Why Tiago Splitter is worth every penny to the Spurs
June was a rough month for Tiago Splitter. The NBA Finals keyed his car, hit a golf ball through his living room window, kicked his dog and was the piece of gum he stepped on in the parking lot (that’s the worst). Rumor has it the culprit was the same guy all along: he’s a big basketball player dude that carries trophies and awards around the streets of Miami. You’ve probably seen him.
But lucky for Tiago he had one hell of an insurance policy, and it reimbursed him in the form of a front-loaded, 4-year, $36 million contract that would keep him with the Spurs through the 2016-17 season. He wanted to stay in San Antonio; his employers wanted to keep him there. So beyond a little hemming and hawing from some media types over the terms of the agreement, the past was behind the two parties and it was time to move forward. But not without acknowledging what everyone had learned.
Size was one of the advantages analysts pointed toward in the Spurs’ matchup with the Heat, drawing off the fact that Miami struggled so mightily with the Indiana Pacers (a big, physical defensive team) in the Eastern Conference Finals. But the biggest difference between the Pacers and Spurs was that Indy was able to force the issue and dictate lineups. They were able to stay big and force the Heat to play their style of basketball much of the time.
That wasn’t the case for San Antonio. When Miami decided to go heavy on the small-ball beginning in Game 4, the Spurs could not keep up and were forced to make changes as well. And that started first and foremost with Splitter. Once the Heat began using Chris Bosh at center and essentially starting LeBron James at power forward, Tiago became a rotation casualty.
The matchup with the Heat uncovered some glaring weaknesses in Splitter’s game, most obviously on the defensive side of the ball when Tiago was forced to guard out to the perimeter. If you’ll recall Miami’s second possession of Game 4, Splitter ended up isolated on Dwyane Wade at the top of the circle. Wade had not been playing well through the first three games, so Gregg Popovich took a chance. Naturally, it didn’t go very well, as all Wade had to do was throw his patented pump fake to get Splitter in the air before drawing the foul.
This prompted Pop to substitute Gary Neal for Splitter just 47 seconds into the game, completely changing the way the series was played from a personnel standpoint. And when the Spurs did play Tiago, things did not go well. Despite obviously being intimately familiar with the Spurs’ system, Splitter seemed hesitant. Even when he caught the ball in space out of the pick-and-roll, it appeared he was hearing footsteps and seeing ghosts of attacking defenders. Miami’s blitzing, trapping scheme rattled Splitter, and it was obvious from the start.
Splitter came into the league billed as a potentially elite pick-and-roll big, but he’s never been an exceptionally skilled post player. If you put him on the block with his back to the basket you probably won’t like the result, though every once in a while he’ll pull off an up-and-under that will surprise you.
Still, he’s able to thrive in the Spurs’ system because so much of it is based on a spread-out screen game that opens the lane for rolling big men. But when elite athletes—something Miami has in spades—crash down and close the space created by the probing and penetration of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and friends, Splitter struggles to navigate his way through traffic.
(Keep in mind: Miami is a bad matchup. Hell, they’re a bad matchup for just about anyone. The Spurs still have plenty of other teams in the way before they hope to get to the Heat again—Miami has some issues of their own in the East—and they’ll need Splitter. Badly.)
Give him the ball in an open alley and you’re good, but cross your fingers if there’s a solid contest at the end of the line. Tiago’s numbers reflect this, too. Splitter has boasted the highest shooting percentage on the team three years running, though it’s a bit misleading when you consider his shot selection.
Nearly 80 percent of his shots came in the restricted area last season, far and away the highest of any Spur, where he shot 62.8 percent. This is a reasonable number, but when you consider there were four people on the team (Duncan, Parker, Leonard and Diaw) who shot better in the restricted area, it gives you a bit of perspective.
How many times have you slapped yourself in the forehead after Splitter inexplicably botches a semi-contested layup? You’ve got a permanent red spot above your brow roughly the size of your palm, don’t you? Nobody has ever said the guy is an elite scorer around the rim, but given how often he was used at the end of a pick-and-roll last season you’d be reasonable to hope for slightly better results.
Here’s a sample of players who attempted at least 250 shot attempts within five feet of the basket last season and shot significantly better than Splitter from that area: LeBron James (duh, but 75 percent), Andre Iguodala (73.4), Blake Griffin (72.6), Josh Smith (72), Serge Ibaka (71.8), Al Horford (71.6), Chris Bosh (71.2), Kevin Durant (70.4).
Most of these guys are elite scorers in the NBA, so it’s not fair to compare Splitter’s shooting splits to those of James, Griffin or Durant, but there were plenty more players last season—JaVale McGee, DeAndre Jordan, Greg Smith and Shawn Marion, to name a few—who are not in that echelon and shot more than five percentage points better from that area than Splitter. Yes, it helps to be super dunky like McGee and Jordan, but the point here is that Tiago is actually fairly average when it comes to guys who score the vast majority of their points from inside the restricted area.
And that’s OK; his understanding of the system and ability to find the open spots are invaluable traits in themselves. Splitter’s presence on the roll almost always occupies at least one defender—sometimes two, if one comes from the weak side—and helps create the space that’s so valuable to the Spurs’ attack. But Tiago has been a different player so far through ten games of the young season, and it’s come at the expense of his own personal offensive production.
San Antonio has morphed into one of the best defensive teams in the NBA over the past year, and the spike in numbers has coincided directly with Tiago’s permanent placement as a starter in December of 2012. Since then, the Spurs have been elite on both sides of the ball, but the biggest jump has been on defense.
Currently, the Spurs own the second best defensive rating (91.6 points allowed per 100 possessions) in the league, behind only the Pacers (91.4), and Splitter is boasting an individual defensive rating of 86.4, second only to Danny Green at 86.1 points allowed per 100 possessions. But what’s been even more impressive is the data revealed to us by the new SportVU camera systems present in every NBA arena.
Of all players averaging at least 20 minutes per game this season, Splitter has registered the league’s best field-goal percentage defense at the rim. Opponents are attacking Splitter at the basket more than five times per game, and he’s only allowing them to shoot 29.4 percent in those situations. (Kings guard Isaiah Thomas has better numbers, but in a sample size that’s not even relevant to the conversation.) That’s better than the likes of Anthony Davis, Omer Asik, Roy Hibbert and Joakim Noah.
You can’t post him up (he’s allowing players to shoot just 36 percent when posting up, which is 12th best in the league), you can’t isolate on him as a big (allowing 16.7 percent shooting in these situations) and when he chases players off the block, spot-up shooters are converting just 35 percent of the time when he’s defending them.
And what’s most interesting is the fact that, unlike most of the other big men that excel in this capacity, Splitter does so without blocking many shots. In fact, he’s only swatted three shots all season! That’s insane considering the shooting percentage he’s allowing at the basket. But, as I mentioned before, there’s been an offensive dip as his defensive numbers have spiked. That’s not entirely the reason for slippage on that end, however.
San Antonio has obviously been focusing on the development of other aspects of its offensive attack. Whether it’s the focused effort to get Kawhi Leonard more involved or the refinement of Green’s game, the Spurs have been utilizing other players more often. The season is still pretty new, but the Synergy numbers show a pretty steep decline in Splitter’s early usage percentages.
Over the last two years, Tiago has been used heavily in the pick-and-roll game during his time on the floor, regularly acting as a roll man on more than a quarter of the plays run through him while he’s on the court. But through ten games this season, Splitter has completed just 10 plays all year as the roll man in the flow of the offense, a number that registers at about 13 percent. He’s been more often utilized as a cutter, and has taken more opportunities as an offensive rebounder and a post-up player.
As a result of fewer opportunities in his wheelhouse, Splitter is averaging about three fewer points per 36 minutes this season than he did last, but his impact has been felt elsewhere. We’ve already mentioned the defense, which has been better than ever thus far, but his rebounding percentage has also jumped several points in the process.
And one more tidbit that’s as telling as any in measuring Splitter’s growth defensively: Tiago has been much better when Duncan is off the floor than when he’s on it. In the past, Splitter benefitted from Timmy’s presence on the defensive end of the floor, as has almost anyone who’s ever played with the future Hall-of-Famer. But Tiago has often been a bit of a liability when Duncan isn’t behind him protecting the rim.
Splitter owned a 96.1 defensive rating last season—nearly 10 points per 100 possessions worse than what he’s registered so far this season. But that number shrunk to 92.7 when Duncan was on the floor alongside him. When Tiago was on his own (without Timmy), his 98.3 defensive-efficiency rating left little to be desired.
Without Duncan on the floor, the Spurs struggled to protect the rim, Splitter lacked the spatial awareness to account for cutters and weak-side action, and he just didn’t have the prowess to anchor a defense.
But this season? When Duncan is sitting next to Pop, a Splitter-anchored defense has allowed just 83.6 points per 100 possessions, as opposed to 90.2 when Timmy is on the court with Tiago. Splitter doesn’t play huge minutes (22.7 mpg so far this season, a number that will go up over time), so the impact he has on the game when Duncan rests is hugely important. If he’s effective in this role, Pop won’t feel like he has to keep his 37-year-old center on the floor during every crucial minute.
Look, it’s early in the season and the Spurs haven’t exactly been playing the cream of the NBA crop to start. So take these numbers with a grain of salt. Don’t ignore them, just don’t give Tiago the Defensive Player of the Year Award quite yet. And just as things are about to get a little more difficult—after Wednesday night, that is—for this team’s defense, remember that the offense is bound to pick up the slack at some point as well.
The Spurs are currently tied with the mediocre Denver Nuggets as the twelfth best offense in the league with a 102.7 offensive-efficiency rating, and history tells us pretty definitively that it’d be foolish to expect that to keep up. And as the offense improves, so to will Splitter’s numbers on that side of the ball. As the floor spreads more easily and shooters find their rhythm more consistently, Tiago will have more openings available to him.
But when the Spurs drafted and eventually signed the big Brazilian, it wasn’t offense they had in mind, necessarily. Sure, it helped that Splitter possessed a skill that was very valuable to their system, but it wasn’t the deciding factor. San Antonio needed a young big that could help with the defensive responsibilities they knew would be too much for Duncan to handle as the years went on. And they’re getting that now.
Duncan has been able to lose weight without being concerned with having to body up the league’s biggest bruisers, he’s been able to focus on a mid-range evolution of his game that has allowed him to push aside any added wear and tear, and he’s essentially been able to play an NBA version of free safety—he just sits back and waits for the ball-handler to come to him. It’s why, with all this in mind, the Spurs paid Splitter all that money over the offseason.
Almost everything Tiago does is completely awkward, and certainly none of it is sexy. But despite the opinions of many, Popovich and Co. consider him to be well worth it. If these numbers keep up, there’s no question that he is.
Stats and screen shot courtesy of NBA.com and mySynergySports.com.