Tiago Splitter (2010-2015)
(artwork courtesy of Michal Dye)
Unlike the other Spurs we bid adieu this off-season, Splitter didn't have a say in the matter. He was traded to the Hawks in a cost-cutting move to make salary cap room for LaMarcus Aldridge. While the destination was something of a surprise --though in retrospect it shouldn't have been-- Splitter being flipped was the rare PATFO maneuver we saw coming a mile away. He handled it like a pro and with class like you knew he would, thanking the team and the fans, and I'm very happy to see he landed in a good situation in Atlanta, with good personnel, a winning environment and a coach he's familiar with in former Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer.
Still, it closes the book on one of the more polarizing Spurs of the Duncan/Popovich Era, and there will always be a smattering of Spurs fans who will say "good riddance," to the hulking Brazilian, irrespective of the fact that his trade made signing Aldridge possible. I feel some guilt and responsibility in this and I am ashamed of it.
Please don't get me wrong. It's not like I'm going to pretend that Aldridge isn't an upgrade for the sake of this story. He very much is. Aldridge gives the Spurs a considerably higher ceiling for next season and beyond. I don't think it's insulting to Splitter to claim the obvious.
That being written, let me make it crystal clear: Tiago Splitter was a very good player for the Spurs, someone who fulfilled his expectations as a 28th overall pick and then some. Was he an All-Star? No. Was he the best 28th pick in Spurs history? Well, no. Was he even the best Spur to come out of South America? Only if Charles Barkley was your geography teacher. Still, don't let a couple of fluky stolen Hall-of-Famers diminish what Splitter accomplished in San Antonio over five seasons.
I mentioned in a previous post that it was impressive, relatively speaking, for Cory Joseph to accumulate 8.4 career win shares in four seasons given his draft position and minute totals. Splitter's racked up 23.4 in 311 games, at a rate of .183 per 48 minutes. It ranks fifth in franchise history, behind four guys named Robinson, Duncan, Ginobili and Leonard.
Also, for someone who was often derided as an offensive liability for his below-the-rim game, his limited shooting range and clunky finishing around the basket, Splitter leaves the Spurs second in franchise history in field goal percentage and fifth in offensive rating. The Spurs usually did perfectly fine with him on the floor, and usually better when Duncan was on the bench. Splitter had superb timing with Ginobili on the pick-and-roll and was an underrated passer in all aspects. Even if he was an ordinary defender, he would've been an asset for his offensive talents.
Dat defense, tho. No, he wasn't some freak, soaring high and swatting shots toward the moon like DeAndre Jordan. He was the better defender, however, all things considered. Splitter had the footwork and the knack to play the pick-and-roll expertly and the skill to use his size and length to his advantage to cut off lanes to the basket without jumping or fouling. Did playing with Duncan help him in this regard? Of course. But Timmeh wasn't the one stretching out on the perimeter and contesting the Dirks and LaMarcuses of the world.
Perhaps the quintessential example of Splitter's value was against Memphis. We all saw what happened to the Spurs against the Grizzlies in 2011, when Tiago was just a rookie who hadn't fully earned Pop's trust. In the seasons that followed Splitter played a ton against Zach Randolph and Z-Bo bluffed his way toward a lot of forgettable shooting lines.
Why the animosity toward him then? You know why. Splitter was injury prone. His game looked soft even though it wasn't. ("Bad optics," we call it these days.) LeBron James blocked him once during a Finals game and it got replayed to death. Serge Ibaka has certainly had his number. Even on PtR photochops, TIAGO IS ALWAYS THE GIRL, even if it's meant to be endearing.
Does it matter that it in 18 games head-to-head that James has swatted Splitter just once while Splitter has gotten him three times? Of course not. Splitter's inability to play heavy minutes against elite teams and small-ball lineups hurt his reputation and Pop grew frustrated over the years over the big man's inability to stay healthy.
Splitter had his redemption in the 2014 Finals, but last year was a rough one for him. He had a chronic calf issue that flared up repeatedly, including during the final two weeks of the season, which hurt the Spurs efforts to get home court in the first round. He was out of rhythm against the Clippers. You got the sense that Pop was ready to move on, Aldridge or no.
The thing is, it had to be for Aldridge. Or failing that, then Marc Gasol. I simply refuse to believe, no matter how fragile he was, that the Spurs would've traded Splitter on a hope and a prayer. He was too valuable, too important, to toss away for nothing. If an All-Star big wasn't available, then he was far more preferable, balky calf and all, than any other scenario.
Maybe in the end that will be Splitter's legacy as a Spur. It took getting LaMarcus Aldridge for the Spurs to come up with a justifiable reason for getting rid of him. There are more insulting ways to be shown the door.
It's probably for the best. There's a new face for the photochops anyway. I just hope Splitter finds success and contentment in his new home and that Hawks fans treat him better than some of us (me included) did.
Tiago Splitter was a good Spur and he will be missed.