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What the Spurs can learn about the center position from the playoffs

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The elite teams still alive in the postseason have a lot to teach the Spurs about how to build a successful center rotation.

NBA: Playoffs-Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Lakers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The importance of the big man in modern NBA basketball has been debated tirelessly in recent years. While in the past the recipe for success seemed to always include dominant interior presences, rule changes and the advent of analytics have led teams to build around perimeter players.

The topic seems settled, as traditional low post scoring centers have lost relevance, but every postseason we are reminded that the big man can still help massively, albeit in different ways than it used to. This year has been no different.

Three of the four conference finalists have star big men, while the Celtics have relied more on a stable of limited but productive centers. The success those teams have had is at least partially attributable to their big and can teach us some important lessons the Spurs could apply as they rebuild their roster.

Centers that can pass are a godsend

There’s a common misconception about the value of post offense. Great post scorers can be efficient, as many teams refuse to double down low often. The problem comes when they do in fact double, since with the new rules they don’t have to fully commit to it and the defense can zone out in the weak side. That puts post scorers in a tough position since they don’t have the room they need to operate and don’t have easy passing options to create good looks.

Nikola Jokic doesn’t have those issues. Jokic manipulates weak side help defense like a master and in doing so can create three-pointers and shots at the rim for his teammates.

Jokic’s ability to make those reads from the post makes him a nightmare to guard, as he can score if help isn’t there or dish dimes if it is.

Something similar applies to Miami’s Bam Adebayo, despite him not really being a post threat. Instead, Adebayo does his work from the elbows and the top of the arc while his teammates screen and cut. Whenever someone gets open, Adebayo hits them with a pinpoint pass for an easy score.

Adebayo doesn’t even attempt threes, which makes the fact that he doesn’t destroy spacing all the more special, and that’s attributable to his passing ability.

What the Spurs can learn

Having great passing bigs is not a requirement for good offense, but it limits what a team can do. Getting a center that can move the ball could simplify things for San Antonio a lot going forward

Unfortunately, the Spurs currently don’t have any great passing big men in their roster. The starters are mediocre at best. LaMarcus Aldridge is a good offensive player thanks to his ability to score on the block and he’s been extending his range, but has never been anything other than average at setting up others. Trey Lyles entered the league with the potential to be a good passer, but never developed.

Jakob Poeltl is better at it, but his lack of ability to create for himself might limit how effective he could be in a bigger role. He’s less versatile than players like Adebayo, relying a lot on hand-offs to create looks for his teammates.

Luka Samanic could be the Spurs’ best hope of getting a great passing big man, mostly because of his work in transition. Samanic still needs to tighten his handle, but he can run the break in a pinch even now at the G-League level and could potentially continue to improve his perimeter skills. Even if he does, however, it could take years.

It’s unclear how the Spurs will build their big man rotation in the future, but perhaps focusing on getting better passing big men could mean their offense flow better, like it has for the Nuggets and the Heat.

Athletic, defensive-minded bigs are valuable, but only for the right prize

While the two best big men still in the playoffs shoot threes, several other bigs still vying for the Finals, along with a lot of centers that played rotation minutes for good teams, don’t. Some, like Adebayo, make up for it by passing well and being generally versatile in other ways on offense, but others are more traditional.

Daniel Theis is a good example. Theis has attempted 24 threes in the postseason and made just four, but he’s been an important player in the Celtics’ run thanks to his good defensive play, energy and athleticism. The Lakers have used both Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee at times, and neither has any range or passing ability. They are just good defenders who are springy, get boards and don’t need touches. There’s clearly value on those type of players who can offer some rim-running, defensive presence and energy. But only for the right prize.

What Theis, McGee and Howard have in common asides from a similar skill set is that they all signed for cheap. Doing so allowed the front offices of the Lakers and Celtics to build their center rotations without spending a lot of their resources, which is a must in a capped league that has been leaning away from traditional big men. Instead, those front offices loaded up on more expensive perimeter role players like Danny Green and Marcus Smart, which give them more lineup versatility.

What the Spurs can learn

Athletic, defensive-minded centers have their uses, but there are a lot of them that can be had for cheap while good perimeter players are rarer and more useful in most situations. With more and more teams eventually going small, it makes no sense to use a large percentage of the cap on traditional bigs that might not play a lot when it counts.

That Spurs probably realized that in the bubble, where Jakob Poeltl and two-way player Drew Eubanks did a solid job holding down the center position while making under $5 million, combined. San Antonio also got a passable free agent power forward for cheap in Trey Lyles. The only expensive big man in the roster was LaMarcus Aldridge, who is a star. The allocation of resources to the big men positions seemed right.

Tough decision are ahead, however. Poeltl will become a free agent, and he’s much closer in value and skill set to someone like Theis than he is to Anthony Davis. It’s unclear what the market for him will be, but if he gets an offer worth eight figures or close to it (Mason Plumlee money), should the Spurs match it? The opportunity cost in a league with a salary cap is real.

The answer will likely come down to whether the front office and coaching staff believe Poeltl can continue to improve as a defender and passer, since he clearly doesn’t have the tools to become a shooter. It could also hinge on the perceived ceiling of the guards and wings in the roster. If the Spurs already have stars under contract, they don’t have to worry too much about preserving cap flexibility. If they don’t, they need to keep their books clear and hope to pounce when an opportunity presents itself. How the front office handles Poeltl’s free agency could tell us a lot about how they feel about their young core.

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