Entering the season, the Celtics’ big man rotation included a 36-year-old Al Horford, an undersized Grant Williams and a revolving door of minimum wage workers. But Robert Williams is back, probably better than ever, and suddenly center doesn’t seem like a huge issue anymore.
but athlete’s Shams Charania reported Tuesday that the Celtics and Raptors have shown “significant” interest in trading San Antonio Spurs center Jakob Poeltl, who will become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Poeltl has been the Spurs’ starting center since the Kawhi Leonard trade from Toronto and has steadily grown into one of the league’s best rim protectors. He doesn’t have the shooting range or foot speed to switch to guards like the big men in the Celtics system often do, but he’s a force on both ends of the paint.
He’s 27 years old and earns $9.4 million a year, though Charania reports he’s on track for nearly $20 million in free agency after rejecting a four-year, $58 million extension offer. That’s slightly more than the deal Grant Williams turned down before the season.
According to team sources, Boston has maintained interest in Poeltl for several seasons and continues to monitor his market. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
As always, the sticking point is price. According to team and league sources, the San Antonio Spurs have made it clear to interested parties around the league that the Spurs want two of Poeltl’s first-round picks, the same position they took with Derrick White last season.
The Celtics were able to acquire White in exchange for the 25th overall pick and the first protected 2028 pick in the most recent draft. While Boston only lost one pick overall, this swap is two futures in which the franchise could be in diametrically opposite positions starting today.
Picking up two first-round picks for an expiring contract center and expecting a big raise might seem unbelievable, but it at least sets the bar high enough for San Antonio to get away with a first-round pick and for Poeltl Bring some changes. The team has no incentive to trade Poeltl, as the Spurs have enough financial flexibility to give him a four-year deal and still have spending power.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported over the weekend that if the Spurs hit the lottery, they’d be happy to pair Poeltl with vaunted rookie Victor Wembanyama, and only if they receive an offer that’s too good to pass up. Trade Poetl. But they currently have a 12.5 percent chance of winning the lottery and know they can’t make a decision by this deadline, assuming they’ll even finish in the top three.
From Boston’s perspective, making a deal for Poeltl is tricky because the team doesn’t have real need him. Most nights, the backup center is the ninth or even 10th in the rotation. He’s a starting-caliber center who is expected to earn more next season than Rob Williams, who has cemented himself as one of the team’s core players. Boston already had to contend for a similar deal with Grant Williams as he becomes a restricted free agent after this season, so how does it justify handing Pearl the deal when he has no path to start or even end the game? Tell is reasonable?
Poeltl is overqualified as a backup, but his resume in San Antonio is done. He could benefit from relegation under the right circumstances. At this point, there’s nothing he can do to increase his value as the Spurs’ starter in free agency, and a more limited role with a major-market contender is the ideal audition phase for him. If it means stepping up in May and June and showing his ability to impact title contention, he should be willing to accept that role.
Given Rob Williams’ health record and Horford’s load management plan, Poeltl has plenty of opportunity during the regular season. Horford will likely welcome Poeltl, given his preference to play the 4 and limit his wear and tear as his career footsteps all but disappear. Horford is averaging 30.5 minutes per game, while Luke Kornett is averaging 11.8 minutes per game. There’s room to drop Horford into the mid-20s and get Poeltl closer to his 26.5, even as Williams’ minutes finally approached 30 on the final road trip.
But so far, Kornet has exceeded his salary grade and fulfilled the demands of the team. Once they reach the playoffs, the backup center will only play if the guy ahead of him on the depth chart is out.
According to team sources, Celtics management is aware that Rob Williams is likely to miss the playoffs, and replicating Horford’s playing time in the playoffs last season will be difficult because he has not finished. The massive offseason he’s enjoying in Oklahoma City in 2021.
If Boston makes a bigger move and has a hole in the starting lineup, there’s always an opportunity to bring in Poeltl, but Poeltl and Rob Williams can’t play together, and trading Williams doesn’t make sense unless a star comes back the other way .
This team is currently firmly in the first place. It doesn’t need to overthink this, and Brad Stevens’ tenure has given nothing to suggest that he and management will. Team personnel can view the potential Poeltl trade as an insurance policy for Williams rather than part of any type of overhaul of this clearly established eight-man rotation.
Danilo Gallinari could be the salary-matching foundation of Boston’s offer, but he can’t be traded back to the Spurs because they cut him from Atlanta this summer via the Dejounte Murray trade. So Boston will have to trade Gallinari to a third team, which also needs at least a second-round pick, because Gallinari will likely have a player option at age 35 next season, and Anterior cruciate ligament tear.
Although the backup center slot can be upgraded, it doesn’t solve problems other than injury accidents. There are other areas where Boston could turn to for help. Sam Hauser’s ruthless performance made it possible to acquire an experienced sharpshooter. Peyton Pritchard has been effective in his occasional opportunities, but Boston could use an explosive pull-up scorer as an option at that point. Boston doesn’t have any wing better than its two stars in terms of length and athleticism.
Those are luxuries in the rotation, and Boston could use a second-round pick to get someone who fits those descriptors for a few minutes a night, but the team is as complete as it is right now. The 9th or 10th man in the rotation rarely wins or breaks title fights. In two months’ time, they’ll be asked to be the last team in the playoffs, but the difference in margins is exactly that: negligible.
Pritchard has passed the test of the playoffs, and at least he has passed the mentality check. We’ll see Hauser, but this is his first season of actual playing time in the league and he’s still a long way from a finished product. If the Celtics were to sign one of those athletic backup wings from Charlotte, Jalen McDaniels, whom Charania reports could be one of several available free agents to the Hornets, do they believe he’d be a better fit than Hauser? playoffs?
Aaron Nesmith and Romeo Langford are stark reminders of how productive young bench players can be when they’re free to enjoy plenty of minutes on a team that’s not contending for a title.
The Celtics have the ability to walk away from a deal when they outbid them by this deadline. This summer will be their third straight first-round exit, and if they don’t continue to develop quality prospects, they need to consider what the bench will look like in a few years. Poeltl doesn’t appear to have a future in Boston unless Rob Williams or Al Horford suffer serious injuries.
In all likelihood, the Celtics made a move at the deadline that resembled a second-round pick for a complementary bench player. By the time they trade White and Brogdon in 2022, they’ve committed the first money to bolstering their rotation. This team no longer needs reform.
But whether it’s Danny Ainge or Brad Stevens at the helm, if the price is right, they’ll listen.
(Photo: Mike Waters/USA TODAY)