The Spurs were considered longshots for the final seed in the West even before LaMarcus Aldridge and Trey Lyles were ruled out. Now, after that news and Gregg Popovich’s comments on prioritizing development in the Disney bubble, it certainly seems like their focus isn’t as singular as making a 23rd straight postseason berth.
But when is a loss still a win, or a trip to Orlando salvaged even after a rare dip into the lottery? Both as a team and individually, there are a variety of positive takeaways for the Spurs in their upcoming scrimmages and 8 play-in games. Let’s look at the players that can benefit the most from strong performances in the Bubble.
No Spur may have more to gain from these games than Poeltl, who somehow played 20+ minutes only 12 times last season. If the Spurs’ decision last summer to not extend him didn’t put him on other front offices’ radars at the time, then his continued play through this season should have. Even in a league that undervalues centers that can’t space the floor—and Poeltl may never do that—the 4th-year player will be worth a look as a restricted free agent because of his ability to protect the rim and low-usage efficiency on offense.
Poeltl’s per-36 averages are 11.4 points, 11.6 rebounds and 3.1 blocks — figures he’s rarely been able to sniff because of an inability to coexist with the more established Aldridge. That’ll be less of an issue in Orlando with he and Lyles out of the picture, giving the Austrian the starting spot and a timely opportunity to boost his market value one last time. It should result in more money paid out either by PATFO or a team with deeper pockets and enough creation and floor-spacing to maximize Poeltl’s strengths and mitigate his shortcomings.
Drew Eubanks and Chimezie Metu
Eubanks and Metu spent plenty of time in Austin over the last two years. The former can no longer return on a two-way contract per CBA rules, and the latter will be a free agent after being signed to a surprising two-year guaranteed deal as a 2018 second-round pick. (Edit: Metu has a third, non-guaranteed year left, but I would assume this is his last in San Antonio) Like Poeltl, both stand to benefit from the void in the frontcourt left behind by Aldridge and Lyles. Unlike Poeltl, the pair are likely looking to prove themselves as NBA players for their next team.
Pop’s decision to regularly play the two-way Eubanks rather than the guy on a guaranteed contract says something to how the team views Metu, and I’m not sure he’ll be able to change that stance in Orlando. Eubanks, meanwhile, had some moments stepping into the injured frontcourt, but doesn’t exactly scream upside.
White will find himself in the same position Poeltl was last summer, eligible for his first contract extension. Based on how his role has been managed and the murky financial situation of the league going into next season, it’s anyone’s guess how that’ll go.
What we do know is this: White is on the short list of the league’s best on-ball defenders and at the very least a capable combo guard on offense. At 26, he’s on the old side for a player coming out of a rookie deal, but that shouldn’t be an issue for his next contract. He improved his three-point shot this season (albeit with less of an uptick in volume as many would have liked). Most importantly, with his hands on the joysticks, the 2018-19 Spurs offense was considerably better than this year’s version, and it’s a shame Pop invested so little time in having him share the floor with Dejounte Murray to make up for an abysmal defense.
Orlando should offer the Spurs coach the opportunity to give the duo a hard look. Furthermore, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to see how they can operate with Murray playing more off-ball, utilizing his budding touch shooting off the catch, and allowing White to be the primary ball-handler. It may not make for an elite attack, but it could be the best compromise that allows two strong defenders to wreak havoc on the other end.
The Spurs signed Zeller to a non-guaranteed multi-year deal going into the Bubble. He won’t likely look to show out so much as set good screens, roll hard, rotate well on defense, and hit open jumpers. Doing enough of that may give him an inside track to return next season.
Lonnie Walker IV
Walker isn’t leaving San Antonio anytime soon, and his role is due to be expanded next season no matter what. That said, if the time in Orlando truly will feature an emphasis on development, then I hope that includes treating Walker like a number-one option. This team doesn’t have many pathways to a star player anytime soon once/if Aldridge and DeRozan part, but Walker represents their best current crack at one. Get him in sets going downhill, run him off Iverson screens like they routinely do for DeRozan, and simplify things just a bit for his natural talents to flourish. Recall what happened against Houston when, in his mind, he knew he had the greenest of lights.
After all, what’s there to lose?