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The Ballad of Tiago Splitter

Tiago Splitter has finally become the player Spurs fans have been wating for since he was drafted in 2007.

Ronald Martinez

"How poor are they that have not patience!
What wound did ever heal but by degrees?
Thou know'st we work by wit, and not by witchcraft;
And wit depends on dilatory time."

- Iago


- Tiago

The Spurs selected Tiago Splitter with the 28th pick of the 2007 draft, six years ago. Despite his potential being worthy of a higher selection, Splitter slipped all the way to the bottom of the first round because he was going to stay in Europe for a couple more years to develop and to avoid the rookie scale. This was around the time when the Spurs were more interested in adding veterans that could contribute right away instead of rookies, as they were just coming off their latest championship run.

Spurs fans had seen the team go the draft-and-stash rout before with Ian Mahinmi, who would join the team in 2008 but never develop past foul-prone, back-up center. Three seasons would go by before Splitter would even suit up for the Spurs, seasons in which the Spurs desperately needed an infusion of young talent to their front court.

Older centers like Francisco Elson, Kurt Thomas, Fabricio Oberto, Theo Ratliff and Antonio McDyess came and went as the Spurs tried to find the right complement for an aging Tim Duncan. Younger players like Matt Bonner, Mahinmi, Anthony Tolliver, Drew Gooden and even gambles like Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Marcus Haislip all proved lacking until the Spurs settled for DeJuan Blair as the guy that would try to ease Duncan's burden. The team had success during that time but never reached the heights it had before.

When Splitter finally crossed the pond in 2010, Spurs fans had little patience left. But luckily for us, Gregg Popovich is often stubbornly patient with new additions, and Splitter, a highly decorated international player who had left his home in Brazil to play professionally in Spain at the age of 15, didn't have the coach's trust yet. Tiago, who was injured coming into training camp, couldn't earn that seal of approval during that season and ended up playing a measly 12.3 minutes per game as a "rookie" and only getting some burn in the first round exit against the Grizzlies when Pop was running out of options.

Then McDyess retired, and the Spurs went into the season with four bigs. Pop was finally ready to give Splitter some run, but only as Duncan's back-up in a completely separate lineup from the starters. The Bonner-Splitter pairing worked like a charm, with Tiago emerging as a fantastic pick-and-roll scorer and a solid enough rebounder and defender to hold a terrible defensive unit together. But then the playoffs rolled around and that second unit couldn't deal with the change in intensity. Splitter struggled in all areas and was a complete mess from the line, to the point where he started getting the same treatment the Spurs gave opposing stiffs for years, getting intentionally fouled and targeted by the defense. Despite suffering from a wrist injury that explained a lot, disgruntled fans were starting to throw around the words "soft" and "overrated" at the ArgentineBrazilian.

But Pop went back to the drawing board and realized that what a lot of people where clamoring for since Splitter came on board was not that crazy. Tiago was finally inserted into the starting lineup next to Tim Duncan.

The Spurs' defense improved rather dramatically, with Duncan having a throwback year and Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green coming into their own. Seemingly everyone else got more praise than Splitter for the improvement from outside sources, and even Spurs fans looked at those rebounding numbers and doubted just how important Tiago could be if he couldn't pull down boards at a high rate from the center position. But Pop liked what he saw and kept that unit together.

During the playoffs, Splitter held his own against a strong Lakers front court before injuring his ankle and missing a couple of games. With the Warriors choosing to go small, his production didn't explode as many would have wanted, but keen observers noticed that as Tiago got healthier, the Spurs started doing a better job containing the Warriors on the pick-and-roll. Splitter was particularly great on the road, in what many call the toughest arena for visitors. It was pretty clear all season long and it became more evident against the Warriors that Tiago Splitter's presence was key for the Spurs' success.

Against the Grizzlies, Splitter had his coming out party in front of a national audience, holding his own defensively against arguably the best front line in the league and being a game-changing force as a help defender. Tiago also upped his scoring from previous rounds, found cutters beautifully and kept hitting free throws (the bane of his existence the previous post season) at a very acceptable level. It's very hard for me to see the Spurs beating the Grizzlies this comfortably, if at all, without Splitter playing at a high level. Despite the seemingly pedestrian numbers, Tiago delivered.

* * *

Patience is one of Splitter's best qualities. You can see it in his game. He reads plays on the defensive end and moves with conviction, but only when he knows where he is going. He takes his time in the post, looking for cutters before making his move. He has no problem setting screen after screen until he gets the chance to finally dive on the pick and roll. And if he needs to hang back to open room for the guard, he's happy to do that too. He doesn't need instant gratification. It's all about the long game with Tiago. Heck, he even shows patience when officials call him for silly, touch fouls just because he's this sparkling, awkward-moving foreigner.

It probably took patience from Gregg Popovich to first not give up on the often injured --and often lost in the Spurs sets-- new addition and then to not burden Tiago with more than he could handle too early. I'm critical of Pop sometimes and his management of Splitter has been baffling to me almost in its entirety, but when I see Tiago play the way he has this playoffs, I can't help but acknowledge that the cranky old man probably knew what he was doing. I can hear that Iago quote at the top in Pop's voice.

And finally, perhaps no one was as patient with Splitter as (at least some) Spurs fans. It wasn't easy seeing other teams add players through the draft while the Spurs chose to develop them in Austin or add veterans instead of youngsters. Even when that strategy changed and PATFO gifted us DeJuan Blair and George Hill first, and then Cory Joseph, James Anderson and Kawhi Leonard to root for, Splitter was still someone a lot of us expected more of, someone we had witnessed develop into a star in Europe only to see him become just a solid back up center for our team. This is the year when that patience paid off. Tiago Splitter is the perfect complement to Tim Duncan, the piece of the puzzle that was missing all those years, the "better Oberto" we wanted all along. The team being in the Finals for the first time since 2007, the year Tiago was drafted, is just the last piece of evidence that confirms it.

There will be a lot of extremely well deserved praise thrown around to guys like Duncan and Parker, Leonard and Ginobili. But this season to me will be the season Splitter finally became who we thought all along he could become. Forget for a minute his impending free agent status and his terrible rebounding numbers against the Grizzlies (more a sign of his role than his ability) and rejoice at the sight of the fully realized Tiago Splitter, years in the making.