The Minnesota Timberwolves locked up a top front line player this week, but questions remain if the team’s core is ready for the playoffs.
After much speculation and a long stretch into the free agency period, the ‘Wolves finally re-signed Nikola Pekovic to a five-year, $60 million contract this week.
Pekovic, 27, was considered one of the best centers of this free agent class. He averaged career-best numbers in scoring (16.8 ppg), rebounding (8.8 rpg) and blocked shots (0.8 bpg). The big man also had rumored ties to Portland, among other suitors.
Now making an eight-figure salary, Pekovic joins Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio in the ‘core’ make-up of the Timberwolves (at least for the next season). Combined, the team has committed approximately $30 million to these three players.
When talking that kind of money, the ultimate roster question for the Timberwolves is:
Is it enough?
In his piece, Ziller breaks down the statistics of Minnesota’s top three players. When last playing together during 2011-12 season, Rubio, Pekovic and Love were +6.7 ppg per 100 possessions. This was definitely a sign that, when together, the three were quite successful. Though Ziller qualifies this evidence as not "terribly robust," he does say the stat is a "positive indicator" toward the team’s chance at long-term success.
Note, though, this is from the 2011-12 season, not the most recent 2012-13 one. Mainly because of injury, the three have struggled to stay on the floor together; individually they may have improved over the last few years, but they still need to prove they can all play as a unit.
The question remains, then, whether or not these three players—who cost around half of the team’s cap space (with Rubio still on his rookie contract)—will be successful in a highly competitive Western Conference.
Part of Ziller’s piece looks not only at these top three players, but also to the rest of the roster’s composition. He writes that offseason acquisition Kevin Martin and 2011 draft pick Derrick Williams will surely have to play key roles if the team is to make the playoffs.
Ziller’s final point is the team’s loss of Andrei Kirilenko—who finished second on the team in minutes played—may be the biggest hole to fill. In short, the rebuilding bench needs to come through if the ‘Wolves are to become a playoff team, but the main responsibility continues to lie with the team’s top trio.
Even without the big name signing during this 2013 summer, the Trail Blazers face a similar dilemma. Like Minnesota, Portland has never been a destination for marquee free agents. Therefore, also like Minny, the commonly referred to building blocks of the Blazers’ roster (LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum) are players that have spent their entire careers within the organization.
The comparisons between the big three for both teams are interesting. For starters, both Lillard and Rubio are young point guards on reasonably priced rookie salaries. Love and Aldridge are on larger deals, in their prime and both faces of their respective franchises. Finally Pekovic and Batum, though playing different positions, each inked large contracts in restricted free agency after showing tremendous growth over a short period of time.
Aside from the big three, roster composition is similar too. Minnesota’s loss of Kirilenko could arguably be compared with Portland’s loss of J.J. Hickson, a player that was an integral part to the starting five’s success last season. Both teams added scoring guards to their backcourt, as Minnesota’s signing of Martin could be matched with Mo Williams.
Ziller’s piece doesn’t necessarily offer whether Minnesota has enough to make the final push toward the postseason. It seemed more that if things fall correctly, you at least can’t count them out.
So asking whether Minnesota is good enough looks awfully similar to asking whether Portland is. And with the teams on such similar paths, you have to think their successes (or failures) will be comparable too.