San Antonio Spurs center Jakob Poeltl is in the final season of his three-year, $26.3 million contract. He's set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, which could make him one of the top players available ahead of the Feb. 9 NBA trade deadline.
The Spurs can thank the NBA's extension rules for that.
"The Spurs have had a standing offer to Poeltl for his maximum extension of four years and $58 million since before the season, but that has been declined," Shams Charania of The Athletic reported Tuesday. "San Antonio will be able to offer more to Poeltl in the offseason and is slated to have in excess of $50 million in salary-cap space. Rival executives believe Poeltl will approach the $20 million per year range in a new deal during the offseason."
Under the league's current collective bargaining agreement, teams can offer players no more than 120 percent of their previous salary or 120 percent of the league's estimated average salary (whichever is greater) as the first-year salary of an extension. From there, players can receive 8 percent annual raises.
In certain cases, teams are allowed to renegotiate a player's contract and then base their new extension off the new, higher salary. While the Spurs are currently sitting on a league-high $27.0 million in salary-cap space, teams are only allowed to renegotiate contracts that span four or five seasons. Poeltl's three-year deal makes him ineligible for a renegotiation.
Much like Kyle Kuzma and the Washington Wizards, the NBA's current extension rules are thus forcing the Spurs to consider preemptively trading Poeltl to avoid losing him for nothing as a free agent this offseason.
"Poeltl is believed to have great respect for the Spurs’ organization, head coach Gregg Popovich and his teammates, but his desire to compete on the highest levels is a factor that other organizations feel is important for the pending unrestricted free agent," Charania reported. "The Spurs have wanted the 27-year-old Poeltl as part of their long-term future but are balancing the risk of his price tag and potentially losing him for nothing in the summer."
Unlike the Wizards, the Spurs have no intention of competing for a playoff spot this season. They traded All-Star point guard Dejounte Murray to the Atlanta Hawks this past summer for a plethora of draft picks, leaving them woefully short on reliable veteran talent. Youngsters like Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell are showing promise, but the Spurs are likely at least a year or two away from vaulting back into playoff contention.
If that timeline doesn't appeal to Poeltl, who might prefer more of a win-now team, it would behoove the Spurs to move him ahead of the trade deadline. The league's current extension rules may also force their hand in that regard, though.
Had the Spurs been able to offer Poeltl the same amount of money he's eligible to receive as a free agent—as a seven-year veteran, he can receive up to 30 percent of the salary cap as the starting salary on a new contract—they would know exactly where he stands. If he turned down a market-value extension offer to pursue a team that's closer to playoff contention, the Spurs would face no uncertainty about whether to trade him. Instead, they must weigh the likelihood of his leaving as a free agent this summer versus the potential of re-signing him.
If the Spurs do decide to trade Poeltl, they should be able to fetch a haul for him. He's averaging 12.3 points on 63.2 percent shooting, 9.4 rebounds, a career-high 2.9 assists and 1.2 blocks in only 26.5 minutes per game this season. He's also earning only $9.4 million, which will make it easy for interested teams to cobble together the requisite salary to satisfy NBA trade rules.
A parting of the ways might be in both Poeltl's and the Spurs' best interest. Poeltl could join a team that's closer to playoff contention, while the Spurs can further bolster their war chest with whatever they receive for him to aid their ongoing rebuild.
Poeltl doesn't turn 28 until October, so he's still young enough for the Spurs to build around if they choose that route. But Poeltl, Josh Richardson and Doug McDermott and are their only three regular rotation players above the age of 27. By the time the Spurs move back into win-now mode, Poeltl could be at the tail end of his prime, if not past it entirely.
Since the Spurs can't sign Poeltl to a market-value extension this season, they should be amenable to listening to offers for him ahead of the trade deadline. The one thing they can't afford is watching him walk for nothing as a free agent this offseason.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is on a mission to stamp out tanking, but the league's extension rules force teams to consider trading some players preemptively to avoid losing them as free agents. That runs counter to Silver's stated goal, as the Spurs will almost certainly get worse if they do trade Poeltl by the deadline.
Let this be yet another example of why the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association should be discussing changes to the league's extension rules amidst their ongoing negotiations over the new CBA.