Even with all the Kevin Love talk and the search for a new head coach consuming T-Wolves fans, there is still that one elephant in the room not being talked about. A gigantic Montenegrin elephant to be specific. Despite his stature being that of a fan favorite, rumblings amongst some of the T-Wolves more vocal fans paint Nikola Pekovic as a player the franchise should look to rid themselves of. But why?
They argue that in the modern NBA you need a rim protector to succeed on defense as a team. And, well, rim protecting is not one of Pek’s strong suits. According to stats from nba.com, opponent field goal percentage at the rim when he was in the paint was 55.2% this season. Compared to that of Roy Hibbert, one of the NBA’s best rim protectors, who held opponents to shooting 41.4% at the rim this season, and it’s understandable why fans harp on Pek for his defense.
They also argue Pek is expandable because Gorgui Dieng is already a better rim protector than him. And they are right. Gorgui’s opponent FG% at the rim was 51.5% in his rookie year. That was better than another young tantalizing center’s – Andre Drummond to be specific, who held opponents to shooting 52.3% at the rim this year. So when T-wolves fans hear they have a center who, according to stats, is a better rim protector than Andre Drummond, of course they want the guy taking away his minutes gone. (It also doesn’t help Pek’s case that Dieng’s Total Rebound Percentage in his rookie year, a TRB% of 20, is close to that of Drummond’s rookie year Total Rebound Percentage, a TRB% of 21.2)
This isn’t to say Gorgui Dieng has the promise of Andre Drummond (he doesn’t, Drummond’s rookie year PER was a crazy 21.6, and Dieng’s was a more than solid 16.5) but what it does show is that Dieng is more talented than Pek in certain areas of the game – and in particular, areas of the game that are of weakness for the team. Hence why some fans want Pek gone, because Dieng would prevent opponents from shooting a league high 55.6% at the rim like they did this year when Pek manned the middle.
But here is the thing – if you get rid of Pek, you are getting rid of one of the most efficient scorers in the league. This past season, according to stats from nba.com, he was the ONLY player in the league last season to average more than 7.5 close shots per game points (meaning - points that are scored within 12 feet of the basket excluding drives).
And yes, I am aware of how many, as the great Rasheed Wallace once called them, ‘bunnies’ Pek misses near the basket. But compared to other great NBA players, Pek’s Close Shot FG% (52.7%) is still better than Tim Duncan’s (50%) and Marc Gasol’s (48.6%). Also his PER of 20.72 makes Pek one of the top 15 best big men in the game. Out of all the Centers and Power Forwards in the league, only 13 of them had a better PER last year.
Here’s the deal T-Wolves fans – you need to stop with the whole Gorgui is better than Pek thing. Despite Gorgui Dieng’s defensive and rebounding talents, Nikola Pekovic is currently a better basketball player because the stat of PER shows conclusive evidence that Pek is one of the top 15 best big men in the game. That said, there is the possibility, and might I add, very real possibility, that Gorgui becomes a better player in the future. But that’s the key word here: ‘future’. And depending on what the T-Wolves do in the future, especially if they go through with another rebuild attempt, who’s to say whether Pek will be apart of it.