I asked Gregg Popovich the other day if he felt that Tiago Splitter had been slow to regain his rhythm defensively and he told me that he didn't feel that was the case at all, but crunching the numbers I have to respectfully disagree. Splitter had been the unsung hero of the Spurs defense the past couple of years for the way he could contest shots at the rim without fouling, even though he has never been a strong shot-blocking presence. He doesn't look any slower in his lateral movements according to the eye test, but for whatever reason he isn't finding as much success in neutralizing people, whether the league has just figured out how to get around him, over him or are just getting some lucky bounces at the rim, the ball is going in the basket at alarming levels.
Consider that in 2013-14, Splitter was one of the best at the league in defensive rating (94.5, according to NBA.com's stats database) and in field goal percentage against at the rim (44.7 percent, according to NBA.com's player tracking data). Splitter had a 10.5 net rating for the Spurs, and the team's defensive rating without him shot up to 102.7, with a net rating of 6.9, meaning that the Spurs were overall 3.6 points better per 100 possessions with Splitter than without.
This season though, you'd think there's an impostor in his jersey. His defensive rating is 102.8, which ranks ninth on the Spurs, never mind the league leaders. His net rating is a paltry 3.3 and the team's defensive efficiency without him on the floor is 100.2, with a 4.6 net, meaning that the Spurs have been 1.3 points worse per 100 possessions with Splitter than without. Granted, almost the entirety of Splitter's minutes have come against elite Western Conference competition thanks to that brutal December schedule and he hasn't been able to enjoy the company of Kawhi Leonard on the floor at all, but still it'd be impossible to argue he's been as effective in his own end this season.
The most damning numbers of all are his defense at the rim. Splitter is allowing an obscene 61.0 field goal percentage to opponents at the basket, 3.6 makes in 5.9 attempts per game. Contrast that to Tim Duncan, who's allowing opponents to convert at just 46.6 percent, 4.2 makes out of 9.1 attempts per game. In fact, every Spurs big has been better at the rim than Splitter. Aron Baynes is allowing 54.5 percent and vertically challenged Boris Diaw (58.6 percent) and Matt Bonner (46.6) have fared better as well, though also very poorly in Diaw's case.
Splitter has also been incredibly soft on the glass. His defensive rebound rate of 16.3 percent and overall rebound rate of 12.6 percent are both, by far, the lowest of his career, according to basketball-reference.com. Last season Splitter corralled 53.5 of his total rebound chances and 39.9 of contested boards, both figures pretty low for a starting NBA center. He's been even worse this year though, scooping up just 50.0 percent of his rebound chances, a worse rate than teammates Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Cory Joseph. Not surprisingly, Leonard had one of the best rates in the league, at 74.7 percent, while the only Spur I could find who's worse at rebounding than Splitter is --you guessed it-- Bonner, at 43.8 percent and a pathetic 23.8 percent of contested boards.
Splitter's struggles have gone under the radar because he's made up for his defensive failings somewhat on the other end of the floor. His field goal percentage is 56.6, compared to 52.3 last year, and he's passing better than he ever has, up to 3.5 assists-per-36 minutes. His real value however, is supposed to be defensively, and if he doesn't improve markedly in that regard, the Spurs will continue to find themselves in close, "coin-flip" games instead of relaxing on the bench late.
There has been considerable discussion among Spurs fans at what will happen to Cory Joseph, who's played far above expectations, if and when Tony Parker returns to full health and his old All-Star-caliber self. My theory --and this is only a theory-- is that Popovich has reached the conclusion that Joseph is too good to just be used in case of emergency, and that he will have a much tighter leash on Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills (and heck, even Parker) than he might have last year.
The way I see it unfolding is that down the stretch in March and April and then in the playoffs, Popovich will give both Belinelli and Mills their regular rotation overlapping the first and second quarters. Then, if either disappoints in some regard, whether they're poor defensively or just cold shooting the ball, my guess is that Pop will replace that guy with Joseph, who's a better defender than both of them anyway, in the second half. While I've always been loathe of those undersized two point guard lineups, Pop seems to dig them anyway, and a few potential playoff opponents, such as Dallas, Phoenix and Oklahoma City use small backcourts from time to time.
Add the potential injuries here and there to Parker and/or Manu Ginobili, the rest days those two will receive on SEGABABAs and the potential blowout minutes that will be available, theoretically, should the Spurs ever feel like being the Spurs again, and I highly doubt that Joseph will be hurting for playing time.
Finally, as you're quite aware, the Spurs have been struggling miserably for the past six weeks, and currently sit 21-15, tied with Phoenix for seventh in the Western Conference and just three losses ahead of New Orleans in ninth. Many Spurs fans are panicking, and there is a possibility that the team may not win 50 games for the first time in a full season during the Tim Duncan Era.
I'm not quite ready to go there yet.
Looking at the schedule, if you give the Spurs a win in every home game and a loss in road games against the other nine Western contenders (Thunder, Clippers, Grizzlies, Rockets, Blazers, Warriors, Hornets, Suns, Mavericks, not in that order) and the five Eastern contenders (Hawks, Bulls, Cavaliers, Raptors, Wizards), the Spurs would go 32-14 the rest of the way, meaning a final record of 53-29. Obviously it won't break that way. They'll drop some home games and maybe some road games to weak teams, but they'll win some tough road games too. But my expectation is that they'll still win somewhere between 51-55 games, which should be good enough to finish between fourth and sixth in the West.
Of course, given that they've already lost at Brooklyn and Utah and at home to the Lakers and Pistons, it's entirely possible Spurs fans could be hoping for Jahlil Okafor come April. Given the franchise's history, that might be as likely as another deep playoff run.