Spurs fans waited three years for Tiago Splitter to make his way across the pond. After perhaps his best season as a pro in Europe, he made the leap, only to see an injury rob him of preparation time going into his rookie season. His sophomore year, however, showed all the promise the silver and black faithful saw in those Youtube clips of his Euro-dominance.
Splitter couldn't really get going in the playoffs, but (now that Nikola Pekovic and Omer Asik are starters) he's among the best backup centers in the league. His per 36 minutes are stellar, his PER is the 4th highest of all centers, he's a pick and roll finishing machine, and plays decent man and team defense. Every team in the league would love to have Splitter coming off the bench and some would instantly make him their starting center. But have we seen the best Tiago can do? If not, what would he have to do to get to that next level?
Splitter is fantastic (and that might even be an understatement) at finishing pick and rolls; to the tune of 1.32 points per possession, which is good for 5th in the league. He can score off cuts and after getting offensive boards. Despite what his playoff performance suggests, has good hands and a soft touch. His 72.5% field goal percentage at the rim is simply suberb for a player that takes so many shots underneath the basket. The only part of Splitter's offense that needs work, beside the improbable development of a mid-range jumper, is his post scoring.
Splitter needs to be a more dependable post presence for the Spurs to have a more balanced offense. His 0.75 points per possession last season ranked him 111 in the league when posting his man up; yet a quarter of his total offense came on post ups. The team went to Splitter in the post pretty often, and he was unable to deliver at all consistently.
Part of Tiago's struggles can be attributed to the fact that he was regularly going against players as strong and tall as himself. In Europe, his combination of length and agility made him one of the most physically imposing players in every game he played. Splitter also saw a lot of double teams in Spain, which has led him to develop an enviable trait in primary scorers, but something that hinders his effectiveness as a secondary post threat: he's too patient. Tiago gets the ball, looks at his teammates, takes a dribble and then goes to work. By the time he's trying to get a shot up, his man has had time to get in good position and help defense is on the way. Tiago has made great drop-steps and spins only to see his shot blocked or altered from the weak-side by a help defender that had time to read his move. As ugly as it is, I saw that jump hook fall in Europe enough to know he can be more effective than he is right now; he just needs to attack earlier so that his man is still shuffling for position and the help can't react. The Spurs' spacing is usually stellar and players are rarely out of position; take advantage of that to score or draw the foul early.
Consistency on defense
Trying to evaluate Splitter is difficult, and it's in no small part because his play is fairly schizophrenic; one minute he's confident and efficient and the next he's timid and mistake-prone. On offense, that inconsistency, while frustrating, is easily compensated for as the rest of the team (it really is an amazingly efficient offense the Spurs have) is capable of absorbing the deficit. It's when the mild Dr. Jekyll surfaces on defense, when we could really use a strong dose of Mr. Hyde, that it becomes enough to drive a fan crazy. I'm not implying that Tiago could be a game-changing defensive center here, but he could anchor the second unit to become a better defense if he were more assertive; which would lead to him playing next to Tim Duncan when a stop is needed against the bigger teams.
Now, the two easiest aspects of Splitter's defense to single out as needing improvement are post defense and excessive fouling. But in my eyes, both problems are related. Tiago needs to deny position earlier in the post and try to prevent his guy from taking an easy shot. The problem is, refs call him for ticky-tack fouls constantly. Part of that is on Tiago; he hasn't been able to adjust to the less physical NBA game and he still uses his hands a lot instead of his body. There is some hope that with him being in the league for his 3rd season, he's considered to have paid his dues, and refs will start to let him get away with a bit more contact. I believe experience will help Tiago in that regard. What I'd like to focus on instead is how Splitter defends in open space.
Tiago needs to do a more consistent job when guarding pick and rolls and rotating to help; he looks alternatively great and awful in those situations and that's simply not enough. In some P&Rs, Splitter seems to know where to stand according to the ball handler's strengths: give him space if he's not a shooter and crowd him if he is. He hedges hard enough to prevent the opponent from turning the corner on him and allows his teammate to recover. He then goes back to his man, always aware of the angle of the passing lane, denying the easy dime. It's just great and for a few plays a game he looks just like what the Spurs need from a center. Then the next time he checks in, he makes every conceivable mistake. So what is he? A great P&R and help defender that has some mental lapses, or a scrub that occasionally gets it right?
The answer is neither. He's probably not as good as his better moments suggest nor as bad as when he's at his worst. His effectiveness seems to vary by a great amount, and that's his problem. Why? I don't like speculating as to the mental aspect of things, but it seems a question of confidence. I believe Pop giving Tiago a longer leash could help him immensely; he needs to be afforded the chance to get himself out of holes. I'm not saying he should not be called on mistakes, but Splitter seems to be a rhythm player which means giving him more minutes or longer shifts, instead of pulling him quickly after mistakes, might be a good course of action. Since it's Duncan that is usually waiting to check in for him, I understand why Pop does it. But with a long season ahead of us, I hope he takes the opportunity to give Tiago more minutes, even playing him next to Tim occasionally.
A lot of fans would scoff at an excuse like "he just hasn't adjusted to the NBA game," but when it comes to Tiago, it's justified to point out his long pro career before joining the NBA. I truly believe that's part of why he hasn't been as good as we'd hoped, even if he has clearly been an above-average sub. An injury-riddled rookie season in which he saw limited minutes and a lockout-shortened sophomore year in which he had brilliant moments give me enough hope that with a full training camp and more NBA experience, Splitter can become an even better player than he already has shown. With Stephen Jackson now in the fold, and provided Splitter starts playing to his potential, the second unit should be better defensively than last season. Considering the Spurs had probably the best scoring bench in the league in 2011/12, that should be a scary notion for other teams.