With LaMarcus Aldridge out following shoulder surgery, Jakob Poeltl started at center for the San Antonio Spurs following the restart of the NBA season. Though he had his ups and downs, Poeltl was unquestionably a key part of San Antonio’s surprising success in the bubble. This offseason, the 24-year-old will be a restricted free agent, which means the Spurs can match any offer he receives on the open market.
In a vacuum, it makes a lot of sense for the Spurs to bring back Poeltl. He’s a young, productive, team-first center who plays a winning brand of basketball on both ends of the court. The 7-foot-1 Austrian is also extremely mobile for his size, which makes him a fit in today’s NBA.
In reality, though, there are considerations that should cause the Spurs to proceed with caution when it comes to re-signing Poeltl.
Jakob Poeltl’s Play This Season
In his second season in San Antonio, Poeltl was better than he was in his first season — but not by a whole lot. His minutes per game went up, but only from 16.5 to 17.7. With Aldridge starting at center, Poeltl actually started fewer games in his second campaign.
Most notably, Poeltl’s blocks, steals and defensive rebounding were up while he kept his foul rate steady. On offense, the news wasn’t as positive, as his scoring and offensive rebounding went down and his turnovers went up. However, he did make strides in terms of passing the ball.
As a starter following the resumption of the regular season, Poeltl found it difficult to stay out of foul trouble when going toe-to-toe against the better centers in the league. His strength, or lack thereof, was also an issue in some of the more difficult matchups he faced.
On the other side of the coin, Poeltl also had stretches where he thrived inside of the bubble. He proved he could hold down the fort even though the Spurs gave him little help on the inside, oftentimes putting him in lineups with four guards. When the Spurs were at their best, it was usually with Poeltl manning the middle.
How Much is Jakob Poeltl Worth?
Prior to the season, this was my conclusion when looking at Poeltl’s market value:
“In summation, Poeltl’s market value right now is around $4-5 million. If he bets on himself and wins, and the market conditions don’t drastically change, he might be able to bump that up to approximately $7 million.”
Fast forward to today and I think those figures remain fairly accurate. Based on contracts given to comparable players and factoring in Poeltl proving that he’s at least a viable starting center, I’d bump his value up to around $5-6 million per season.
How much should the Spurs be willing to pay him? That depends.
The most influential issue is the future of LaMarcus Aldridge. The 35-year-old is still playing at a high level. Last season, he added a three-point shot to his repertoire, which makes him a better fit in today’s three-happy NBA and could help extend his career. That said, as he has gotten slower and the league has gotten faster, Aldridge is now a full-time center and isn’t capable of sliding to power forward any longer.
Aldridge has one more year on his contract, which the Spurs went out of their way to guarantee before it was necessary. Even if the Spurs are committed to going younger, it’s not difficult to imagine that the organization plans to keep him around. They’ve gone out of their way to show him loyalty and he has a chance to be an above average starting center for another two or three years.
The other major factor that needs to be added to the equation is named Drew Eubanks, who will also be a restricted free agent this offseason. In the bubble, the 23-year-old center emerged as a really interesting prospect. He was given an everyday role and he produced. In fact, his numbers were very similar to Poeltl’s production following the NBA’s restart.
While Poeltl is only about a year and a half older than Eubanks, they are in completely different points in their developmental arc. Whereas Poeltl is close to a finished product and has been for years now, Eubanks is still raw.
Eubanks didn’t get serious about basketball until late in high school and he’s still learning the game. But in Orlando, he exhibited intriguing flashes. Compared to Poeltl, he has much more potential offensively, as he can score with either hand in the paint and has an improving jumper. Eubanks is also a much bouncier athlete, which gives him a high ceiling when it comes to rebounds and blocks.
And yet, as it stands, Poeltl is currently the much better player. He knows all the ins and outs of the sport and understands what he needs to do to help the team. For proof, you can look at the plus-minus stats. Both before the bubble and in the bubble, the Spurs outscored opponents consistently when Poeltl was on the court. With Eubanks on the court, the Spurs have struggled as a team despite his comparable statistics.
To start piecing together scenarios to arrive at Poeltl’s value to the Spurs, we need to consider what the Spurs plans are with Aldridge and whether they view Eubanks as a prospect who is willing to put in the work to keep learning and improving.
In a scenario where Aldridge remains in San Antonio and the Spurs aren’t high on Eubanks, I believe that Spurs should draw a red line at that aforementioned $5-6 million mark when it comes to Poeltl’s next contract. With the league becoming smaller and faster, it’s becoming more and more difficult to justify giving hefty contracts to traditional centers like Poeltl. Giving a backup center that kind of money will basically be unheard of going forward. But giving Poeltl his market value is justifiable due to Aldridge’s age and simply to keep an asset in the deck.
In a scenario where Aldridge remains and the Spurs believe Eubanks has a bright future, that’s when a tough decision will need to be made. The Spurs will likely be able to retain Eubanks at a modest price (I can’t imagine he gets much more than $2 million per season). If they think Eubanks can be the backup center, then the Spurs could play hardball with Poeltl and let him walk if the price tag gets too high or facilitate a sign-and-trade.
If the Spurs see Aldridge’s days with the franchise as numbered, then the pendulum swings the other way and it becomes vital for the team to re-sign Poeltl. Even if the Spurs really like Eubanks, he’s not advanced enough to pencil in as a starter any time soon. In this scenario, the Spurs would have to be ready to go up to $8-10 million if another organization comes knocking on his door.
With the playoff streak over and an uncertain future ahead for the NBA, it’s possible that the franchise will be very cautious in the offseason. Paying top dollar for a backup center might be difficult to sell to the owners when their revenue streams will be partially disrupted for the foreseeable future. Going the inexpensive route with Eubanks will hold appeal in this current economic climate.
Then again, with so few teams with cap space and the entire league being at least somewhat cautious, it’s possible that Poeltl could slip through the cracks. For that reason, I don’t expect the Spurs to be aggressive signing him right when the free agency period begins. It makes more sense to let the restricted free agent go out and set his own market.
What also can’t be ignored is the transformation of the NBA. If a team like the Houston Rockets has success in the playoffs, the market for traditional centers like Poeltl could take another hit. Centers who can’t shoot already saw their value take a big hit last summer. If the playoffs prove that non-shooting centers aren’t playable in key moments, that could definitely alter the math when it comes to Poeltl’s value.
In a shrinking league, players like Rudy Gay and Trey Lyles could be viewed as serviceable backup centers. Even Luka Samanic, who was drafted as skillful power forward, could instead become more of a new age center prospect overnight.
The final complicating factor that needs to be addressed is that Poeltl doesn’t sound like he’ll be happy to return to San Antonio if he’ll be coming off the bench. In an interview during the stoppage, Poeltl made it clear he wasn’t thrilled by his lack of minutes this season and that he wants to be a starter going forward.
That stance by Poeltl might force the Spurs to either commit to Poeltl as a starter or prepare to let him leave. If he’ll truly be unhappy coming off the bench and finds a team willing to pay him and start him, Poeltl could sign an offer sheet and publicly announce that he doesn’t want the Spurs to match it. That could get messy — and it’d be the risk of allowing him to set his own market.
What’s Going to Happen?
Interestingly, I talked to two people who formerly worked in NBA front offices about Poeltl’s value. Both gave estimates of approximately $10 million per season. However, these discussions were both prior to the pandemic-caused stoppage, so a lot has changed since then.
I’m okay with the Spurs going up to the $8-10 million range if Poeltl will be used as the starting center. That’s an overpayment based on market comps but he’s young enough and his role will be big enough that it’d be justifiable.
If the Spurs are bringing him back as a backup center, I think the Spurs shouldn’t go over $5-6 million. And even that is assuming he’s still willing to be a bench player and the Spurs don’t see Eubanks as a replacement who can hold down the backup center role for a few years.
Overall, I believe Poeltl is a quality player but I think it’s far from a slam dunk that he’ll be back.