When the Spurs traded Kawhi Leonard to the Toronto Raptors in 2018, DeMar DeRozan was the big name they got back for him, along with a soon-to-be third-year center and what would become the 29th overall pick in the 2019 Draft. It wasn’t overly flashy at the time, and to this day, some pundits — in this case John Hollinger and Nate Duncan of the Hollinger & Duncan podcast— still claim the Spurs could have done better or should have taken things in a different directection to avoid becoming the middling team they are today (beginning at the 32:30 mark).
While I agree with some of their takes, especially in hindsight, others not so much. Selective memory seems to be a real problem here, as they seem to have forgotten just how badly Uncle Dennis and his proxies had tanked Leonard’s trade value at the time, but more relative to today is the idea that Jakob Poeltl and Devin Vassell are “fine” but won’t do much to help lead the team out of their current state.
In my opinion, it’s way too early to say that about Vassell, who appears to be on a quick upward trajectory, and while before this season I would have agreed this was the case with Poeltl (and technically it always will be in the sense that he will likely never be a star), he’s certainly important to this Spurs team playing its best and is starting to turn some heads with his play. Even Hollinger himself — who was in attendance for their victory against the Portland Trail Blazers — took note of what a defensive force Poeltl has become.
Note to future Spurs opponents: "Let's keep challenging Poeltl at the rim and see what happens" is unlikely to prove profitable.— John Hollinger (@johnhollinger) December 3, 2021
As it turns out, the “afterthoughts” of the Leonard-DeRozan are paying off more than many could have imagined. Everyone can see the potential in Keldon Johnson — the result of that draft overall pick they got in the trade — but Poeltl has been the biggest surprise and, perhaps most importantly, the best bargain. The Spurs were in need of a tradition center at the time (because LaMarcus Aldridge wasn’t ready to cede title of power forward), and while Poeltl played that role admirably on defense while usually being the fifth offensive option over the last couple of seasons, now he’s having a breakout season in the Spurs faster style of play with career highs across the board.
After signing what even at the time seemed like a reasonable three-year, $26 million contract to stay with the Spurs and avoid restricted free agency in 2020, he has since taken over the starting center position, and on top being one of the best rim protectors in the league, he has added a reliable floater and pop-a-shot to his offensive arsenal and become one of the most reliable rollers in the pick-and-roll. As a result, he’s already out performing his current contract.
Over at Hoops Hype, Yossi Gozlan used a site called ProFitX (subscription required) to calculate what is known as a “Real-Time Contract” — which determines how much money a player is earning based entirely on his on-court production — and compared it to the actual of players salary this season. As it turns out, Poeltl is one of the top players in the league (who is not on a rookie contract) who outperforming his current salary:
Real-Time Contract: $15,181,425
Jakob Poeltl is having a career year and is proving he is more than just a rim protector. While his presence is crucial for the Spurs on the defensive end, he’s opened up a lot of things for them offensively with his passing, an attribute head coach Gregg Popovich greatly values. He’s gone from a low-end starting center to one of the more middle-of-the-pack ones.
Poeltl has a real-time contract of $15.2 million, which is similar to the annual salary Jonas Valanciunas will receive on his newly signed extension. The extension of Daniel Gafford, which gives him an average salary of $13.4 million, should definitely help Poeltl in negotiations. Poeltl becomes extension-eligible in the 2022 offseason for up to a four-years projected at $58 million.
Honestly, if he keeps this level of play up, four-years/$58 million may end up being a bargain for Poeltl in the long run (assuming the Spurs are interested in keeping him). With the rate that NBA salaries are going up, that would still be extremely affordable for any veteran starter, and even if the Spurs somehow found the next Nikola Jokic or Jarrett Allen in the draft and he got moved to the bench, it would even be a good deal for what would be a very good back-up center.
While Poeltl will likely never be anything more than a glorified role player, his recent seven-game absence from COVID and their surge in play since he returned showed how much value he is adding to the Spurs team. There’s obviously still things he can do better on (*cough*, free throws), but at this point it’s probably safe to say he’s the best true center the Spurs have had since at least healthy Tiago Splitter, and with a much more versatile game, more athleticism, and (presumably) a longer, healthier career ahead him, Poeltl might have already surpassed him.
We may never know for sure if trading for DeRozan and trying to remain relevant cost the Spurs anything in the long term, but there’s no changing that now (or any sense in still harping about it). Regardless. it’s becoming increasingly apparent that when considering the complete package the Spurs got for Leonard, it wasn’t the bust those who forget or are unaware of what all was going down behind the scenes back then seem to think it was, and the breakout of play of Poeltl is a big reason why. At some point, he should have an All-Defense team appearance to back up.