At the start of the season, the Celtics’ Bigs rotation consisted of a 36-year-old Al Horford, an undersized Grant Williams, and a rotating door of minimum-wage journeymen. But Robert Williams is back, possibly better than ever, and suddenly center position doesn’t seem like much of an issue anymore.
But The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported on Tuesday that the Celtics and Raptors have registered a “substantial” interest in the trade for San Antonio Spurs center Jakob Poeltl, who faces an unrestricted free hand this summer.
Poeltl has been the Spurs’ starting center since coming over from Toronto in a trade with Kawhi Leonard, and has steadily grown into one of the league’s top rim protectors. He doesn’t have the shot range or the foot speed to switch to guards like the bigs in the Celtics system often do, but he’s a force in the suit on both ends.
He’s 27 and earns $9.4 million, although Charania reports he will have nearly $20 million free hand after turning down a four-year, $58 million renewal offer. That’s slightly above the deal Grant Williams turned down before the season.
Boston has been interested in Poeltl for several seasons and continues to monitor his market, according to team sources, who have been granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The sticking point, as always, was the price. San Antonio has told interested parties across the league that the Spurs want two first-round picks for Poeltl, according to team and league sources, which was the same stance they took on Derrick White last season.
The Celtics were able to land White for the 25th pick in the final draft and a first overall protected pick swap of 2028. Though Boston lost just one election overall, that swap is so far in the future the two franchises could plausibly be in opposite positions as of today.
Making two firsts for a center with an expiring contract and expecting a big raise seems unlikely, but at least it raises the bar enough for San Antonio to walk away with a first-round goal and some change for Poeltl. There is no impetus for the franchise to sell Poeltl as Spurs have the financial flexibility to give him a four-year deal and still have purchasing power.
Spurs would love to pair Poeltl with vaunted candidate Victor Wembanyama if they win the lottery and would only move Poetl if they receive an offer too good to pass up, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported last weekend. But they’re currently sitting at 12.5 percent odds of winning the lottery and they know they can’t make any decisions at this point, assuming they even finish in the top three.
Closing a Pöltl deal is difficult from Boston’s point of view because this team doesn’t really need him. The backup center is the ninth or even tenth man on the rotation most nights. He’s a starting-level midfielder who is expected to earn more next season than Rob Williams, who has established himself as one of the team’s core players. Boston is already dealing with Grant Williams looking for a similar deal as he hits limited free agency after this season. So how can it justify giving that to Poeltl when he has no way of starting or even stopping games?
Pöltl is overqualified as a backup, but his CV in San Antonio is already finished. He can benefit from a demotion in the right situation. At this point there is nothing he can do to increase his value for free agency starting for Spurs and a more limited role with a big-market competitor is his ideal audition stage. He should be ready to take on such a role if it means playing in May and June and demonstrating his ability to influence the title fight.
Given Rob Williams’ health record and Horford’s load management program, there’s ample opportunity for Poeltl in the regular season. Horford would likely welcome Poeltl considering he prefers to play the four and limit his attrition now that his career is almost over. Horford plays 30.5 minutes per game while Luke Kornet himself has clocked up 11.8. There’s scope to get Horford in his mid-20s and Poeltl closer to his 26.5, even as Williams’ minutes on the most recent road trip finally neared the 30 mark.
But Kornet has played above his pay grade and has done what the team asks of him. Once they hit postseason, the backup center will only see bottom if someone is out in front of them on the depth chart.
According to team sources, Celtics management recognizes the possibility that Rob Williams could miss games in the playoffs, and it will be difficult to replicate Horford’s minute load from last postseason given he’s not coming off the massive offseason he’s having in Oklahoma in 2021 City has enjoyed.
There’s always a chance Poeltl could be called in if Boston made a more significant move and had an opening on the starting lineup, but Poeltl and Rob Williams can’t play side-by-side and a swap with Williams doesn’t make sense unless one Stern comes back the other way.
This team sits comfortably in first place at the moment. It doesn’t need to be thought about, and nothing about Brad Stevens’ tenure suggests he and the front office will. Team staff could view a potential Poeltl deal as an insurance policy for Williams rather than part of any sort of overhaul of that clearly established eight-man rotation.
Danilo Gallinari would likely be the salary-matching basis of Boston’s offer, but he cannot be traded back to the Spurs because they waived him this summer after joining from Atlanta in the Dejounte Murray deal. So Boston would have to assign Gallinari to a third team that would also need at least a second-round pick for their troubles as Gallinari may opt for his player option next season at 35 and suffer an ACL tear.
While the backup center slot could use an upgrade, it doesn’t solve a problem beyond an injury hazard. There are other areas where Boston could use some help. Sam Hauser’s cold streak made hiring an experienced sniper plausible. Payton Pritchard has been effective on his occasional occasions, but Boston could use an explosive pull-up scorer as an option at this point. Boston has no wings of length and athleticism beyond its two stars.
These are all luxuries in the rotation, and Boston could use a second-round pick to land someone who fits those descriptors for a few minutes a night, but this roster is about as complete as the teams at this time. The ninth or tenth man on the rotation rarely makes or breaks a title run. They’re challenged in moments over the course of the two months it takes to be the last team in the playoffs, but the difference in margins is just that: marginal.
Pritchard is playoff battle-hardened and at least passed the mentality check. We’ll see with Hauser but this is his first season of real minutes in the league and he’s a long way from a finished product. If the Celtics picked up one of those athletic bench wings like Charlotte’s Jalen McDaniels, an upcoming free agent that Charania reports could be one of several Hornets available, they could have confidence he’ll be better prepared for playoff basketball as a house?
Aaron Nesmith and Romeo Langford are clear reminders of how productive young benchers can be when they are free to enjoy plenty of minutes on a team that isn’t fighting for a title.
The Celtics can afford to walk away from deals if they are outbid for that deadline. This summer will be their third draft in a row in which they stabbed the first round, and they have to think about what the bank will be like in a few years if they don’t develop quality prospects. Poeltl appears to have no future in Boston unless Rob Williams or Al Horford suffer a serious injury.
In all likelihood, a deadline-day move by the Celtics would resemble a second-round pick for a supplemental bench piece. They already made their first investments to bolster the rotation when they closed White’s and Brogdon’s trades in 2022. This team no longer needs to be reformed.
But whether it’s Danny Ainge or Brad Stevens at the helm, if the price is right, they’ll listen.
(Photo: Mike Watters / USA Today)