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How Jakob Poeltl’s contract could help the Spurs build a winner

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Poeltl is a good starter paid as a backup, which could help San Antonio build a versatile center rotation without overspending on the position.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

It’s often hard to anticipate which contracts are going to be meaningful for a franchise down the line. Normally the focus in hindsight is on infamous deals that cripple teams for years, but sometimes the opposite happens. Without Stephen Curry signing a team-friendly extension because of health concerns, the Warriors wouldn’t have been able to get Kevin Durant, for example.

The Spurs might have stumbled on one of those valuable contracts, although obviously not at the same level as Curry’s. Jakob Poeltl’s extension was fair at the time he signed it, but now that he has gone from being a 15-minute a night backup to legitimate starter, it has turned into amazing value and could help the Spurs build a winner.

Poeltl’s progress is evident. As a starter, he averaged 10 points, eight rebounds, two assists and two blocks in 30 minutes per game. His rim protection was elite, finishing the season with roughly as many contests and allowed field goal percentage per game at the rim as Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela and Myles Turner, among others. He appeared to have a positive impact at the team level too, since the Spurs outscored opponents with him on the court, even after his move to the starting unit. He even improved on his biggest weakness, free throw shooting, as the season went along, connecting on 62 percent of his freebies since the All-Star break: enough to make coaches think twice before unleashing Hack-a-Jak.

At the very least, Poeltl proved that he can be a solid starting center, and he did so while 20 other centers got paid more than he did last season and having the sixth highest contract on a team that has a lot of contributors on rookie deals. By any measure, Poeltl has become a bargain by essentially being paid the average salary for a player at his position while being firmly above average. He’s similarly good at defense as players like Gobert, but he’s compensated like a role player instead of a star. He’s never going to be a potent scorer, but if he remains at this level on his own end for the next two years, the Spurs will be getting a key piece for under eight figures, which is not that common. Moreover, they will be getting one at a position that is suddenly becoming more important.

The MVP and MVP runner-up this season are both centers. The West features a lot of solid big men but also stars like Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis and Gobert, as well as young up-and-comers, like Deandre Ayton and Jaren Jackson Jr., who could potentially join the upper echelon soon. Someone is going to have to battle with them on both ends, so for teams like the Spurs, the next best thing to having a star big man of their own will be having multiple capable centers who don’t get thoroughly outplayed by those stars. As an example, the Trail Blazers might still be in the playoffs if they had secured someone behind Jusuf Nurkic who could guard Jokic, but since they were paying Nurkic $13 million a year, they settled for the cheap ($5 million a year) but limited Enes Kanter.

The Spurs are in a position to avoid that problem, which they know all too well. The bench fell apart last season when Jakob moved to the starting lineup, and in general San Antonio bled points when he was resting. Drew Eubanks clearly wasn’t the answer, which means San Antonio will have to look for another option. If Poeltl was making Nurkic money or more, it would be hard to justify spending on the center position, leaving San Antonio with no choice but to hope to hit on an underrated journeyman. But since he’s on a good deal, they could actually look for another quality big man and address one of their biggest weaknesses without worrying about overspending at one position.

It’s even possible the Spurs sign a new starting center and turn Poeltl into an overqualified backup again, but that doesn’t seem like they smartest use of resources. They instead could go for a variety of less exciting but smart options who could give them matchup flexibility. Ideally they’d target a power forward who can move up to center to match up with small units (John Collins would be the best get here, but there are cheaper alternatives), but maybe they go for a solid all around big man, or a more perimeter-oriented option or true lob threat to give the guards more room to attack. As long as they find someone good for around the same money Poeltl makes, it could be a worthy investment. Spending under $20 million on a good center rotation is not a waste at all.

The Spurs could have tons of cap space this season, so it might feel unnecessary to focus too much on how a mid-sized contract turned out to be a bargain. Yet in the last few years, San Antonio has been on the wrong side of that equation too often, awarding sizable contracts to players they eventually ended up waving, like Pau Gasol and DeMarre Carroll, and ended up with holes in their rotation. The fact that they’ve seemed to nail the Poeltl deal after also signing Dejounte Murray and Derrick White to good extensions feels like a welcomed return to normalcy after a few years of turmoil for the front office.

Hopefully it’s a sign of things to come. It’s impossible to always ace every signing, and sometimes strategically overpaying can be actually smart, but for a team that not only has cap space but also will have some tough decisions to make regarding its young core, it’s encouraging to see that so far, all the extensions they’ve offered have turned out to be good. If the Spurs can keep their streak of smart deals going, building a winner will be much easier.