With the veterans tired in a SEGABABA and the Orlando Magic, of all teams, beating the breaks off of them, the Spurs turned to Jakob Poeltl. The big man, who lost his spot in the rotation earlier in the season, provided the spark they needed in the second quarter, reminding everyone of how well he can play.
The numbers of that first stint — two points, four rebounds and an assist — weren’t eye popping, but he had a positive effect at a point in which not much was going right for San Antonio. He was so good in the first half that Gregg Popovich started him in the third quarter. Unfortunately, he couldn’t sustain his level of play as the team struggled again. Following a 13-7 run by Orlando to start the second half, Jakob sat and never played again.
Poeltl’s performance on Sunday was a microcosm of his time in San Antonio so far. He shows flashes of the player he was in Toronto, but can’t find a role in which his skills are used to the fullest and his impact finally proves unsustainable. Until that changes, Poeltl might continue to get DNPs and garbage time minutes, despite being too good for that.
After some experimentation, the Spurs appear to have found their starting lineup. It doesn't include Poeltl. Gregg Popovich has settled on Dante Cunningham as his power forward and LaMarcus Aldridge as his center. That unit, with Bryn Forbes, DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay completing it, has provided San Antonio with more defensive awareness and versatility than any other combination. That group has allowed a stellar 99.2 points per 100 possessions, a number that would rank third in the league in defensive efficiency. They struggle to score, but Pop is likely fine with that, for now. He has long preferred to start groups that are able to set the tone defensively, and the current starting unit has done just that.
That same lineup but with Poeltl in Cunningham’s place was a disaster on defense. To be fair, it only spent a few minutes on the court together at a time in which everyone was struggling. It could do better now. Yet it doesn’t make a lot of sense to try it. The current iteration of the starting lineup works on the end Pop wants it to work. It might struggle against teams that play two traditional bigs, but hardly anyone does that anymore. Playing Poeltl next to Aldridge might make sense against opponents who have a dominating offensive center, to keep LA out of foul trouble, but Aldridge is now better suited to be a full time center, so having him chase around power forwards is far from ideal.
Finding minutes for Poeltl off the bench is not easy, either. The team has largely moved away from playing two traditional bigs together, and with the personnel current available, Pau Gasol makes more sense as their second unit center. Gasol can set up others with his high post passing, a hugely important factor for bench lineups that lack a perimeter creator. Gasol is averaging the highest assist percentage of his career, with over a quarter of the team’s buckets when he’s on the court coming after one of his passes. Only DeMar DeRozan assists more assiduously. And since Gasol can hit open threes, he can also draw the opposing center to the perimeter, opening the paint for cuts.
Poeltl simply can’t replicate that offensive output. In fact, he needs someone else to create easy buckets for him. With a good pick and roll partner, his screening and diving ability would be useful, but there’s no one who fits that bill on the bench (miss you, Manu!). If he had truly excelled on the other end in his limited playing time, there’d be a case to be made for accepting the offense/defense trade-off in sitting Gasol for him, but Poeltl has not looked as good as he did in Toronto as a defensive anchor. It’s understandable since he’s in a new environment and with different teammates, but the fact remains that he just hasn’t been as essential on at least one end like Gasol has.
Now, it’s still good to have Poeltl around, even if he’s currently not contributing much. There’s no doubt about that. As mentioned, he could be valuable in some matchups as a situational starter or a change of pace option, like he was against the Magic. He also has a skill set no one else on the team has, one that could be useful under different circumstances. If Derrick White comes off the bench when he returns, the subs would have a pick and roll creator to go with all the shooting they boast. A role could then emerge for Poeltl as a dive man. Even if nothing changes and he barely plays this season he still has one more year on his rookie contract and he just turned 23 years old. He has time on his side. There’s no reason to worry about him yet.
Poeltl still has the potential to be a starting center or third big man in the league. We’ve seen that in Toronto and occasionally in San Antonio. He just doesn’t fit seamlessly with what the Spurs want from their starting lineup and their bench bigs right now.
That will surely change at some point. Poeltl is too good and the Spurs too smart for this partnership to fail. At some point Pop will figure out a way to use him. Both Poeltl and those of us who thought he’d be a rotation fixture right away will just have to be patient a little longer.