Traditional centers like Jakob Poeltl are no longer relevant in today’s NBA. I will never cease to be amazed by the attachment so many basketball coaches have to slow, plodding bigs. Let’s have a look some examples from the 2022 NBA Playoffs.
The New Orleans Pelicans it in having traditional center Jonas Valanciunas, and the Memphis Grizzlies with Steven Adams. In another episode of “Traditional Centers Doing More Harm Than Good”, the Pelicans’ defense was 11.7 points per 100 possessions better without Valančiūnas, and they still managed a 50.7% rebound percentage. Even Denver’s Nikola Jokic playing drop coverage against elite scorers in the playoffs turned him into barbecue chicken on defense.
In Philadelphia, headlines this spring all read some iteration of “Doc Rivers Adamant about Continuing to Start DeAndre Jordan in Joel Embiid’s Absence.” If only there were mountains of data and film that clearly demonstrated that the best option was to try to steal a single basketball game without Embiid…Oh, we do?
The 76ers were -4 with Jordan on the floor, -10 with Naz Reed on the floor, and +6 with no center at all.
In the first half of Game 1, Rivers played Danny Green, James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, and Georges Niang for five minutes. For that window of time, the Sixers were +8. They switched everything, mixed in zone, and flummoxed Miami. Alas, Rivers went down with his bigs, and we were left to wonder – How many times will Doc have to see his team go on immediate runs without a center for him to learn his lesson?
What’s more, Rivers isn’t alone in paying the price for this philosophy of relying on the big man.
148 minutes with Lopez off the floor: +20
188 minutes with Lopez on the floor: -75
On the other side of the Eastern Conference bracket, the Milwaukee Bucks may have cost themselves by sticking with their corner specialist rim-protector against the Boston Celtics. Why was this happening? With Lopez off, the Bucks switched more. It baited them into the ugly side of their offense, relying on isolation and settling for contested pull-up jumpshots.
Boston Celtics vs Golden State Warriors – 2022 NBA Finals
Even Boston experienced somewhat of an Al Horford problem in the 2022 NBA Finals. In 158 minutes with Robert Williams III on the floor, the Celtics were +30. Compared to the -27 in the 191 minutes with the more traditional center Horford, the play is night and day.
More specifically, with Horford and Williams, the Celtics were +0.5 Net per 100 possessions. When Horford was on and Williams was off, that plummeted to a -24.1 Net
while jumping to a +15.4 Net with Williams on for Horford.
The Future is Hybrid, Not Diesel
All signs point to the reality that playing slow-footed centers (not named Jokic/Embiid/Deandre Ayton) around 30 minutes in meaningful basketball games is a massive strategic error. In today’s league, if you build your team with a starter or a key rotation piece as a slow, old-fashioned, plodding center, you are building your team around a style of basketball that will force you to bench that guy when it matters. Then you’ll be forced to retool on the fly and learn how to play a different style of basketball.
On the biggest stages, the most valuable big men this year were one of two types – the hybrid forward-center, and the rim-running big. The former group consists of players like Golden State’s Draymond Green, the Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo, and even the Dallas Mavericks’ Maxi Kleber who are undersized by space the floor. Players with the latter designation include Boston’s Williams III and the Warriors’ Kevon Looney – players who can cover ground on the perimeter and have the foot speed/the linear speed to get up and down the floor in transition.
The Verdict on San Antonio’ Jakob Poeltl
To the average Spurs fan who is wondering if Poeltl is to be a part of this rebuild toward the playoffs again, the answer is flatly “No.” There are likely two courses of action that San Antonio will pursue with the Austrian big man.
On one hand, they may attempt to trade him during this season, as there has been a market for him. Secondly, they may elect to keep Poeltl at the bottom of the roster to eat innings in the regular season. Then they could let him fall off of the roster after the 2022-2023 season when he becomes a UFA. Nonetheless, he shouldn’t be a part of the Spurs’ plans moving forward. Adiós to the “Jakobs” of the NBA’s past, and hello to a more dynamic future. Let’s hope San Antonio comes prepared.