San Antonio entered the free agency period with the ability to clear a serious amount of cap space and take a shot at some of the bigger-named higher-priced free agents. More than a few Spurs fans were hoping for a big signing. Someone that could shore up some of the team's limitations and ideally be a good post-Duncan piece. Needless to say, re-signing Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter and adding Marco Belinelli and Jeff Pendergraph doesn't fit that bill.
But the Spurs' off-season is already successful for a variety of reasons.
There are no huge holes in the roster
Some of you might be looking at the roster right now, thinking the Spurs don't have a back-up small forward and way too many guards. Stop looking at the depth chart. Positions mean very little. It's skills and roles we should focus on.
Marco Belinelli will take minutes that were going to Stephen Jackson and Gary Neal. He is a comparable shooter to Neal and a comparable defender to the version of Jackson we got last season, all in one package. Yes, he is the third shooting guard on the roster, but both Ginobili and Marco can defend most back up small forwards. To play opposite the opponent's starting small forward, the Spurs have Kawhi Leonard who will be expected to play heavy minutes as long as his knee issue is resolved over the summer. If he is in foul trouble, the Spurs have Boris Diaw to take the bigger SFs and Danny Green to take the perimeter-oriented ones.
So the lack of a back-up SF doesn't look as scary once you consider the possibilities the Spurs already have on their roster to handle things.
Splitter is actually a good player and not really overpaid
The idea that Tiago's overpaid, at $9 million a year, is preposterous. Yes, ideally the Spurs would have been able to sign him to a smaller contract, but $9 million is the going rate for his kind of player. Look how Splitter compared last season to big men making between eight and eleven million dollars using The NBA Geek's comparison tool.
Splitter compares well to even the best of the crop, except for Tim Duncan, who is miles better than everybody else. He ranks fourth in wins produced per 48 minutes and total wins produced. He doesn't board like Omer Asik but he scores, assists and steals the ball better and they are comparable when it comes to blocks. He gets more rebounds per 48 minutes than Paul Millsap, David West and Ryan Anderson and gets very close to matching JaVale McGee on the boards. I could go on but you can see for yourself. Splitter produces comparably, if not favorably, to players making a similar amount of money. Of course the idea is to sign someone to a contract below his market value whenever possible. But with how valuable big men are in today's NBA, that rarely happens.
Additionally, you could make the case that he is even more valuable to the Spurs. With Splitter on the court during the regular season, the Spurs allowed six points less per 100 possessions than when he was off the court. In the playoffs that number dropped...to five less points. The opponent's field goal percentage was 2.1% lower with Splitter on the court in the regular season and 3.5% lower in the playoffs. There are no two ways about it: Tiago played a huge part in the Spurs defensive success this season. The only area where the team did better with him off the court in the playoffs was defensive rebounding, and that's a concern. But if we look at Tiago's career numbers, we see that he's far from a poor rebounder and this season is the outlier. Maybe it has something to do with the Spurs placing a bigger emphasis on contesting shots over collecting boards?
Offensively, Splitter has a long way to go. He doesn't have range and he's too inconsistent. Sometimes it looks like he has great hands and sometimes he fumbles easy passes and can't corral boards. But he knows his limitations and is very, very efficient; looking to get his points as the pick and roll dive man, in transition, or off cuts -- all areas in which he is very good. And while his post game isn't pretty, Splitter ranked 77th in the league in points per possession scored in the post in a significant amount of possessions, unlike some players that ranked higher.
So if we look past the Heat series, Tiago Splitter is a good player that was a key component to the Spurs' defense and is getting paid like most players with his physical tools and skill set. That is a good signing to keep the Spurs contending for the next couple of years. We'll deal with the post-Duncan era when it comes to that.
Adding role players to the bench was always the most likely result
While I would have welcomed a big change if it happened, the Spurs re-signing their own free agents and adding some bench depth was the most likely scenario. The Spurs were simply too good last season to take huge risks. It looks like Manu was always set on returning, and there weren't a lot of free agents out there that were both comparable to Splitter defensively and better offensively.
Plus, unlike past years, the Spurs have a pretty set rotation, especially at the wing. After Bowen and Finley left, the Spurs had a lot of moving pieces. Manu, James Anderson, Danny Green and even Kawhi Leonard started at shooting guard at some point and Richard Jefferson, Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson were the small forwards. Then last season Pop mainly settled for a Manu-Green-Kawhi wing rotation, which worked wonderfully.
But with Manu being used as the sixth man and those young guys able to play heavy minutes, there is not a lot of playing time left. That's why Jackson complained and why Neal's minutes fluctuated when Manu was healthy. So there weren't many indications that the Spurs were going to reach for an impact player at the wing if Ginobili was returning, unless they were thinking of moving either Green or Leonard. If a guy coming in could also play the four as well as the three, he would have gotten some minutes there, but with Splitter and Diaw in tow and Leonard being a great small-ball PF, that spot is also pretty much covered.
So a couple of smaller additions to supplement the strengths the Spurs already have was likely the plan from the start. The Spurs got a great shooter who could blossom into a more complete player for below market value and added an athletic, defensive-minded pick and pop big who could earn a bigger role in the big man rotation. That's not exciting but it's what the team needed.
It's not over
The off-season is still going on. And even after the season starts, teams can still make trades. If for whatever reason the front office sees that the Spurs don't have what it takes, they can make changes. And the small moves they made this off-season could allow them to get bold later on.
I keep mentioning the possibility of trading Green because the Spurs have rarely had such a valuable yet potentially replaceable guy. And the expiring contracts of Bonner and Diaw could have value to a team looking to shed some salary. If that happens, the Jeff Pendergraph signing would soften the blow.
These are just examples, but guys like Amir Johnson, Brandon Bass, Anderson Varejao, Jonas Jerebko, Luc Mbah-a-Moute, Thaddeus Young, Luis Scola and Andre Miller have relatively affordable contracts that still have a couple of years left in them and are players that are either not essential to their teams in the present or not part of their future. A combination of Bonner, Diaw, Green, one of the Spurs' back up PGs and draft picks could get the Spurs a guy like that. Once the time restriction expires, you can add Splitter to that list of potential trade assets and the Spurs could make an even bigger trade.
Not that I think they need one. In my eyes, the Spurs are still the top team in the West. Sure, the Warriors and Clippers got considerably better on paper, but on paper the Lakers were favorites last season. How did that turn out for them? The Thunder and the Grizzlies had off-seasons that were as quiet as San Antonio's, with only minimal changes. Until I see any indication those teams are actually better than the Spurs -- and that comes after seeing how well they play together and not a second sooner -- I wouldn't advocate a trade. But if the Spurs need a shake up to keep up, they can still do it.
So yeah, Spurs fans, if you were expecting fireworks this off-season has been disappointing. But we should wait to see how well the team meshes, who improves and who declines, before making any definitive judgments. If Splitter's production dips and Manu seems done, we can question the decisions. But until then, I'm giving the PATFO the benefit of the doubt. After all, the Spurs still have all the makings of a contender and that's all I can ask for.
Stats courtesy of The NBA Geek, NBA.com/Stats and MySynergySports
You can follow J. Gomez @JejeGomez_PtR