To say that Tiago Splitter has been in a slump recently would be an understatement. The last ten games have been brutal. For a guy that only takes point blank shots, averaging 42.3% from the field is unacceptable. He does a very good job of getting to the line but after becoming a serviceable free throw shooter over the last couple of years, he is averaging just 56.8% from the charity stripe in the last ten games and only 65.8% for the season. While his offensive rebounding numbers for the season have been up compared to his career averages, they have gone down over the last ten games. His points per 36 minutes have decreased as well and the team is clearly suffering from it. Over the last seven games, the Spurs have been 17.5 points better per 100 possessions on offense with Splitter on the bench. This is officially a problem.
There are weaknesses that are inherent to Splitter's play and very likely will not change any time soon, and there are issues that seem to be fixable. Let's see how the two are interacting this year.
Splitter's lack of versatility is a huge problem
Tiago Splitter can't shoot. To his credit, he understands this, unlike other players ::cough Josh Smith cough::, but it's still a problem. Instead of explaining it further, let's just look at his shooting charts over the years:
Splitter has been an average to above average finisher close to the rim, but he is simply not a threat from anywhere else on the floor. He doesn't have the ball-handling skills to get himself to the bucket so he needs to be near the rim looking to receive a dump off after his man helps, setting screens and diving or posting up. Those are his only options.
That means Tiago is mostly dependent on others to create for him, as the only setting in which he can create for himself is in the post. He is much better at it than those awkward jump hooks would have you believe (Tiago ranks 31st in the league in points per possession from the post in limited opportunities), but he is not the type of post threat you can build an offense around. And he'd had to be to justify getting more touches there, as the Spurs want to push the pace and Duncan already needs the post up opportunities available.
Why it's a bigger problem this season
The Spurs are not using the pick and roll as much. Only 6.6% of the Spurs' plays end up going to the pick-and-roll roll man, down from 7.6% last season and 8.4% the year before that. Splitter went from getting 29.4% of the plays he finished as a dive man in 2011/12 to 25.8% last season and finally 19.1% this year. That was his bread and butter and with the Spurs changing offensive philosophies and the switch to the starting lineup, Splitter has been getting less and less easy shots.
He still survives out of his underrated (and hideous to look at) post play and by scoring off cuts. But with his transition opportunities also down and his struggles from the line returning, you get a very limited offensive player that doesn't get easy points. That made Tiago go from being a neutral offensive player to a detrimental one.
Splitter has good hands but he lowers the ball too much
Splitter has been catching wild Manu passes his whole NBA career and combined with his great understanding of space and passing angles, he's been able to get open consistently and make himself available whenever the opportunity is there.
The problem often comes after catching the ball.
Tiago has the tendency to lower the ball before going up for a shot, mostly because he can't really elevate without that motion. At this point, it's almost second nature for him to bring the rock down before making a move. But if you unnecessarily lower the ball, you will get stripped a lot and that often happens to Tiago.
This was patently clear in the Finals, where the Heat were trapping P&Rs and forcing ball-handlers to get rid of the ball sooner than it was ideal. That meant Splitter had to receive the ball against a smaller help defender far from the basket and either try to facilitate out of the free throw line or make a scoring move. It didn't end well.
Why it's a bigger problem this year
It all comes down to the spacing issues. Since the Spurs can't properly space the floor, there are more defenders in the paint. When he was playing in the second unit with Manu and Matt Bonner, he would be able to catch the ball with much more room and usually late help defense, as no one wanted to leave his man open from the corner. The same was true last season, as both Leonard and Green were killing teams from outside. Now, Splitter will get the ball in traffic and as soon as he lowers it, there will be a help defender there to strip it away. That mostly explains why Tiago's turnover percentage is up compared to last season while his usage has gone down.
Splitter's finishing ability seems to be declining
This is intrinsically linked to the previous two points. Because he can't find other ways to score and because he is not a good leaper, Splitter is finding it hard to finish at the rim at a high level. While shooting 56.1% from within five feet is very, very close to league average (56.5%), when a player takes most of his shots from there he would ideally be much better at converting them. Things get worse when he takes a couple of steps back, as Splitter ranks second to last in points resulting from shots within 12 feet among players with a similar profile.
Why it's a bigger problem this season
Because the player that ranks last in that list is Tim Duncan. While Timmy is much better at finishing within five feet, he has been having a very hard time when he needs to take close shots that are not point blank. So two of the Spurs bigs are among the absolute worst at converting close to the basket. Tim makes up for it with his improving mid-range shooting but Splitter can't. As long as he struggles to finish, Tiago will continue to be a minus on offense, despite his other abilities.
Is there hope?
In a word, yes. Once again, Splitter's struggles have worsen lately and they could be injury related. Pop never rested Splitter in the past, so if he was out for a few games, he very likely was too hurt to play. Once he gets healthy, we might see him regain the little explosion he has and start finishing close to the rim better.
Similarly, if the spacing issues are lessened - and the signs have been encouraging lately - it's possible Tiago starts getting more room to operate, which means more lightly guarded shots, a better efficiency and a decrease on turnovers.
His surprisingly good post play, his ability to be a tertiary facilitator out of the block or the high post, his very impressive offensive rebounding and his great screening are still assets. And his elite defense allows him to be a plus overall for the Spurs. But there are limitations that will likely never go away. Tiago will never be able to overpower other bigs or leap above the defense for thunderous dunks. He won't suddenly develop a jump shot, either.
The key then is for the team to put him in a position to succeed and for Tiago to focus on continuing to hone the skills he already has to make up for the ones he lacks. If he does, he has enough other strengths to be the type of big man the Spurs can win a championship with.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com/Stats and MySynergySports
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