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It's OK for the Spurs to take their time with Jakob Poeltl
Finding a new home for the San Antonio big man may seem like a top priority for the rebuilding Spurs, but the team might not feel it's quite that obvious.
When San Antonio dealt Dejounte Murray to Atlanta prior to the start of free agency, it felt like only the first domino that would eventually fall over the summer. It seemed inevitable a move carrying that type of weight would soon topple the pieces that still stood in its wake. But outside of the Keldon Johnson extension and small-scale signings, it has been a very quiet couple of months in Spurs-land.
With a number of veteran players on the roster capable of contributing to winning games, it’s safe to assume San Antonio has spent at least a little time on the phone this summer. You wouldn’t be venturing out on too thin a limb if you posit Jakob Poeltl is the team’s most desired piece, nor would it be a stretch to say he’s the most important asset the Spurs have to move, given their commitment to acquiring draft picks at this juncture. He is, for all intents and purposes, the definition of a floor-raiser — the type of player who will help any team for which he plays, and who isn’t necessarily ideal for a team that would benefit greatly from selecting at or near the very top of the draft. On paper at least.
Even with Murray running the show, much of the team’s offense flowed through and around Poeltl last season. Per Second Spectrum data, he finished third in the league in total elbow touches behind Nikola Jokic and Nikola Vucevic, as well as third in the league in total screen assists behind noted human walls Steven Adams and Rudy Gobert. These stats might be basic as hell, but they’re illustrative of the larger point that, despite being a non-shooter and a low-level threat in the post, the Spurs rely on Poeltl as an offensive fulcrum, space-creator, pick-and-roll threat and pressure-release valve — all elements of the game that ease the burden of responsibility for teammates still firmly entrenched in their formative years.
Whether you’re looking at something as simple as season-long on-off stats or diving deeper into advanced, catch-all metrics like EPM, LEBRON ($), RAPTOR or RPM (just to name a few), you’ll notice Poeltl’s impact on the floor was similar to that of Murray on average. In fact, per Cleaning the Glass ($), the Spurs were seven points per 100 possessions better than their opponents last season when Jakob was on the floor — the highest mark on the team among players who logged at least 600 minutes during the 2021-22 campaign.
(Please note this is not an argument that Poeltl is a better or more valuable player than Murray. It is just a big-picture view of the team’s effectiveness when Jakob was on the court.)
In the NBA, losing just one player of Murray’s caliber will undoubtably make a significant impact, but this is not the kind of teardown we’ve seen from teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets in recent years. The Spurs are not going to be good this year, but with Gregg Popovich sticking around for his 26th full season as head coach and (for the moment) 11 players returning from last year’s team, they’re likely going to be more competitive than many may think, relatively speaking.
In the eyes of most, the point of “tanking” is to allow the floor to drop out from under you, not to maintain a base. But finding the right balance could allow San Antonio to have its cake and eat it, too. The Spurs just lost their on-court leader and high-usage point guard, so employing a player like Poeltl — who makes life easier for the ball-handlers around him — would likely prove important in the development of the young core.
But the organization is going to have to play its cards the right way if it wants to provide the right level of competitive balance and veteran support while also effectively positioning itself to achieve the long-term goal of acquiring the best talent possible via the draft. Like it or not, the Spurs have made the decision to trade star players for picks, so they have to make this count.
At a certain point in the season, the macro is going to become significantly more important than the micro, and the experience of winning individual games could prove more detrimental than beneficial in the long run — a reality Pop will likely have to come to grips with on some nights, no matter how unnatural or uncomfortable it may feel. The end game here is escaping the purgatory of the last few seasons, not continuing to tread water in Hades.
Still, even considering all context surrounding the team’s decision to dive deeper into the rebuild, there should not be any rush to trade Poeltl.
For the most part, the summer months do not present teams with the best opportunity to extract value for the more ancillary players on their rosters. There’s generally more big-picture work being done on the team-building front, and there are more options from which to choose in free agency and on the trade market. Unless you’re dealing a star, receiving a premium return is unlikely. On top of it all there’s less desperation, attrition has yet to take its toll, and contenders have not had the chance to truly gauge how they stack up against their counterparts.
Players like Doug McDermott and Josh Richardson are generally not highly sought after on the trade market once the new league year starts in July. But as injuries set in around the league, and as teams begin to search for the extra edge on the wings they feel may widen their margins for error in postseason play, more assets will become available to teams like the Spurs that are looking to unload these “missing pieces” to contenders in need.
But McDermott and Richardson — two players who would likely be bench contributors on most contending teams — are not the types of assets Poeltl has become. Realistically, considering age and position, there is no future for either player in San Antonio once their current deals expire.
Poeltl is potentially a different story, however. Aside from his impact as a figurative lineup adhesive that helps keep all the individual parts intact, he’s a tremendous value from a financial perspective — for now, at least. At $9.4 million for the upcoming season, Poeltl’s cap number will account for less than 10 percent of the Spurs’ payroll, which is a drop in the bucket for the team and anyone else who shows interest in a potential trade, as it’s an easy price to match with basic roster filler alongside the draft picks San Antonio would covet in return.
But with only one year remaining on Poeltl’s deal, there’s a ticking clock on that discount. Over the summer, centers like Jusuf Nurkic and Mitchell Robinson signed four-year deals worth $70 million and $60 million, respectively, so projecting an average annual salary of somewhere in the neighborhood of $18 million (if not a bit more) for Poeltl’s next contract is not unreasonable, especially with the salary cap expected to jump by another $10 million ahead of the 2023-24 season.
In a vacuum, that number would be just fine. Poeltl is worth every penny of that as a player, and with the salary cap continuing to rise to absurd heights, it will only become more palatable over time. However, if the Spurs ultimately plan on dealing him eventually, the task would become more challenging after his next deal is inked. Once Poeltl’s price tag jumps, and assuming he doesn’t make a massive offensive leap as a soon-to-be 27-year-old non-shooting center, the pool of suitors will become a bit shallower for a couple of reasons.
First, teams may be looking to invest that kind of money into other positions and search for bargain-bin centers instead. Unless your name is Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic, front offices have largely moved toward self-imposed caps on what they’re willing to pay big men who will never be top-tier offensive focal points. Just look at how little attention Deandre Ayton received as a restricted free agent back in July, and how the Suns refused to offer him the maximum extension last summer. Poeltl won’t be asking for anything close to Ayton money, but the point remains: There’s a line for most teams when it comes to paying a center — especially one who hasn’t come up in your system.
Second (and perhaps most obviously), the higher the salary, the more complicated the trade logistics. Finding partners willing and able to send out the money necessary to match on top of desired draft picks would become more difficult. Not impossible by any means, but trickier nonetheless.
So the Poeltl conversation is going to be an interesting one to watch as the season moves along. Given the team’s actions over the course of the last year-plus, it would seem the logical next step would be to continue to trade veterans for picks. While you can bet the Spurs will be listening to any and all offers, it may not be prudent to dump Poeltl at a reduced cost. At this point of the rebuild, San Antonio’s approach with its starting center should be relatively simple, and not unlike the one it took with Murray: Set a price range and stick to it. If they find a deal they feel adequately boosts their probabilities of achieving greater long-term success, then they should jump at the opportunity. But if they don’t, the benefits of keeping Poeltl around as an anchor for a developing young team may be greater than those of selling just to sell.
Yet, none of this will matter if he wants to play for a winner in the coming years. The Spurs are nowhere near competing for a playoff spot anytime soon, so if the team learns he wants to move on to greener pastures following the expiration of his contract, finding a deal for Jakob prior to the trade deadline in February becomes the top item on the agenda.
And frankly, given the timelines of both the franchise and player, that may simply end up being what eventually unfolds. It would certainly make sense logically, but for whatever it’s worth, Poeltl was palpably relieved when the trade deadline came and went in February and he was still a Spur. He enjoys playing in San Antonio and has certainly found a home here. Still, goals can always change, especially as the team does.
Regardless, the Spurs can afford to be patient. Given the attention Poeltl has received over the last couple of seasons, one can assume there will be no shortage of teams interested in a (currently) cheap center who arguably impacts the game at a top-10 level at the position. Furthermore, waiting things out will give San Antonio the opportunity to further gauge the progress of Zach Collins, who until this summer hadn’t been able to actually train during the offseason for several years due to injury. Collins, who’s on a partially guaranteed contract over the next two years, steadily improved as he became more comfortable down the stretch of last season. If he remains healthy and shows he can impact games consistently, the Spurs may feel they have something for the future, making the Poeltl decision a bit easier to make.
San Antonio has always placed a premium on the presence of veterans in the locker room. They believe firmly in the development that happens in the practice facility, the film room and away from any court, and that the examples set by more experienced players are critical in fostering these environments. Somehow — SOMEHOW — Poeltl is now the longest-tenured Spur, and the team has always held his work ethic in high regard.
As we saw with the Murray trade, there is a future in which the team decides Poeltl’s value as an asset is more important to its long-term success. But there is also a future that sees him fitting right into that sweet spot as a player whose cost isn’t too prohibitive and impact is more important to development than it is detrimental to further rebuilding efforts (i.e. winning too many games).
The general conversation regarding “tanking” and rebuilding in today’s NBA has become relatively simplistic.
Trade everyone, be bad, draft high … profit.
But the reality is infrastructure remains critical, even in the very lean years. San Antonio knows that. Following the Murray trade, GM Brian Wright said the team is going to remain competitive this season and in the coming years. In this sense, “competitive” is clearly a relative term, as this is not a team that will be vying for a postseason bid in the near future. Rather, the Spurs want their young players to form good habits, learn how to be professionals, and understand what it takes to truly compete in the NBA when their times come. The more stability the organization can provide these players to aid in that development, the better, so long as it doesn’t compromise what the team is ultimately trying to accomplish.
It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, but meticulous attention to the little details — and in the case of Poeltl, the timing or necessity of player transactions — could prove worth the time and effort in the end.
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