This is the first in a series of articles discussing trades and acquisitions that have the potential to bust.
NBA fans and writers alike spend a lot of time, after trades and acquisitions, debating and considering the value in the deal. Is player X worth what was given up? What contract value could a reasonable, replacement level player or two, have had as opposed to what was spent. All of these things are, of course, important. However, sometimes, we lose sight of what a trade means outside of balance sheets and value, real or perceived. As we all know, basketball isn’t played on paper, it is played inside of television sets. How that paper value translates to the product on the floor is, really, all that matters. In this space, we’re going to take a look at a few different trades that have the potential to work out on the hardwood much worse than they worked out on paper.
The San Antonio Spurs moved Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors for a package that, for our purposes here, consists of DeMar DeRozan and Jacob Poeltl. This move by San Antonio was made with two things in mind. First, how is Kawhi’s value maximized. Secondly, how does this deal effect our culture and the course of our franchise. A deal including an All-Star veteran was an effort to keep themselves relevant and to continue adjusting, adapting, and embracing this era of the NBA. An effort to allow themselves to continue to mold players, like Play-Doh, into what the Spurs have been and meant, so that they could preserve what they will be and will mean.
In terms of pure value, this deal feels like a disaster for San Antonio. Acquiring none of the young and dynamic pieces that Toronto had to offer such as Paskal Siakam or OG Anunoby feels like a failure. Jacob Poeltl wasn’t in the top four young core guys that Toronto had. However, he may be the piece in this deal that fits best with the Pop and the Spurs.
Poeltl is a young big with a good mid–range game. He’s an outstanding passer, both from the post, and from the elbow extended. A willing ball-mover, Poeltl projects well in the same sort of role as a Fabricio Oberto, past his prime Pau Gasol, and, obviously to a far lesser degree, Tim Duncan. The best thing for San Antonio about adding a big like Poeltl is that they’ve added a player that excels and remains engaged on both ends on the floor without needing the ball in his hands. At no point, during any Toronto possession that I reviewed did Poeltl stop the progression of the offense by holding the ball too long waiting to make the perfect play, instead of making the right play.
Another attractive thing about a young guy, particularly a young big, like Poeltl is that he hasn’t been in the league long enough to absorb and repeat detrimental bad habits that aren’t correctable. The Spurs thrive on culture, the same way the Patriots do in the NFL. It starts with doing things a certain way, every possession, every second, no matter what. Having a young mind to mold into the Spurs Way is a major get for Pop and the Spurs. They control him contractually, and, for better or worse, they now control his young and malleable basketball brain to craft him into the perfect San Antonio big. Molding a player into their culture, style of play, and system is of the utmost importance. Young players are always easier to get on board in that regard.
Remember when you were little, and you opened that jar of Play-Doh? Fresh smelling of plastic and fake color and waiting for you to make it into whatever you wanted? You would rather have that, than have someone plop down an already formed clay pot and tell you, “make this whatever you want it to be”. Poeltl is a fresh jar of Play-Doh waiting to be molded and made into a real NBA player within a system and culture. This is an endorsement. Not an indictment, and, at its core, like Play-Doh, if it doesn’t work, it can simply dry out and be thrown away. Low risk, high reward.
Poeltl needs to improve as a rim rummer and he could stand to get better as a pick and roll defender. His range isn’t vast, but that isn’t problematic. These are all things that can be worked on, and the Play-Doh isn’t dry on his future in those regards. This portion of the trade for San Antonio is, without a doubt, a homerun.
The issue with this trade, interestingly enough for San Antonio, comes in the form of the All-Star guard they acquired in DeMar DeRozan. It isn’t exactly a secret that DeRozan thrives when creating his own shots in the mid-range. Yes, his three point shooting improved to 31% in 2018 from a paltry 26% in 2017. This, however, does not constitute being a legitimate three point threat. The issue comes from shot creation and space occupied.
San Antonio, is, at this point, moving on from Tony Parker (departed to Charlotte via free agency) to Dejounte Murray at point guard. Murray, while a really nice young talent, does not excel in creating a ton of looks for his wings, or knocking down his own long range looks. The concern is that, given a typical San Antonio set, DeRozan and Murray will occupy the same space in terms of where they have to get to to score the ball. Murray is a better ball handler, and a better passer, that much is indisputable. There are, though, only so many times a team with playoff goals can run a set in which the defense doesn’t need to guard the three point like for three of the five guys on the floor.
In transition, this team, on paper, should be a monster to contend with. Murray was tremendous in transition last year. Showing an ability to find hitters and runners while also not eliminating the option to take it to the rim himself, Murray was a tornado made of gorillas holding chainsaws last season for long stretches. The issue there is that he and DeRozan, presumably his foremost running mate in transition, secondary, and tertiary break situations, is not able to spread the floor effectively enough for that to matter. In today’s NBA, you need your feature wing to be able to stop on a break to be able to pull a triple, or, at the very least, to be able to take attention away from the ball handler in those situation. DeRozan running the floor with Murray, while providing high potential for highlights, does not provide that sort of gravity needed to open things up in the way I’ve described. This is problematic.
The primary issue here is space and players that occupy the same space. LaMarcus Aldridge, at this point, represents the Spurs best player. He is terrific at getting his own shot elbow extended and deeper. All of that is great, provided that he has a wing or lead guard that can get him the ball in those spots. Whereas DeRozan is great at getting to his spot, Aldridge needs someone to give him the ball when he’s in his spot. I am skeptical that DeRozan can execute that consistently given his penchant for being a ball stopper and a below average passer. There are a lot of questions here, and I’m not sure that the answer is a Spurs playoff berth.
The Spurs made this trade knowing that you can’t ever get better by trading a top five player. They also made this trade in an effort to remain relevant. What remains to be seen is whether or not their new version of relevance is enough to continue adding to the legacy, or if it leads to a rebuild. My best guess? They’d have been better off letting the Play-Doh dry up and open a new jar.
Next, I discuss the addition of Dennis Schroeder by the Oklahoma City Thunder.