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Jakob Poeltl makes a difference for the Spurs

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The Spurs’ defensive rating has improved significantly with the Austrian big man in the starting five.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Charlotte Hornets Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t know about you, but chances are you’re a sucker for D as well. You’re reading this, so you’re very likely a San Antonio Spurs fan, and Spurs fans know what the franchise is built upon, historically. In one letter: D.

D starts with not turning the ball over, something the Spurs are also historically good at, and it ends in the zone – where the Spurs have had incredibly good defenders over the years.

I guess not too many Spurs fans would disagree if I said, that the Spurs have had the best big men in the game for about 30 years, starting in the early 90s. And hey, I can even back that up. Per basketball-reference.com, David Robinson and Tim Duncan combined for a total of 9 best individual defensive ratings from 1991 to 2012. (In case you didn’t: Now you know why my fellow German Irk could only play in Allas and not San Antonio.)

Once the Spurs no longer had the best defensive big man in the game, they had the best perimeter defender since Pippen (or Bowen?) – or maybe ever. I’m not going to mention his name, because it winds too many of us Spurs fans up. But I guess we still can all enjoy this video can’t we?

Once he of was gone, the Spurs D dropped significantly. Not only because of his absence, of course. The season he sat out the Spurs’ defense was excellent. But once he was actually gone – as well as Danny Green and Kyle Anderson – the Spurs defense suffered. Per nba.com, they were 20th in the 2018-19 season, and 26th in the 2019-20 season.

This season, the Spurs defense has improved. They were in the teens in defensive rating in December and January. But on the last day before February began they suffered their biggest defeat of the season – an atrocious 31-point blowout to the Grizzlies. In the 10 games since the , the Spurs’ defense has been the fourth-best in the league. Something significant changed after that terrible loss to Memphis.

Here’s what: Jakob Poeltl was moved to the starting five for the next game. And he has remained a starter ever since. And it’s working.

The thing is, I love watching Dejounte Murray grab steals as much as you do. I could watch Derrick White taking charges all day. But Poelt’s presence proves there is no position that has a greater effect on a team’s defense than a terrific center.

The Spurs defensive rating has improved by 3.1 points per game to 107.8 since Poeltl has been a starter. In other words, the Austrian big man has proved a difference maker over these games — a difference maker.

Why repeat that? Because my favorite meal is eating my own words about Spurs players I have underestimated.

In this blog’s comments section, maybe about a year ago, I warned not to offer Jakob more than a 6-million per year contract. I pointed towards an oversupply of centers on the market; I grouched he was routinely played off the floor; and for that reason as well as his struggles from the charity stripe I considered him unplayable in clutch situations.

Though his free-throw percentage to start this season was reportedly the worst any NBA player has ever had, Poeltl’s recently hit a pair or two – in crunch time, no less. That gives me some hope he’s improving his one glaring weakness. And, frankly, I believe he has to if he wants to stay on the floor. Because for all the positive effect he has on defense, teams with a starting center who is first and foremost a rim protector have struggled to contend over the past 30 years.

Dikembe Mutombo comes to mind. He spent his prime in Atlanta together with prime Steve Smith and prime Mookie Blaylock. Another name that leaps to the temporal lobe is Marcus Camby. He spent his prime in Denver, playing alongside a young Carmelo Anthony and an Allen Iverson who still averaged 25 or so. When Iverson was younger, the starting center next to him was prime Theo Ratliff, another elite rim protector who, like Mutombo and Camby, didn’t have an offensive game to write home about.

What all these teams had in common was that they were built to win around a big three (of sorts) and ultimately failed.

But they played in a different era. We’re in 2021. And the best team so far in 2021 is also a team who has a big three of sorts in which one of the three is a center who is an elite rim protector but limited on offense. Rudy Gobert has struggled in the post-season, and there are credible NBA analysts, former Grizzlies executive John Hollinger being one of them, who have doubts about immobile big men even being on the floor in playoffs clutch situations.

Still, the Spurs aside, I’m excited to see what the Jazz will be able to do this post-season. But whatever comes, I won’t be jumping to any premature conclusions. Because the Spurs are not building for a big three with Poeltl. I believe they’re building towards a four-wing lineup with Poeltl in the middle. And I can’t wait to see what they’re able to achieve.