Remember the trade deadline? Do you want to forget the trade deadline? No matter your opinion of the Toronto Raptors decision to stay fairly quiet during the 2023 NBA trade deadline, there was one transaction that changed the course of this Raptors season — and seasons beyond this one, ultimately. Jakob Poeltl was traded from the San Antonio Spurs back to the Toronto Raptors after being traded to the Spurs by the Raptors in 2018 as part of the Kawhi Leonard deal. In exchange, the Raptors sent San Antonio Khem Birch, one first round draft pick (2024) and two second round draft picks (2023/2025). More on that in a bit...
The Raptors have lacked depth at the center position pretty much since both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka left the team. They’ve had some players who contributed minutes to that spot, but none dominant enough to start or to make too much of an impact. Some of this was due to “Vision 6’9” an experiment of sorts where the Raptors tried to play a more position-less style of basketball.
This led to players such as Pascal Siakam, O.G. Anunoby and Scottie Barnes taking up more responsibility at the 5-spot instead of having a more traditional center guy get those minutes. Cool in theory, but by the time the Raptors were on their losing streak in November ad December of 2022, fans were fed up. The team was getting beat by bigger, 7ft+ guys and the Raptors didn’t have the length to fight back. Mix that with the offensive challenges the team was going through (mainly when you think about shooting the three ball), and people were getting impatient.
Due to the lack of a big guy down low, the Raptors offensive scheme was less about pick and roll action and more about ball-sharing and high level shooting from the mid and long range. As the shooting percentages of the team as a whole dwindled into the new year, Raptors fans begged for the front office to consider acquiring a center.
Jakon Poeltl’s name was frequently thrown around, as he was arguably the best center available at the deadline. He checked a lot of the right boxes. Not only was he familiar with the franchise, but he had great relationships with guys like Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet. In his time in San Antonio under Gregg Popovich, Poeltl had developed into a pretty solid player, the kind of guy the Raptors could depend on to start games and make an impact on both ends of the floor.
So, the Raptors went for it, acquiring Jakob Poeltl in a trade with the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for Khem Birch, a 2024 first round pick, and second round picks in 2023 and 2025. Not the trade many were expecting, and with Poeltl’s contract winding down, fans questioned whether or not it was a fair price to pay on the Raptors end. Sure, they needed him in the current moment, but was this a sign they were committing to him long-term? Were they banking on paying him instead of O.G. Anunoby or Fred VanVleet or Gary Trent Jr.? Hard to tell, but we’re not the Raptors GM, so we’ll go with it (because we have to).
In Poeltl’s last season with the Raptors in 2018, he started in zero games, scoring an average of 13.4 points per game and grabbing 9.3 rebounds per 36 mins of gameplay off the bench. This past season (In both San Antionio and eventually Toronto) he was scoring 16.9 points and 12.3 rebounds per game in the same time. Steady improvement for a guy who is only 27 years old and has a lot of improvement to go.
When you split his year into Spurs and Raptors stats (aka before the trade deadline vs after) Poeltl actually improved when he got to Toronto. He went from 16.7 points per game to 17.4 (smaller sample size as there is less season after the deadline than before, but still). He brought an energy to the team (and honestly, the fanbase) that was needed in the midst of a tough season. His chemistry with Fred VanVleet blossomed as they developed the Raptors pick and roll offence. In a lot of ways, Poeltl answered a lot of questions for this Raptors team, and even raised the vibes quite a lot, but it just wasn’t enough. Having a big guy is great for rebounding, defensive matchups, being an offensive threat down low — yet, when the rest of the offence isn’t really gelling, how much does it do?
It’s not Jakob’s fault at all the the Raptors were lacklustre this entire season — he came in, did his job well, and gave fans hope in a time were it was hard to watch games. There is not many things you can do to fault a guy who plays his position well enough, fits in the system, and has great chemistry with the other players. The thing that frustrated a lot of people looking in on the Raptors’ move to re-acquire him was the stipulations of the trade itself.
The Khem Birch part is fine — a little sad to be down a Canadian player, but fair, he wasn’t playing and has struggled with injury his entire Raptors tenure. The second round picks are fine, but paired with that first round pick, it’s dicey. The Raptors already seem to be deep into a development era, so giving away a first round pick for a guy you still have to pay to renew his contract is... a lot to ask. It confused people on the vision — are the Raptors treating themselves like they are in a development era? Or are they banking on the core as it stands (in May 2023) and trying to make it work with those players?
Either way, this is a review of Jakob Poeltl’s performance for the Raptors in the 2022/23 season. It’s not a large sample size — he played two full months with the team and one awful play-in game we are all trying to forget. Yet, for those two months he played his role, and really what else can you ask for from the guy?