As J.R. Wilco was talking Stampler off the ledge, he made this statement:
Splitter's defense is (and I don't think I'm overstating this) All-World level. He's so elite that any offense we get from him is gravy.
I think it's the first time I've seen that thought expressed by anyone other than me, which I find baffling. I consider the fact that Tiago is elite on defense to be self-evident. But it seems a section of Spurs fans - and the NBA blogosphere - disagree, so I'd thought I'd make the case for Tiago as an All-World defensive player, worthy of DPOY consideration.
A good place to start is here. But let's go deeper. The Spurs allow exactly ten more points per 100 possessions when Splitter is not on the court. That is a ridiculously huge amount. They go from being the best defensive team in the league to a middle-of-the-pack squad depending on whether Splitter plays or rests. Opponents shoot over three percentage points worse from the field against defenses featuring Tiago and only average 13.8 free throws per 48 minutes. That means the Spurs' D forces misses without fouling with Splitter on the court, which is exactly what Pop wants.
Opponent's points in the paint also drop significantly with Tiago out there. That's because Splitter is such a terrific rim protector. No, he doesn't get the type of blocks that deter drives but he does such a good job of contesting without fouling that you absolutely want opponents to try and score on him. Splitter ranks fourth in field goal percentage allowed at the rim among players of a similar profile. That would be amazing on its own but here's the kicker: opponents also shoot much worse from mid-range - a notorious Spurs' weakness - when Tiago is on the floor. So Splitter impacts all facets of the Spurs' team defense.
A skeptic might suggest that Tiago simply benefits from sharing the court with good defensive players. But the team does significantly better with Tiago on the court and Leonard and Duncan resting tha vice versa. And his individual stats are elite as well. According to MySynergySports, Tiago ranks ninth in the league defending post-ups and 29th defending the roll man on pick-and-rolls. Bear in mind, this guy regularly handles the toughest assignments so Duncan can rest on D.
It's not just one esoteric stat like defensive wins produced or some form of adjusted plus/minus that suggests Splitter is one of the best defenders in the league (although those measure certainly like Tiago). Every single stat available backs up his case as an absolutely elite defender. Splitter had a profound impact on the Spurs' defense last season but this year it seems he has gone from being one of the many cogs in the machine to a legitimate difference-maker.
All of the above should be enough evidence to start thinking of Splitter as one of the best defensive players in the league. But if stats aren't enough, it's possible to see why Tiago affects the games without having to look too closely. So let's go over some plays that show off Splitter's versatility and flawless defensive fundamentals.
Tiago, elite post defender
Good post defense is easy to spot. It's all about initial position, footwork, strength and length. You don't want to surrender good position in the block early or get backed down under the rim. You also want to move your feet to prevent your guy from spinning and ultimately, contest a hopefully off balance shot.
Here is Splitter against a power post player like Dwight Howard
He gets low, to keep from being backed down. He widens his stance, to narrow the possible directions Howard can go unimpeded. And he ultimately contests a long running hook. That's pretty much perfect D.
Here he is against a finesse post player like LaMarcus Aldridge
He makes it hard to make the entry pass. He widens his stance but remains more upright, knowing LMA won't try to back him down but will shoot over him if he gets too low. And even after Aldridge creates separation by making some shoulder-to-chest contact, Tiago uses his length to bother the shot.
Tiago can handle every type of post player.
Tiago and the P&R
The Spurs use two main ways to defend pick-and-rolls: drop back to the paint to deter penetration or show to prevent pick-and-pops from three. Tiago is perhaps the only Spurs' big that is good at both.
Here we can see him dropping back
Jeff Teague uses a Millsap screen and Tiago drops back. As Belinelli recovers, Millsap starts trying to find an angle to make the upcoming pass easier. Once the pass comes, Splitter does a solid job of recovering to bother the shot. I chose a play in which the opposing big actually takes the shot, but Splitter often recovers fast enough to force the guy to put the ball on the floor or reset.
Here is Tiago showing on the P&R
Splitter shows while Leonard goes under the screen. Tiago is trying to cut the passing angle as he recovers. By the time Morris catches the ball, he's far from the arc and well guarded.
The Spurs use very conservative pick-and-roll schemes that are aimed at making teams beat them with high-difficulty, low-reward mid-range jumpers. And Splitter is exceptionally good at executing these tactics while being able to contest ball-handlers on drives better than Diaw, and show and recover better than Duncan.
Tiago on the boards
Splitter is averaging career highs in total rebound percentage but that mostly has to do with his offensive rebounding being up. What he keeps doing consistently and wonderfully, however, is boxing out.
Tiago doesn't watch the ball and simply try to jump for it. He looks for a guy going for an offensive board and puts a body on him. And that's a huge reason why the Spurs rank first in defensive rebound percentage.
Tiago defending off the ball
Splitter doesn't get to roam much off the ball because he is usually on the other team's best offensive threat or their more perimeter-oriented big while Duncan hangs closer to the rim. But he still shows fantastic defensive awareness.
After dropping on a pick-and-roll and leaving Ibaka open from mid-range, Splitter seems out of the play. Duncan rotates to the open mid-range shooter and leaves Perkins wide open under the rim. Serge makes the pass but Splitter knows exactly what he has to do and he "helps the helper," rotates over and contests Perkins' shot.
On the second play you can see Tiago watching the off-ball action and figuring out OKC was setting staggered screens to get Durant open. And since he happens to be on Perkins, who is not a threat, he leaves him to prevent the open three after Green gets caught in the screens.
Tiago is disciplined, fundamentally-sound and smart enough to be a fantastic off-ball defender on top of his on-ball prowess.
Why Tiago is constantly underrated as a defender
Splitter makes almost no highlight plays. He is the most boring elite defensive player this side of Marc Gasol and Andrew Bogut. He doesn't blow up pick-and-rolls 25 feet from the basket on his own or blocks shots into the stands. And because the Spurs have such conservative schemes, you don't see him flying around the court, rotating to patch his teammates' mistakes. If he was playing for Tom Thibodeau in Chicago, he'd be on everyone's short list for DPOY.
Offensively, Splitter is definitely struggling and those problems need to be explored in this space as well. But Sparkles is absolutely one of the best defenders in the league right now and he's one of the reasons the Spurs defense is as stingy as it is. While I'm hoping for his offense to improve, I will continue to enjoy his immense gifts on the other end of the court.
Stats via NBA.com/Stats, MySynergySports and NBA Wowy!
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