Lost amidst the trade deadline circus was Bill Simmons' annual column about the NBA's worst contracts, where he ranked Tiago Splitter's 23rd, next to Jarrett Jack's. Here is how he described his reasoning:
"Every four years, all NBA teams have to overpay a role player like he's a valuable starter."
Yup, that's a rule. They all have to do it. And you wondered why San Antonio spent $36 million on Splitter (when it could have just stolen Robin Lopez for $5 million), or Cleveland lavished Jack with six times the money that Randy Foye would have cost. By the way, I always take it personally when San Antonio overpays someone. The Spurs are supposed to be the smartest team! Come on, R.C. Buford! You're a role model!!! You gave $36 million to someone who couldn't stay on the court in the 2013 Finals???? Not you, too! Why??????
Why Tiago is better at defense than you think
The Brazilian big man is having a tremendous impact on the league's fifth best defense, yet he's not getting nearly as much credit as he deserves
There are a lot of things that don't make much sense in the column. But it's alright, Simmons' goal is to write entertaining articles, not illuminating ones. And he succeeds more often than not. Not to mention that the mere attempt to determine who is overpaid is futile, except for some obvious examples, because so many factors have to be taken into account when determining a player's value. But since so many have echoed Simmons' assertion, I'll just focus on the two most important issues: the team's situation when they made the signing, and the impact the player has.
The Spurs couldn't afford not to sign Splitter
First of all, Jack's situation has nothing to do with Splitter's other than Simmons is always looking to package things into tidy narratives. The Cavs signed Jack away from Golden State expecting him to be able to replicate his past success in a new environment. It didn't work out. The Spurs re-signed Splitter because losing a player that fit so perfectly with the rest of the team could have been a death blow for the Spurs' fragile title aspirations.
In a vacuum, paying $9 million a year for a guy that plays 21 minutes is too much, regardless of how great he is on defense -- especially for teams with precarious cap situations or who are stuck between being good, but not great. Think of Anderson Varejao in Cleveland or Kevin Garnett in Brooklyn; they are really good but their talents are wasted on mediocre teams. But that's not the situation the Spurs are in. They are contending and can't afford to take a step back.
The Spurs need someone who can both play next to Duncan, and also slide up to center when Duncan rests -- someone who can anchor the defense by taking the toughest assignment and allowing Big Fun to stay as close to the basket as possible. Splitter excels at all of the above, and hardly any of this past summer's free agents had the defensive acumen and the versatility to guard the four and the five, let alone cheaper ones. Going for another type of defensive specialist like Andrei Kirilenko would have required an adjustment on how the Spurs used Duncan after Tim had had his best season in years playing with Splitter.
To say that the Spurs should take a chance on an inferior player, or one that doesn't fit as seamlessly -- just to save a few bucks -- instead of signing a proven commodity is to ignore San Antonio's urgent need to contend right now. It's not like it has been easy to find the perfect complement for an aging Duncan. But they finally have one, and now the smart move is to roll the dice and hope a different player can replicate Splitter's success on the defensive end? What happens if that new guy doesn't perform as expected, like (to pick an example at random) Jarrett Jack in Cleveland? Bye bye, title window.
Why Splitter is not just "a role player"
Why do people think Splitter is just a role player that can be replaced with any semi-decent big man? The answer is simple: the "eye test" is not kind to Tiago. I wrote a post earlier this season making the case for Splitter as an elite defender. Some of the numbers have varied slightly but most of it still holds true.
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 when Tiago plays. 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 than 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.
In the comments from that post there were people who remained unconvinced, with some actually saying that they didn't remember seeing many people missing shots when Splitter contested, which made them doubt the stats. People still feel that the "eye test" is better than the six SportVU cameras hanging from the ceiling and tracking movement 25 times per second. The reputation of other players seems more valuable than the data, too. Seems unbelievable that Splitter could be better at defense than the more familiar names, regardless of what the numbers said because, come on, he's just Tiago Splitter.
If Splitter is really elite (the argument goes) then there is no way that Simmons would have him on a list of the worst contracts in the league. But I'm telling you that anyone that takes a close look at the numbers will conclude that, whether because of talent or fit, or both, Splitter is as important to the Spurs' team defense as any elite defensive player in the league is to his. But it's almost impossible to come to that conclusion going by reputation, narrative and the good old eye test, which seems to be the driving force behind lists like this one.
There are two factors that matter when determining a player's value: how good he is and how well he fits in with a team. Going by those parameters, the Spurs would have been foolish to let Splitter walk. Tiago might not be worth $9 million a year to every team in the league, but he is certainly earning his money in San Antonio. There's no doubt about it.