There was a split among Spurs fans over the offseason when the Spurs announced their quick re-signing of Tiago Splitter to a four-year $36 million dollar contract. Many fans thought that the Spurs should have pursued a higher-profile player with their cap space, while there were others that were happy that the Spurs were keeping the team together for another run at the Larry O'Brien trophy after coming so close. There are a lot of fans, myself included, that tend to notice Tiago's flaws and overlook and/or fail to fully appreciate the things he is very good at.
The last thing fans saw was his poor performance during the Finals, where he only averaged nine minutes per-game during the final four games of the series. Miami's small lineups posed a matchup problem for Tiago, and Gregg Popovich called his number less each game of the series and by Game 7 he only played four minutes. His uninspiring rebounding throughout the playoffs only reinforced the perception that he is soft.
We're all accustomed to seeing players that are 6' 11'' finish within three feet of the basket. It can be frustrating to see Tiago miss layups and what appear to be gimmees when he absorbs even the slightest contact. Often it looks like Tiago should just finish with more authority, but he tries to get cute with what looks like a more difficult attempt when he seemingly could have just dunked the ball. Perhaps Tiago was endowed with even less hops than Timmy.
You'd be hard-pressed to look at any traditional measurement and conclude that Tiago is indeed worth the $10 million the Spurs are paying him this season. His per-game averages actually look worse than last season:
2013: 8.1 points on 55.7% shooting, 7.4 rebounds, 0.3 blocks, and just shy of 23 minutes.
2012: 10.3 points on 56% shooting, 6.4 rebounds, 0.8 blocks, and just shy of 25 minutes.
While his rebounds are up this season, he is scoring less. It's easy to ask yourself, what the hell are we paying this guy for? Simply put, Tiago is really good at the things that don't show up in the box score.
First, the statistic that inspired this post:
<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/65795924@N06/10988513906" title="tiago stat by C-Itz, on Flickr"><img src="//farm8.staticflickr.com/7375/10988513906_a896cccd43_o.png" width="548" height="190" alt="tiago stat"></a>
Through the admittedly small sample size of 11 games, Tiago has produced an offensive rating (the measure of how many points his team scored per 100 possessions while he was on the floor) of 128-which is good for 2nd in the league. He also has a 94 defensive rating (how many points the opponent scored per 100 possessions while he was on the court). This puts Tiago at a whopping plus-34 in plus/minus.
It's really early, and we can't read into the numbers too much, but here's an interesting list of the top-8 players league wide in Win Shares Per 48 Minutes:
Anthony Davis - .282
LeBron James - .276
Kevin Love - .269
Chris Paul - .265
Tiago Splitter - .264
Paul George - .262
Kevin Durant - .261
Stephen Curry - .249
I mean, he can't keep that up, right? Still, his 250 minutes this season is a third of the minutes he played in his rookie season. The sample size is not nothing.
Tiago is also currently leading the league in opponents' FG% at the rim. From NBA.com: "Rim protection is defined as the defender being within five feet of the basket and within five feet of the offensive player attempting the shot."
Tiago is only allowing opponents to convert 28.8% of these attempts, better than Roy Hibbert's 35.8% and Anthony Davis' 36.1%.
Tiago might be the least flashy high-quality defensive big man in the league. He rarely blocks shots (four through 11 games), and when he does they aren't the highlight-ready type that end up in the fifth row. The more advanced defensive measurements we get, the more it looks like blocks are a poor indicator of effective rim defense, despite what Dwight Howard thinks (on Gasol winning DPOY over Ibaka):
"He led the league in blocks. That’s what defense is all about," Howard said of Ibaka. "He led the team and was number one in blocks this year. You can’t play defense without having any shot blockers. He was the number one shot blocker the last two years. That’s great defense right there."
I love Dwight Howard, in that I love watching him fail. That's what defense is all about?! I think the legendary Bruce Bowen and the very good Tony Allen know the real key to effective defense - kicking the dude with the ball in the face! No blood, no foul, am I right?
In a sense, blocks are like dunks; they can be exciting, but at the end of the day they count for two points or a missed shot. Players like Javale McGee and DeAndre Jordan make it onto Sportscenter with their high-flying blocks that end up knocking over some poor guy's brew, but that is barely better than allowing an offensive rebound. Block artists like Tim Duncan make a point of trying to secure the ball after the block, actually changing the possession.
The worst rim protectors in the league include some of the league's most prolific shot-blockers. Among players that play 20+ minutes per game and defend at least five attempts at the rim, DeAndre Jordan is the second worst (allowing opponents to score 63% of the time) and D12'S DPOY Serge Ibaka is twelfth worst (54.9%). These two are fourth and eighth, respectively, in total blocks this season. Dwight Howard, while third in the league in blocks, is a middle-of-the-road 22nd out of 52 in opponents' FG% at the rim (47.1%)
The worst rim protector in the league is Big Al Jefferson (only three games-65.4%), who you may remember was the player the Spurs were reportedly in the lead to acquire by trade before the All-Star break last season. There were some Spurs fans that would, and maybe still would, have welcomed Big Al in place of Splitter on the Spurs. Jefferson is a fine offensive player, but do you think that that the Spurs would rank second in the league in defensive rating (94.5 to the Pacers 94.3) right now with Al? If you do, perhaps this is the wrong blog for you -- try The Mothership.
Last season the five-man lineup of Tiago, Tim, Kawhi, Danny, and Tony allowed only 87.7 points per 100 possessions, which was good for tops in the league. Tiago was also 14th in the league in defensive rating among players that played at least 1500 minutes.
Sparkles was hampered by injuries at the beginning of his rookie season, and was unable to play his way into consistent minutes during the season. Since he was coming off of a Spanish League MVP season (many think it is the second best league in the world) he was a disappointment to most. First impressions can leave a lasting image, and perhaps his slow start is still influencing opinions. He made improvements during his sophomore campaign, but it was during last season that he really seemed to find his place on the Spurs, and was the only Spur to appear in every regular season game of the season until Extraneous G gave him the last night of the season off.
You won't normally find Tiago's value in the box score, but if you dig a little deeper you'll see the outstanding player that Sparkles is. Now, if he can manage to avoid those missed gimmees perhaps we will all be able to fully appreciate just how much he brings to the Spurs.
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