. Pekovic’s five-year extension is classified differently than one Rubio might sign because Rubio was a first-round pick (in 2009) and Pekovic wasn’t.
The team still, in time, could give five-year contracts to all three. Saunders calls them his franchise’s complementary “cornerstone” players.
Pekovic’s contract, though, might have his agent doing some explaining.
Schwartz represents both Pekovic and Love, who into last season remained bitter about not getting a five-year extension with a four-year, $61 million-plus contract he signed in January 2012.
Saunders said he talked to Love about Pekovic’s contract situation as recently as Tuesday.
“We talked about a lot of things,” Saunders said. “More than anything, Kevin wants to win. As we talked about Pek, he just said, ‘You have to do what you have to do.’ I think Kevin really knows and believes I’m going to have a certain way I’ll do things. I don’t know what has been done in the past. I really don’t care.”
Asked if he thinks Pekovic’s five-year deal will be an issue with Love, Saunders said, “No, not at all.”
The Wolves now have committed more than $110 million to Love and Pekovic, whom together Saunders termed the team’s “Bruise Brothers” in a statement that announced Wednesday’s news. Pekovic’s brutish low-post scoring game creates space for Love’s three-point shooting range even if neither player is a defensive, rim-protecting shot blocker.
Saunders said he believes coach Rick Adelman’s underrated team-defense system and the physical nature of both players below the rim will compensate for their lack of shot blocking. He said he expects newly added first-round pick Gorgui Dieng and veteran Turiaf as well as NBA Development League alum Chris Johnson will help the team in that respect.
“When you look at Pek and Love, I don’t know if there are any two other guys in the league together who will average as many rebounds,” Saunders said. “They complement each other. Very rarely do you get an inside player like Pek who will draw fouls and an outside player like Kevin who can score from the perimeter. And then you throw Ricky into the equation …”
The Wolves spent $120 million on guaranteed contracts this summer.
“Anyone who had any questions about the commitment of [owner] Glen Taylor and this organization on trying to put forth a winning team that not only gets in the playoffs but can do some damage, I believe over the last seven weeks that has been answered,” Saunders said.