My pal J. Gomez had a typically brainy and well-reasoned post up earlier this week defending Tiago Splitter's value, after wannabe sports czar Bill Simmons disparaged Splitter in a recent column, claiming that Splitter's four-year, $36 million contract is the 23rd-worst in the NBA.
My Readers Digest opinion: I don't think Simmons is completely off base on this one. I guess if I were backed into a corner I agree more with Gomez, who obsessively watches every Spurs game and has a far more comprehensive knowledge of the advanced metrics than I do (or Simmons does, for that matter). In all likelihood, Simmons has maybe half-watched the three Spurs games this season he was in the studio for ESPN national telecasts, and he probably spent the majority of his time checking emails from his AOL account on his BlackBerry.
Those aren't even jokes. Simmons has oft-stated that he still uses AOL and still has a BlackBerry. That's probably a telltale sign to stop taking someone's opinions seriously on anything.
Still, while I've accused him of many Spurs hatchet jobs in the past like here, I don't think this one really qualifies. It's a cheap shot, and not particularly well thought out or researched, but it's not anything like this or even this.
First, the relevant excerpts from Simmons...
You knew those rules, but I bet you didn't know this new one: "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??????
Then, Gomez's response...
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.
I think the big picture point that Gomez misses is that, rightly or wrongly, Pop thinks of and uses Splitter as a role player. What I mean by that is that he plays Splitter in ways that maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses, at least as far as Pop perceives them. It's a bit of a paradox because while the numbers may point to the defensive tandem of Duncan-Splitter being optimal in any situation, Pop for the most part has refused to test that hypothesis by keeping it intact against elite, small-ball teams using stretch fours. Are Splitter's numbers good because Pop is using him exactly the right way (which would basically side with Simmons' theory that the Brazilian is overrated) or is Pop the one who's dropping the ball here and massively under-utilizing his best defender?
The dilemma with Splitter, as I see it, is two-fold, and his faults aren't solely his own. He is indeed an elite-level rim protector, despite his meager shot-block totals, and is both stronger and more nimble of foot than his detractors give him credit for. The problem though is his "elite-ness" exists strictly as a center, not as a power forward. While Splitter can hedge well on the pick-and-roll and extend his defense a couple of feet outside of the paint, he can't guard people on the wings. His range simply doesn't extend that far.
Why this is an issue is because Tim Duncan, who's almost 38, is strictly a center defensively at this stage of his career as well. He can still impersonate a four on offense, drilling those 17-footers, but in his own end if you stick him out by the free throw line or the elbows, he's toast and he knows it.
Splitter couldn't play much in the Finals against Miami because --obviously-- neither he nor Duncan can guard LeBron James. Really, either of them are at a disadvantage against Chris Bosh too, but that pales in comparison to the James mismatch. The only hope the Spurs had (and one they used to almost pull off the championship) was to play Kawhi Leonard at the four when the Heat were small.
The only way to justify staying big against Miami's small lineup would've been if Splitter could punish the Heat inside with his size and offensive rebounding, but his glaring lack of athleticism and physicality prevented him from doing so. Pop had no choice but to reduce his role to Duncan's backup, and I don't blame him one bit for that. The Heat are a bad match-up for Splitter.
If that was the end of it, then yeah, I'd bash Simmons. It'd be pretty silly to suggest that a player doesn't deserve a good contract because he can't start against one team in the league and to completely discount his value against the other 28 clubs.
Unfortunately, quite a few contenders are following Miami's formula or just have problematic personnel. The Blazers play traditionally big, but LaMarcus Aldridge's range extends to 20 feet and he's plenty quick enough to scoot around either Splitter or Duncan if they go out that far on him. Same deal with Serge Ibaka and the Thunder, only they're even more willing to play small, with Durant at the four. The Rockets have hurt the Spurs with Terrance Jones extending his range out to the three-point line this year, and they can use the 1-4 with Dwight Howard and four smalls, too. The Warriors can go small with Harrison Barnes at the four, as we saw last year. All these teams force Pop to take Splitter out, which leaves Duncan as the lone rim protector and then the opponent simply spaces the floor and attacks the basket against the Spurs.
The worst part of it? While the Spurs defense would be at its best with Splitter and Duncan together, even against the elite small-ball/stretch-four teams, Pop still can't rely on it because the offense struggles mightily with those two bigs together, especially with Leonard and Danny Green at the wings. The spacing on the floor isn't ideal and there just aren't enough reliable shooters. Unless Tony Parker really has it going or Duncan is knocking that jumper down regularly, there will be struggles.
There are plenty of opponents out there, like the Clippers, the Grizzlies and the Pacers, where it's a huge boon to have Splitter on board. More and more though, the league is trending away from his strengths, and I think that's the point that Simmons was clumsily trying to make. Splitter's biggest obstacle to success is not himself or Pop. It's Duncan. They're both centers. As long as opponents force Pop to play only one center, he's going to go with Duncan, and rightly so, as he's the superior offensive player and rebounder.
I think if Gomez will ever be proven right, it'll ultimately happen in the final two years of Splitter's deal, in 2016 and 2017, when Duncan hangs 'em up and Splitter has the center spot to himself, perhaps with Leonard as his stretch four.