Jakob Poeltl has been a fixture in trade rumors and seems like a natural candidate for a move before the deadline, but reports of The Spurs actually want to keep him keep coming. Apparently even thinking about exchanging with him, San Antonio is looking for two first-rounders. which seems like an unrealistic price for someone who could be a rental.
It’s always hard to tell what’s real and what’s fake, as the Spurs are simply trying to inflate Poeltl’s value by leaking information while they’re willing to trade him for a more reasonable return. Still, when most of the information coming from reliable sources suggests that the service chief might want him back, it has to be considered a serious possibility.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to make much sense for the Spurs to actually keep Poeltl, unless they’re trying to pull off a one-year rebuild, which could be a risky decision.
The reasons why a trade split seems smart have little to do with Poeltl’s ability or character. Quality big men are hard to find, which is confirmed by the fact that many teams are interested in Poeltl. Checking, rebounding, passing, interior scoring and interior defense are immensely valuable even in the more perimeter-oriented NBA, and Poeltl delivers them all. He was also a great leader by example by all accounts, and Pop praised his consistency. Jakob did everything that was asked of him, he played every role that was assigned to him with effort and he improved year by year. He is a very good player.
Unfortunately, the last few seasons have shown that despite his progress, he just doesn’t move the needle for a bad team. Poeltl is a fantastic actor, a perfect complementary piece, but he’s just not a star. He needs elite talent around him to really make an impact, and the Spurs don’t have that.
The most optimistic fans will simply add “more” to the previous sentence. The idea of bringing in Victor Wembanyama, lining him up next to Poeltl, adding a few veterans to use up the cap space the team will have next season and using Hawks guys to make moves is admittedly enticing. If Victor or any of the other top prospects are in fact special talents ready to contribute sooner rather than later, the Spurs could essentially do a one-year rebuild, which could actually be their plan. In a few seasons, they could be in a position similar to the Pelicans, who paired Zion Williamson and other young players with CJ McCollum and Steven Adams. If that happens, any concerns about Poeltl not fitting the timeline go away, as he’s still only 27 years old and would be close to or just entering his 30s when San Antonio is ready to make some noise.
Alas, there is absolutely no guarantee that the Spurs will land a true franchise player in this draft. Even if they land a future star, it’s impossible to know when that player will reach his potential. Most rebuilds take more than a year due to development curves and actual draft misses, and it would be unwise for the Spurs to only prepare for the best and put all their eggs in one basket, giving themselves only one offseason to reshape their roster using their own pick. It’s understandable that you don’t want to be at the bottom of the order for years before actually trying to field a competitive team, but arbitrarily deciding that one season is enough doesn’t seem smart given all the variables a franchise can’t control.
Now, since Poeltl won’t be leading the Spurs to playoff territory by himself and should be mobile (assuming his free throw shooting doesn’t retreat and his body holds up) even on the alleged $20 million per year contract he’s asking for, it could to say that there is no problem with keeping him for a few more years. But the risk is falling into old habits. The most frustrating part of the post-Kawhi Leonard era has been the lack of consistent direction, as the Spurs have tried to build with young guys while also having several veterans around, resulting in them remaining decent enough to hold their own from the top of the draft and the top of the order. History could repeat itself, as San Antonio will likely get better organically through internal development and on a better version of the team, Poeltl would be the type of veteran to help them get to 30 wins and a low lottery spot, which is exactly what franchises need to avoid.
It’s hard to make the case for trading Poeltl because he’s a quality player and fits the culture well, but if San Antonio wants to be a contender again at some point, the priority has to be finding a way to get the center spot. Any decision that can negatively affect the chances of that happening should probably be avoided, however painful, and keeping Poeltl would be such a decision. It will make the team better if there is a base level of competence, which will mean less lottery odds. The $20 million it would cost to re-sign him would eat into the team’s cap space and future flexibility. His commodity value is likely to drop as he gets older and his bigger contract comes into play.
It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to have Poeltl on the Spurs’ roster after the deadline or after the next offseason, but prioritizing the continuity of a veteran role over staying in asset acquisition mode seems like the wrong thing to do. at this point in the rebuilding effort.
If there’s a good offer on the table for their rookie between now and the deadline, the Spurs should take it. It would be a tough blow in the short term, but it would show that the front office believes in the path they’ve chosen and won’t make the same mistakes they’ve made in the past.