This is the third installment of the Should He Stay or Should He Go? Series in which I look at Spurs free agents and try to figure out whether they should re-signed or not. We've already discussed Manu Ginobili and examined Gary Neal. Now it's time to talk about the enigma surrounding Tiago Splitter.
Why should a player be re-signed?
This is an explanation of the parameters I'm using. You obviously re-sign someone because they can play but also because you can't find a better, or equal but cheaper replacement. And even if they can play, you don't re-sign them if there isn't a role they can fill for your team, or if their market worth outweighs their contributions.
Is Tiago worth big money?
Splitter is set to get a significant salary bump next season and the team that signs him will likely be committed to him for at least three years. The length of the contract is not that big of a hurdle, as Splitter will be in his prime for most of it, but could trouble the Spurs as they need to figure out if he fits with their post-Duncan plans. On the other hand, while other teams need to consider whether Splitter is a product of the Spurs' system or not, that doesn't affect the Spurs decision-making, which balances things out.
As for the question that headlines this section, forget about it. Splitter will be offered big money from someone; that's not up for debate. Here's the complete list of forwards and centers that played more than 1,500 minutes, scored at least nine points per game on more than 55% from the field and pulled down at least five rebounds. There's only seven guys on that list, and Tiago's the third most productive.
The combination of durability and efficiency will surely entice some teams, and some of Tiago's other skills, like passing and help defense, will help make up for his mediocre rebounding. And considering what those guys on the list make, it's hard ti imagine Splitter not getting paid this off-season. If you want a low usage, high-efficiency defensive-minded big man in this league, you have to pay.
If they let him go, the Spurs would have enough cap room to sign a replacement, but those are hard to come by and will likely cost the same or close to whatever Splitter signs for. So the question is, do the Spurs want a player like the one I just described or do they want someone who can provide more lineup flexibility and play a bigger role?
Can Splitter be more than he is now?
This is a question any team trying to sign Splitter must try to answer, but for the Spurs and their dwindling championship window, this could be key. Ginobili and Duncan are bound to get worst while Parker is likely operating at peak performance. Kawhi Leonard will improve and some of the other role players could make a small jump too, but the Spurs want to contend, they need Tiago to be as good as he was last season or ideally better.
The problem is I don't think Tiago can realistically get much better at this point. He doesn't have a jump shot and, while his improvement from the line could be taken as an encouraging sign, won't likely develop one in the near future. He has very good footwork in the post but he lacks the lower body strength to back guys down and his awkward release has him scoring on a solid but unspectacular 43.2% of his post ups. He's a good passer out of the low block and can find cutters, but if the other team pressures him, he can be turnover prone. And he mostly plays below the rim, which means he gets blocked a fair amount.
He could get better on the things he does now, namely screen setting, pick and roll scoring and finishing at the rim, but he is already pretty good there, so the potential for improvement is limited. Similarly, Splitter is a very good overall defender and near elite in the post (opponents only score on 32,8% of their attempts), but he won't suddenly become the type of disruptive shot blocker that changes the other team's game plan. And while he is deceptively good guarding in the perimeter on switches or pick and rolls, he doesn't have the foot speed or instincts to do it for more than small stretches.
Simply put, Splitter is a player that has clear cut strengths and weaknesses that are not likely to change. So whoever signs him is getting a role player. A very good one, mind you, but a role player nonetheless. Expecting anything more will only lead to disappointment. The Spurs had great success last season with him playing in a role that suited him but can they repeat it this upcoming season? And wouldn't a more versatile player be a better option?
So should the Spurs let him walk?
Here's where it gets tricky, mostly because the Spurs could have cap space if they renounce all their free agents. Re-signing Tiago in any other year would be a formality, but this season the Spurs could possibly get a marquee free agent.
To create enough room to sign someone for the max, the Spurs would have to lose both Splitter and Ginobili and the only free agent out there that would be worth that is Dwight Howard and he is not coming. The Spurs could bring several cheaper free agents but getting the right combination of skills for the right price would certainly prove challenging. So we should operate under the assumption that the Spurs bring back Manu and still have, say, $8-10 million to spend if they renounce Splitter, Neal and Blair. At the same time you have to wonder if what Splitter can do is that helpful considering some elite teams in the West, like the Nuggets and OKC, often go small to great effect. If Howard goes to Houston, a team that played small for huge chunks of last season, you might as well add them to the mix. And then of course, there's Miami.
Josh Smith and Andre Iguodala would likely provide more lineup flexibility when going small but are probably looking for bigger paydays. Not to mention that neither of them could replace Splitter's ability to guard centers. At this point in his career, Al Jefferson could leave some money on the table to sign with a contender, and players like Paul Millsap and David West could be likewise attracted to a team with legitimate championship aspirations, but those guys are nothing like Splitter, especially on defense. While they could prove a great fit on offense, the trade-off might be too significant. Defense was largely what allowed the Spurs to be in the Finals this season, after all.
That's right, the Spurs made it to the Finals. That has to factor in any decision the Spurs make. They came out of the West with relative ease and, provided Duncan's production doesn't fall off a cliff, they will be among the league's elite next season as currently constructed. Splitter was a big part of why they got there in the first place, so maybe maintaining the status quo is the way to go, even if adding a better overall player might raise the team's ceiling.
Re-sign Splitter even if you have to overpay a bit, unless there is a clear sign that one of the big time free agents will join the team. By clear sign I mean a deal already in place at least in principle. No gambles. With such a small window and so many teams looking to add someone, the Spurs need to be absolutely sure that they can get a player that can bring at least what Splitter provided as a defender, or add another dimension to the team, before letting the Brazilian go.
Since Splitter is a restricted free agent, I expect the Spurs to match offers up to $10 million dollars. The actual offer will likely be smaller than that, around $8 million. Even that might seem too much for Splitter, but considering the Spurs can go over the cap re-signing their own free agents (which would allow them to add someone else through the MLE) and are not even close to the tax, keeping Splitter would probably be the best course of action if the goal is ensuring they stay competitive in the short term.
Stats via MySynergySports, Basketball-Reference and NBA.com/Stats. Salary info via Shamsports.