The Splitter-Duncan pairing that never happens


AT&T CENTER — One of the perks of having press credentials to the Spurs games is being able to sit with other bloggers while the game is going on and bounce ideas off each other. Last night, when the Spurs beat the Grizzlies 107-97, the topic again came up between myself, Matthew Tynan of Pounding the Rock and Paul Garcia from Project Spurs of Coach Pop’s aversion to playing Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter together.

It’s been mentioned time and again that starting Splitter and Duncan would give the second unit a big man combo including two of Matt Bonner / Boris Diaw / DeJuan Blair. I still believe that second group would be a defensive liability for the Spurs.

But why don’t Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter play together late in games?

From what I’ve noticed, Pop wants Duncan running the pick-and-rolls with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili late in games. It’s hard to argue that someone else should be setting picks and rolling to the basketball because Tim Duncan is, well, Tim Duncan. You’re going to argue that the greatest power forward of all-time shouldn’t be the one in those situations?

The problem is that Tiago Splitter is a pick-and-roll guy. There’s not much else for him to do on offense if he’s not putting a body on an opposing guard and diving to the basket. Splitter’s not going to stretch the floor and float around anywhere near the perimeter, waiting to knock down a jumper. Posting up and pick-and-rolls are the extent of his offensive game.

That’s why you see a lot of Matt Bonner late in games. He does those things that Tiago Splitter doesn’t as a compliment to a Duncan pick-and-roll. Even if he hasn’t knocked down shots in that game, he’s still got a track record as a spot-up 3-point shooter and defenses have to respect that.

Where most people will understandably resist Splitter’s exclusion from the crunch time lineup is on the defensive end. Pairing Duncan and Splitter together will obviously give the Spurs their best defensive big man combo. The thing is, though, Matt Bonner’s not a terrible team defender. He knows how to play help defense and rarely misses a rotation. He runs out on shooters and blocks out his man on the rebounds (even if he rarely grabs a board himself).

Bonner’s even the sixth ranked post defender in the league, according to Synergy Sports. Bonner is giving up just .58 points per possession on 83 instances this season. Overall, Bonner’s giving up .78 PPP in 322 total possessions this year. I’m terrified if someone gets him in a one-on-one situation, but simply saying he’s a bad defender is misinformed and erroneous.

Basically, the take away on the defensive end with Bonner is less than the negative on the offensive end with Splitter. Would you rather score seven points in the last two minutes and allow six, or score 10 points in that time and give up seven? That’s essentially the game Pop is playing right now.

What will be interesting over the next week and a half or so is to see if Boris Diaw can eat up some of Bonner’s crunch time minutes. Diaw maybe able to provide some floor spreading capabilities similar to Bonner, with better passing, and he puts up comparable defensive numbers to Bonner with a slightly better total rebound percentage. Something to keep an eye on as we get into the playoffs.

  • RawJa777

    What nobody seems to take into account is that TIM DUNCAN can stretch the floor with his superb 18-20 ft. jump shot, very much like Kevin Garnett.  Tiago Splitter naturally stretches the floor by bringing his defender sooooo far out of his comfort zone on the pick and roll.  In addition to that, he has the quickness to beat his man back into position.  If the only reason for having Matt Bonner on the floor is to stretch it, that argument has just been busted.  For evidence, watch the first 3 minutes of the 4th quarter last night.  Bonner was on the floor, but Tiago was the one stretching it out for Manu and Gary.  As soon as Tiago left, the Grizzlies collapsed on defense…and so did our double digit lead

  • Iamthechosen1

    The problem with Bonner is he is a regular season wonder.  What’s the point in playing him for spacing in the playoffs when he takes a 5 dribble drive into the lane and has to kick it back out to Parker or Manu with 6 seconds left on the shot clock?

  • idahospur

    If things get rough in the playoffs as a result of the Spurs getting out rebounded and just cannot handle two big men on the opposite team, I expect to see Duncan and Splitter on the court together. I just hope they will be able to work it out at that point.

    Looking at how much playing time Splitter has been receiving, I am hoping that he has the intention to commit to this team in the long-run. Splitter gave up a lot of success to take a chance in the NBA and I am hoping that the organization is keeping him comfortable. When I’ll be sad to see Duncan go, I hope the Spurs have kept Splitter involved enough to know he’ll be essential in the next generation of Spurs.

  • Mark

    I agree with Idaho Spur.  You may see Duncan-Splitter together in slug-it-out battles when things get rough in the playoffs.

    I didn’t get to watch Spurs-Lakers – did Duncan and Splitter play together against Gasol-Bynum? Who guarded who? Who did Bonner guard?

  • grego

    “What will be interesting over the next week and a half or so is to see if Boris Diaw can eat up some of Bonner’s crunch time minutes. Diaw maybe able to provide some floor spreading capabilities similar to Bonner, with better passing, and he puts up comparable defensive numbers to Bonner with a slightly better total rebound percentage. Something to keep an eye on as we get into the playoffs.”

    I think Diaw will eat into Blair’s minutes. It seems to have happened in the second half of last game where Blair never left the bench. It was Duncan/Diaw/Bonner/Splitter all in the second half.

  • sdedalus83

    It seemed as though everyone was calling for Manu to be entombed in bubble wrap for the last 15 games, but Pop decided to do it to Splitter instead.  The good news is that Tiago is back to making almost every shot he takes and is getting much more aggressive on the defensive glass than he was during that inconsistent stretch between his last two injuries.

    With the last three in three coming up after tomorrow’s game with Phoenix, I expect to see Splitter get a lot of playing time before settling into the final playoff rotation during the last five games.

    The game with LA on the 20th should show us exactly how this team will look in May.

  • Lvmainman

    Andrew A. McNeill, Ask TNT and ESPN why during the Heat-Bulls game last night, when they highlighted the upcoming TV schedule of the NBA, with a HUGE promo called the big board, where the actual game was shrunk to 25% of the screen, why did they mention Friday’s doubleheader on ESPN, Sunday’s ABC doubleheader, and Monday’s NBATV doubleheader, but COMPETELY IGNORED the ESPN telecast of the Suns-Spurs game on Saturday????? How is this possible? This is the 2nd time it’s happened. Why does ESPN allow nationally shown SPURS games NOT be promoted?
    You’ve got the connections, I’d love an answer.

  • Andrew A. McNeill

    Unfortunately, my contacts at ESPN only extend as far as the NBA section. No TV folks.

  • Bob

    I am tired of making excuses for Pop. Oberto and Duncan worked just fine and Oberto was even more offensively challenged. Pop has to give it a chance to work. I don’t see how Oberto and Duncan could close the Finals in ’07 and TD and Splitter can’t.

  • Kyle Derrick

    Eh. I guess this makes sense when reading it, and Bonner has certainly impressed me over Blair on the defensive end and overall hustle. Blair has lacked that drive and knack for the ball that he possessed early on which kind of covered for his lack of height and defense.

    What I do think is Tim has become a pretty solid top of the key shooter, and of course is money on the bank shot. Why not let him camp out near the elbows or a little further back and allow Tiago to run the P & R? If Tim’s man cheats and tries to help on Tiago, Tim can take  a step in and knock down that shot. And if he misses, we’ve got a guy who has potential for an offensive rebound. Tim played well with Oberto. I can’t see why he wouldn’t with Tiago, they just need time on the court.

  • Kyle Derrick

    What’s frustrating, is They saw 0 minutes together. For whatever reason, Blair was primarily on Bynum!!! Bynum would miss tap the rebound to himself. It was a complete joke. Tiago did a solid job on Bynum, but he could only do so much. Pop’s coaching that game was a nightmare

  • Andrew A. McNeill

    I had someone else mention this to me earlier today, and the only thing I can see is that Duncan’s shooting percentages from 9 feet out and closer have dropped dramatically since 07. They can’t dump it down low to Tim Duncan as much anymore, last night notwithstanding, and expect to score. That makes the drive-and-kick game so much more important and the need for spacing is uber-valuable.

  • Eric Salinas

    First off, your notion, ”
    It’s been mentioned time and again that starting Splitter and Duncan would give the second unit a big man combo including two of Matt Bonner / Boris Diaw / DeJuan Blair. I still believe that second group would be a defensive liability for the Spurs.”, is not an issue at all. Spurs could avoid the interior defensive liability from the bench by being creative with their rotations. It’s not rocket science by any means. For example, Spurs could start Splitter and Duncan. Sub out Splitter at the 6 minute mark for Bonner; Sub Splitter back in for Duncan at the 2 minute mark; Splitter and Bonner would then end the quarter and start the 2nd; Sub in Boris and TD at around the 8 minute mark and then sub in Splitter or Bonner (whoever is playing better between the two) for Boris at the 4 minute mark to close the half. This scenario would maximize minutes for not only Splitter but also for the floor spacing combo of TD/Bonner; TS/Bonner duo– in turn it would give Splitter and Duncan quality minutes with one another to shore up the painted area.

  • Eric Salinas

    If you noticed I left out DeJuan Blair from that rotation and it wasn’t by accident. War Splitter and Go Spurs.

  • Eric Salinas

    Andrew, you do know that the pick and roll isn’t nearly as effective in the 4th quarter come playoff time right? The team defense from the opposition during that time of the year is zoned in and nearly always takes Bonner out of the equation by being extremely disciplined and crisp in their rotations/closeouts and all important hedges. 

    A recent example is the past game against the Celtics. Spurs had a hard time scoring in closing time. Why? Because Pop employed basically one or two versions of the pick and roll set the entire time (the pick and roll w/Bonner) — which good defensive teams laugh at (when they care to defend). Hell the Spurs only scored off broken plays in the 4th against the Celtics and I’m scared this will be an issue when the defenses of great teams are zoned with weeks to prepare. 

    This is a reason why getting Splitter more minutes and touches (yes touches) is needed. I think he’s the best post player on the team (although Duncan has picked it up in recent months) and having an option late in games where Splitter can score down low and pass out of situations when weak side defenders have their head turned or when they are doubling can be advantageous to not only the Spurs but to Parker and Ginobili because of how tired they get dealing with 50 blitzed hedges late in games in the playoffs (this predicament could have a great effect on their efficiency as well as they wouldn’t be expending so much energy every possession). 

    Just my 2 cents.


    Call Bruce Bowen! LOL

  • theghostofjh

    If your logic was followed, it would be an “accident” waiting to happen.

  • Andres

    It’s great to remind people why they can’t start together, because then you have bonner and blair of the bench. There is nothing to argue there, they just can’t start together. However, on the question of weather or not they can play together, i believe the explanation given in this interesting  article goes down the drain when you realize  that duncan and blair do play together several minutes, and blair doesn’t stretch the floor either and has basically the same qualities as splitter ( except he is shorter and can’t play solid D).  I also echo what someone said in another comment where Splitter basically plays the same type of game as Oberto ( except he is more talented). I think the only reason that Pop won’t play them together is because he now favors perimeter offense and small ball, instead of inside out offense. This is why sometimes you see a Spurs game and they go a whole quarter without feeding the post once, just playing pick and roll offense and everybody else spotting up for threes. I think that is a solid strategy if you combine it with an inside game ( let’s say 50 – 50), but the Spurs right now are 80% perimeter and 20% inside game (i am just making a personal estimate) , My fear is that this type of offense can be better suited for the regular season than playoff type defense and intensity. As much as I respect Pop, i just don’t understand why Splitter doesn’t play at least 28 minutes a game. 17 minutes against La and 11 against memphis is way to low, granted he is not the savior of all  the Spurs troubles, but common, give the big guy 28 minutes a game, he deserves it.

  • theghostofjh

    Sorry, but the team would be better by pairing TD with Blair, and Splitter with Diaw for the most part. In some match-ups, Blair can also play with Diaw (even with Splitter on occasion), and Splitter can also play with Duncan some of the time, including in close-outs, particularly against teams with great length. Bonner’s impact, particularly in the playoffs against tough defensive teams, is negligible at best.

  • Andres

    I guess what I am saying is that screw the whole TIm – Splitter argument,  Splitter is getting garbage time, i don’t care if they should play him with the Coyote, just give this guy more than 20 minutes per game!

  • theghostofjh

    You’re right about one thing: Bonner. The effectiveness of the “spacing” he provides IN THE PLAYOFFS is OVERRATED.

    The other thing you’re right about is that there’s absolutely no reason not to play Duncan & Splitter together, other than how it might effect the TEAM in terms of all of their rotations with the second unit (you think Blair should be essentially left out of these rotations, and I think Bonner should be). But these rotations don’t really matter in the closing 5-6 minutes of a game. And so I’m particularly in favor of using Duncan and Splitter during crunch time. Andrew’s example IMO is incorrect, the team would not be hurt offensively with Splitter in place of Bonner to close out games. Splitter and Duncan can switch off posting up and doing pick & rolls, and Splitter can be a constant threat on the offensive and defensive boards as well, unlike Bonner.  And the defensive advantages are significant. Bonner has an above average post-up defensive rating because the sample is small, and he typically goes up against the opposing teams worse low-post scorers. Splitter is a CLEAR upgrade over Bonner defensively.

  • theghostofjh

    I wouldn’t read too much into one game.

  • theghostofjh

    Ah, good question!

  • theghostofjh

    “If the only reason for having Matt Bonner on the floor is to stretch it, that argument has just been busted”

    Agree, that cannot be the only or main reason. It simply holds no water.

  • arnmart

    While Matt Bonner may be a proven shooter he has also proven to not be able to hit clutch shots.Tim has probably hit more 3’s within the last two minutes of an important. I would also much rather have Splitter running that pick and roll as well. As you point out Duncan cannot finish around the rim as he used to, but Tiago can. Duncan may not be able to provide 3 point spacing but he can stretch a big man outside the free throw line at least and provides superior passing to that of Bonner’s. And while crisp rotations may be fine and dandy but come crunch time whether Matt was on time in his roations or not will not stop Bynum or the Gasol’s or especially Z-Bo from putting Matt in the hoop.

  • Tess

    If we can hang on to Diaw, I’d love to see him stick long enough to figure out the system and learn to be more aggressive with his shot. He has the potential to do everything Bonner does, plus rebound, defend, pass, and handle the ball better. He could be an ideal starter for us next to Tim — the kind of player that makes everyone else wonder “wait, how did the Spurs get that guy for nothing?” But from what I’ve seen so far, he just doesn’t understand enough about the system this year to make much of an impact after the games get real.

    As far as putting Tim and Tiago in together, that’s obviously not a great option except in games where we’re battling teams with real size. It makes it harder for Tony and Manu to score, which hurts the offense all around. But the reality is that unless we find a way to make it work, we’re going to get knocked around by the Lakers and Grizz. So we should be drawing up plays and getting them minutes together to get them used to playing together.

  • pastrypride

    I agree with the article. The problem is that Bonner inevitably loses his three point shot in the playoffs. I think the spacing combined with his scoring ability makes it worth playing Bonner in the regular season. But when his threes stop falling, I’m not convinced the spacing is enough to justify playing him. At that point, I see Splitter contributing more on both ends of the court. Splitter looks to me like much more of a competitor, and his international career seems to support this. Bonner just hasn’t shown that he can contribute in the playoffs when the competition stiffens.

  • Kev

    @pastrypride & theghostofjh

    Though I understand both of your frustrations about Bonner, I fear you both are utilizing a rudimentary definition of “spacing”. In basketball terms, this is one of the more complicated and efficient ways of playing. The primary reason why Duncan and Splitter are inefficient is because they both have identical games, but one is superior on the boards and defense, while the other is mediocre. You can’t have 2 bigs whose primary shot selection is within 5 feet of the basket, if not closer. This clogs the lane up for Parker and Ginobili to effectively drive and penetrate. With Bonner, he takes a big (primary shot blocker?) out of the paint, allowing more space inside. Now the key to this is Bonner hitting open shots. Why is Bonner open? Because teams understand the dichotomy of spacing and are willing to gamble with Bonner’s 3 versus Duncan or Parker or Manu getting easy buckets in the paint. Why is this model portrayed as more efficient in the playoffs? Because one has to assume the rule of averages comes into play here, and Bonner doesn’t go cold for 4 games. Last year omitted as the exception (though the loss was not due to Bonner’s failures beyond the arc)

  • Kev

    Reading some more of the previous posts left me reminded of conversations with a few buddies of mine –

    Mentions how Bonner has attempted to open up his game with dribble-drives on what looks to be “unsuspecting” defenders. Although I’m a huge fan of evolving your game, this aspect of Bonner’s game essentially negates the reason why he is out there. I do not know the percentages, but I am confident that Bonner is less-effective at dribble-drives versus spot up 3’s, as well as his turnover ratio increasing when he puts the ball on the floor with errant passes and shot-clock violations. I personally feel Bonner would be more effective at faking the 3 as the defender closes, and dribbling to the sides to create necessary space for three-point shot, versus a fake and dribble-drive for a ill-touched floater.

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