The Spurs have a huge problem on their hands. Arguably their best player this year, defensive anchor and rapidly improving offensive threat Jakob Poeltl, has entered health and safety protocol and is expected to miss several games.
It’s hard to overstate how important Poeltl’s defense, passing, screening, and inside scoring have been for San Antonio to start the season. The 26-year-old center was having a career year in almost every statistical category and was instrumental on both ends, as he became a facilitator for a Spurs offense that relies on a lot of off-ball movement.
Instead of getting closer to being whole, as Doug McDermott gets ready to return, the young Spurs’ resilience will be tested once again by the absence of one of their key pieces. Let’s see what this could mean.
The Spurs are going to have to get creative to make up for Poeltl’s absence
San Antonio has three backup centers available, but none that can replace Poeltl’s well-rounded game. Drew Eubanks can score and will pull down boards but he’s not the passer or interior presence Poeltl is. Thaddues Young can find cutters from the top of the arc like Jak, but he’ll be undersized against most centers and could struggle to rebound. Jock Landale is a mystery. In theory he could provide more shooting than Poeltl did and a big body to bang inside, but it’s impossible to predict how he’ll fare on defense. None of those three seems to be a solution on their own, so the Spurs might have to mix and match.
One option could be to play Young and Landale together off the bench and have them switch positions in defense and offense. When the Spurs have the ball, Landale could space the floor like a forward while Young acts as the center, slinging passes from the top of the arc like Poeltl does and working in the pick and roll and hand-offs with the ball handlers to attempt to create 4-on-3 situations in which his vision could be maximized. On the other end, Young would guard the opponent’s power forward while Landale takes over center duties. Having the two on the court would give San Antonio enough size to hopefully protect the paint and control the defensive boards while the starters rest.
Keita Bates-Diop could also see more minutes, simply because of his defense and rebounding. The starters will have two above average defensive rebounders in Dejounte Murray and Eubanks, assuming he starts, but they don’t have forwards that can contribute much in that area, especially if McDermott, who is firmly below average on the boards, re-joins the unit. Keldon Johnson could take a step forward on defense in Poeltl’s absence, but he’s been merely adequate for his position. Sending in Bates-Diop for Derrick White, so that the team gets bigger, or for McDermott could really hurt the offense, as Bates-Diop is not an outside threat and can’t handle the ball, but it might be a good option for a handful of minutes in first and third quarters if the opponent is dominating the glass and scoring at will.
If all these potential tweaks seem more like band aids than actual solutions, it’s because they are. Simply trying to replace Poeltl with another player doesn’t seem possible, so Pop will have his work cut out for him trying to hide his starting center’s absence.
For these Spurs, having to adjust might not be a bad thing
If the Spurs were a veteran team trying to make the playoffs no matter what, this could be a huge blow to their chances. This year, that’s not who they are. Their record reflects that they are likely one of the worst teams in the west and wins and losses matters less to them than the development of their young players. In that sense, there might be some silver linings to not having Poeltl around.
Without Jakob facilitating, the offensive identity might have to change a little. The guards will probably have to do more of the playmaking, which could really help Derrick White get going after a somewhat slow start of the season. White has seen his usage dip and has looked tentative in the pick and roll, not ranking highly as a scorer or passer to the roll man, according to Synergy Sports. Poeltl hasn’t been great in that setting, either. So maybe having other bigs to work off like Eubanks, who has been among the best in the league as a roll man, according to Synergy, along with knowing that he might need to look for his shot instead of involving Poeltl, like Gregg Popovich has asked, can unlock some of the on-ball offensive aggression that White has been lacking.
Similarly, Keldon Johnson could see an offensive improvement. With the Spurs running a lot of their offense through the top of the arc, either on pick and rolls or with Poeltl distributing, Johnson has been a little lost. He’s simply not an intuitive cutter and opponents can just sag off him when he’s handing the ball, since he’s not a pull-up threat from beyond the arc. In the past, he thrived as a weak side threat, as he could attack a moving defense following a play in which a guard, normally DeMar DeRozan, drew help. Johnson would catch the ball already in motion and attacked the seams that others created. It might be easier for him to get those opportunities now if Murray and White get more touches. Once Poeltl returns, the offense would go back to normal, but hopefully the confidence boost could make it easier for Johnson to adjust.
Finally, Poeltl’s absence could help the Spurs figure out what they have in their stable of bigs. Eubanks seems to be at his best in short stints against backups, but it will be interesting to see if, now that he has more experience, he can hang against starters. Landale could get non garbage time minutes to prove that his shooting is real and his defense adequate enough to allow him to be a rotation player. As for Young, he’s been trending up recently and if he continues to do well in a bigger role, he will not only help the Spurs but also raise his trade value.
It’s unclear how long Poeltl will be out and his absence will almost certainly make the Spurs worse in the short term. Fortunately this season, the focus is in the long view. There could be some tough times ahead, but as long as the team can learn something from this setback, the next few games should be interesting to watch, even if Poeltl is obviously missed.