In their previous two seasons, the Toronto Raptors started the year with two glaring holes on their roster: No starting centre, and no backup point guard.
The latter meant running Fred VanVleet into the ground. The former led to “Vision 6’9”” — playing multiple wing-type players with long wing-spans who could make up for the team’s lack of size by covering a ton of ground, quickly.
It worked for one incredibly fun season. But the tank ran out in 2022-23, and management moved to address one of those problems at last season’s trade deadline: They traded their 2024 first round pick (top-six protected), along with Khem Birch and a couple second round picks, to bring Jakob Poeltl back home to the team that drafted him.
(They solved the other problem by signing Dennis Schröder this summer. Of course, VanVleet walked, so that means Schröder will either start — without a capable backup — or the Raptors will attempt to start Scottie Barnes at point guard. Let’s say my hopes are not high that either scenario will lead to long term success!)
Poeltl immediately proved to be a solid fit on the floor, and the Raptors looked like a more complete team with him out there — though perhaps, moreso in terms of the eye test than anything else. The team’s record was slightly improved with Poeltl, as were their offensive and defensive rating (and therefore net rating), as well as their defensive rebounding rate.
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It’s fair to say acquiring Poeltl helped the Raptors avoid (in the most technical sense) a losing season, and secure a play-in spot. Now, whether or not that was worth trading away a future first… well. This is a player preview, not a front office review, so let’s just focus on Jak for now, shall we?
Poeltl checks pretty much all the boxes you need checked from a non-superstar centre. On offense, he doesn’t need the ball, he’s got good hands and a soft touch around the rim, he’s a capable passer and a solid screener. He knows where to go on the floor and how to make himself big.
He’s also a good roll man, and with Schröder, should prove to be part of a solid pick-and-roll two man action. And he runs the floor well for his size. He can’t shoot threes (or score much at all past eight feet from the hoop) but for a fifth option, that’s fine.
Defensively, he’s not a shot blocking menace but Poeltl’s got a good defensive IQ, decent timing, and he can box out the opposing team’s best rebounder. He still seems to pick up too many fouls, though I’ll argue all day that dozens of other big mean set more egregious moving screens and don’t pick up half the calls Poeltl does.
This year, with new had coach Darko Rajaković preaching an offensive system predicated on ball movement, Poeltl should thrive. The Raptors were awfully stagnant last year, slow to make decisions, with the offensive typically taking 20+ seconds to get anything done (they were 25th in the league in pace, despite being third in the league in fast break points!). If the 2023-24 Raptors get up the floor and into their sets quickly, and get the ball moving, Poeltl can play a huge role, despite his scoring limitations. As I said, he knows where to be on the floor and he’s a good passer; and with a full preseason to build chemistry, he has the potential to be a hub in the middle of the floor from which the team can spread the ball around. (Whether or not the team has enough shooting to make that matter, well...)
And defensively, this team should be solid; Schröder isn’t the defender VanVleet is, but he’s solid, and Pascal Siakam and O.G. Anunoby are both above average wing defenders. Scottie Barnes is still a question mark on D but Poeltl should be able to backstop any deficiencies on the perimeter.
The problem is, for all the good things Poeltl can do, and all the good things he brings to the team... I don’t think the Raptors are the right team for him. I kinda hate that the Raptors paid Poeltl the 4-year, $78 million contract; they had to give him the payday, because if they didn’t and he walked away, it would have made trading away a future first so much worse, but this just doesn’t seem like the right situation to pay your fifth-option starting centre that much.
I should clarify here — none of this is Jak’s fault! He deserves to get paid! In the right situation, he’s absolutely worth that contract.
But paying your starting centre $78 million in the same summer that you let your second best player walk away for nothing and inexplicably alienated your best player, and when your “future of the franchise” is coming off an underwhelming sophomore season, and when you’re starting three below-average three-point shooters (in the NBA! in 2023! and it’s actually FOUR if Schröder starts!)… All the good things Jak does can’t offset all the things this poorly constructed team CAN’T do.
I guess I’ll say this: I think Poeltl will have a fine season, stats-wise and fit-wise. I think he’ll meet (scoring, rebounding) and in some cases exceed (ball movement) our expectations of him. But I still don’t think that’s going to help the Raptors win many games and come summer, when they’re in the mid-lottery, without control of their pick... a lot more questions will be asked about whether or not trading for him in the first place was worth it.