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Jakob Poeltl’s contract sheds light on what the Spurs may be doing

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As the front office juggles all that 2021 cap space and a glut of interchangeable pieces on the perimeter, the Poeltl re-signing lends some structure to their vision.

San Antonio Spurs v Utah Jazz Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The big splash of the Spurs’ offseason came last week when they locked in one of the returning pieces from the Kawhi Leonard trade by re-signing Jakob Poeltl. The deal, worth just over a reported $26 million through three years, didn’t come as a total shock, but it could be a bolder move than many give it credit for.

For a team with ample raw materials, it’s not been clear how the Spurs will put them together—at least not in ways that matter for winning teams. Can they establish a defensive identity? What will their defensive style be like? Which young player(s) develop star-level upside, and how would the other pieces complement on offense? Most of these questions remain unanswered, but the draft selection of FSU’s Devin Vassell, Brian Wright’s comments afterward, and now the commitment to Poeltl give us an outline to work with.

Let’s start with the Poeltl contract and work our way backwards.

Poeltl should be starting eventually

After averaging just 16.5 and 17.7 minutes his last two seasons in San Antonio, Poeltl’s new deal suggests a larger role moving forward as the team reloads. Also, there’s this statement he made during his media availability last week:

“There was some conversations about my role and how the team is going to look in the future. That was a big part of my decision as well. I wanted to be on a team where I felt comfortable and would get along and play well alongside my teammates.”

Whether it happens during this season or after the summer of 2021 when LaMarcus Aldridge’s contract is up, it certainly appears that Poeltl will step in as the team’s new starting center. Those two remain difficult to pair up at the same time, so Poeltl may need to wait unless the Spurs can convince Aldridge of the move amid a contract year, or they trade him earlier.

The Spurs have reason to put their faith in Poeltl, even if they didn’t show it with minutes the past two years. His first season in San Antonio, the team went 16-8 with him as a starter; in last year’s forgettable 32-39 campaign, they went 9-9.

Can he stretch the floor? No, his longest shots as a Spur are the occasional push-shot-cum-jumper from 19 feet away. And while he did connect on 60% of those last season (really good!), he’ll likely keeping doing most of his scoring around the basket. That production will largely depend on others because of his lack of self-creation, save for those crafty fake hand-offs which spring him for open runs at the rim.

Defensively he can hold his own on switches, but he’s going to guard pick and rolls by stunting and showing and dropping back whenever possible. And as we saw in Orlando versus Joel Embiid, he can be overmatched by bruising bigs.

There’s certainly room for growth: Poeltl can do more as a facilitator and improve his free-throw shooting, for starters. But for the purposes of team-building, Poeltl is what he is, and that gives us an idea of the other four players the Spurs may envision around him.

Poeltl can anchor a great modern defense

Poeltl’s strengths as a defender have been evident through two seasons in San Antonio. Opponents shot 11.8% worse within 6 feet of the rim when he was the primary defender last season, putting him in the mix with some of the league’s better deterrents. Combine that with a high block rate (he averaged 1.4 in limited minutes last season), high basketball IQ and deceptive mobility and you have a fine big to surround with switchable perimeter players. San Antonio dabbled in a switch-heavy scheme in Orlando that was happy to switch 1 through 4 while Poeltl hung back on pick and rolls, and it’s a formula we’re likely to see more of next season.

It suits the direction the Spurs have gone in recent drafts, with Vassell as the latest in long, athletic wings that can guard multiple positions, hit the defensive glass, and make plays. Here’s Spurs GM Brian Wright after the draft:

“Speed, length, shooting ability all hold value, so we’ll continue to look for those things,... I think the league has really changed where you look at guys as one-position players—you’re either a 1, 2, 3, 4 or a 5. I think what you see now is you’ve got guards, you’ve got wings and you’ve got bigs, and depending on who they’re playing with you diversify. And you want guys who are versatile, who can play multiple positions.”

The first team that comes to mind when I hear the guard-wing-big talk is Boston. Brad Stevens echoed a similar line in speaking about their approach to team-building three years ago and has ridden it to considerable success in the East. That philosophy has included a de-prioritization of the “big” position, with the team investing most of its cap space at other positions. The Spurs, with their theoretical starting center of the future on a similarly economical deal, can do the same as they start making use of their open salary books in this summer.

Poeltl’s screen-setting and rim-running can help elevate his teammates’ games

It’s an open question as to whether the Spurs are actually trying to replicate what Boston is doing — or whether they can with their young pieces who, a) average 2 or 3 inches shorter than the big wings the Celtics have platooned and b) haven’t threatened to reach the talent level of Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown. But if the idea is a free-flowing, four-out offense with multiple ball-handlers, then Poeltl can be the low-usage big that stirs the drink. He’s a strong screen-setter who can dive to the rim well enough to put pressure on a back-pedaling defender. He and Derrick White already have strong chemistry and, as guys like Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker and Keldon Johnson develop as decision-makers off the dribble, it’ll help to more routinely have Poeltl helping create advantages against a set defense.

Among Spurs rotation players, the Austrian was 4th in assists per 36 minutes last season, thanks largely to working off designated hand-offs and setting up guys like Bryn Forbes, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli for pull-up jumpers. Whether he can keep getting dimes depends largely on the growth of his young teammates scoring off similar actions.

Poeltl’s contract gives the Spurs options and flexibility

Poeltl at under $9 million a year should be objectively good value and a tradable contract should the Spurs look to move him. It also means having one likely starter at around 8% of the salary cap. Should the Spurs need a change-of-pace center to close out certain lineups with? PATFO can chase that, too. When you’re a young team still trying to figure out who your future stars may be, and where they may come from, that’s important.

Retaining him doesn’t say much to the ceiling for the Spurs’ youth movement, but it definitely helps set a floor while laying the groundwork for what the front office decides to do next.