Tiago Splitter deal good for Spurs, if not headlines

Ronald Martinez

Exploring the reasons why the Splitter signing will work for the Spurs next year, and three more afterwards.

The Spurs have reportedly come to an agreement with Tiago Splitter that would keep him in San Antonio for four years and pay him $36 million over that span. The sides will make it official on July 10, which is as soon as the rules allow. We all knew that number is close to what was expected for Splitter. Big men get paid in the NBA and Splitter is a good big man. Yet it seems to have rubbed some fans the wrong way. It's understandable, since some of us were hoping for a big move. But it's not so bad that the Spurs re-signed Splitter when you look at things with a calm head. In fact, it's mostly good. Let's explore the signing, first focusing on the common complaints.

The Spurs didn't choose Splitter over someone else

It's not like the Spurs had been close to snagging Josh Smith, but passed on him to sign Splitter. There were no reports linking the Spurs to any of the big free agents available. And San Antonio, for a multitude of reasons, has never been much of a free agent destination. We can speculate that this or that player could have been had but there is no evidence the Spurs were on anybody's short list. It makes no sense, since they are coming off an excellent year and an appearance in The Finals, but it doesn't seem the impact players were interested.

Of course, the Spurs are also not known for their recruiting. PATFO doesn't seem to like the whole circus behind trying to lure players to the team. It might not be the best course of action and we don't have to like it, but it is what it is. So it's very likely that the front office agreed with pretty much everyone else that Splitter was not the best big out there. But they might have thought he was the best they could get. So it makes total sense to bring him back and try to repeat the success from last season.

The Spurs are not stuck with Splitter or this roster

Here's where it's a good thing to remember that the NBA allows trades. Splitter is not likely to improve much more but he is also not likely to get worse, Biedrins-style. Therefore, Splitter will likely have some value, which means the Spurs can ship him off once Duncan retires or even before. We also have no idea how the deal is structured. There might be a partially guaranteed final year that would make those four years much less daunting.

As for the roster, the Spurs could still create cap room by amnestying Bonner, although that's unlikely to happen. Still, they will very likely have the full mid-level exception to work with. It's unlikely they get a player like Andrei Kirilenko to sign for it but they could get a solid two-way wing like Gerald Henderson or Corey Brewer for that money. They could also split the MLE and get two cheaper players, like Delfino and Mozgov. Those are just a few examples. The point is, the Spurs could still get someone else. And with Danny Green deal being as fantastic as it is, and the Spurs ability to combine Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner's contracts to match salaries, they could still get an impact player via trade.

Splitter doesn't suck

Splitter is a very good defensive center. He is an elite post defender that is also mobile enough to step outside and guard the pick and roll adequately. That is surprisingly rare in the NBA. The starting lineup, which Splitter was part of, was the best defensive unit in the league of those averaging more than 300 minutes together. When paired with Duncan, they allowed a ridiculously low 92.7 points per 100 possessions. The second most used front court pair of Duncan and Diaw averaged 100.8 points per possession, so it's not like Tim was doing the heavy lifting and Tiago riding his coattails.

Splitter is not particularly talented offensively (he has no jumper to speak of and he can only dunk if the stars are perfectly aligned) but he's an elite big in the pick and roll game. Blessed with preternatural awareness of the positioning of his defender and that of the ballhandler, his breaks to the basket are perfectly timed, allowing him to receive passes for one wide-open layup after another. He also sets nasty screens (an undervalued skill) that frees the guards enough to attack. Then there are his modest abilities in the post, the only part of his game where it would be reasonable to expect some improvement. Splitter is clearly not a stiff and he's making $9 million a year because the market realized that and put that prize on him. Since it was unlikely the Spurs could get, and afford, someone better, they gave him his this deal.

Now let's go what are, in my eyes, the more reasonable concerns.

Splitter can be neutralized in certain match-ups

When a team goes small, there is no reason to keep Splitter in there. The Spurs could use zone defense to hide their two bigs but Pop has never liked that defensive strategy. So Splitter will be relegated to the bench often when teams go small. If it's not against one of the league's better offensive teams, Tiago can anchor a unit as the sole defensive big. On offense, it's harder for Splitter to catch and finish in pick and roll when he has guards swiping at the ball and he can't take advantage of the spacing in the post since he is not a great post player. Still, if the Spurs go small with Splitter at center but with scorers next to him, he can do an adequate job in limited minutes. He's not an ideal small ball center but he's not useless there, either.

The fact that Splitter can't play against some units is somewhat mitigated by having Boris Diaw and Kawhi Leonard to play PF in those situations. And the Spurs still have other resources they can use to find someone that could help when they need to go small. But it's true that Splitter doesn't provide the Spurs with a lot of lineup flexibility. And no team wants a $9M man sitting on the bench for big stretches of the game.

Splitter needs to rebound better

Splitter's not a bad rebounder by any means, but in the playoffs he saw his defensive role intensify and that subtracted from his rebounding effort. That can't happen. Splitter needs to do a better job of corralling boards even after defending successfully.

The Spurs have changed their approach in this regard, going from a team that prioritized defensive rebounding above all to one that realized that great defenses make the other team miss more even if contesting hard allows some offensive boards. Splitter fits perfectly with that, as the team allows a lower field goal percentage with him on the floor (43.3% with Tiago on; 45.2% with Tiago off) but there is definitely room for improvement with his rebounding.

He seems to lack the explosiveness to contest, get down and jump back to go for the board but he could definitely do a better job at positioning himself for the second play. Gaining some lower body strength could also do wonders for Tiago. Let's hope he makes rebounding a priority next season.

Final thoughts

The Spurs finally had some cap space and we were all looking forward to seeing them make a big splash. That was apparently not in the cards. Getting someone that could bridge the Duncan era with the Parker/Leonard years would have been nice, but there aren't any franchise players available this year, outside of Dwight Howard. True, getting a big upgrade in the post or on the wing would have been really encouraging -- and now that's just not very likely.

But after today, the Spurs are still among the West elite. The same starting lineup that clamped down on defense better than any other is returning, and there are still opportunities to improve the bench. San Antonio's biggest hurdles will likely be the Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder. Against all of those teams, Splitter can bring something to the table. Yes, even against OKC, because Scott Brooks and Sam Presti refuse to give up on Kendrick Perkins. So cheer up, Spurs fans. Signing Tiago isn't the end of the world.

Stats via NBA.com/Stats

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