Why playing Tiago Splitter is such a big gamble

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From the outset of the series, Spurs fan called on Gregg Popovich to give Tiago Splitter minutes. Pop took the conservative route and only inserted Splitter into the lineup when the Spurs appeared broken and on the brink of elimination. This came with mixed results and mixed reviews.

Graydon Gordian saw Splitter’s Game 4 appearance, his first of the series, as a worrisome sign of desperation:

When Popovich starts buckling to the pressure to make major rotation changes part way through a series, it isn’t an example of the flexibility Spurs fans have long sought-after. (A flexibility which actually exists in spades and the absence of which has far more to do with our own blind spots than any stubbornness we perceive in Popovich.) It’s a sign that he no longer believes the players who have carried the team to this point have the ability to win on their own. It’s an act of desperation. It’s a decision made with the hope that an unexpected player will have a meteoric moment, and instead of falling prey to a Darrell Arthur or a Goran Dragic, the Spurs will miraculously possess one of their own.

Splitter’s Game 4 appearance was remarkably good and bad. He gave the Spurs a lift in the first half, but he was also part of a group that fall apart in the third quarter. Throughout the season, Mark Haubner (The Painted Area) and I have exchanged notes on Splitter’s progress. Splitter is something of a hobby horse for both of us. Haubs was convinced — I share his sentiment — that the Spurs would need Splitter to advance in the postseason.

Haubs contended the Spurs needed Splitter’s size and defensive ability to match up against the league’s elite teams. No arguments from me. But after seeing Splitter play in Game 4, Haubs sent a note that simply read, “…so much for that Duncan-Splitter lineup – yikes! I was actually surprised Pop didn’t pull the plug on that one sooner than he did. Where have the corner 3s gone?”

But Pop stuck to his guns and Splitter once again saw court time in Game 5. Consequently, DeJuan Blair received his first DNP-CD of the season. Blair’s minutes had dwindled since Game 1 (22 minutes, 13, 10, 6, DNP-CD). And, as Andrew McNeill has demonstrated, Splitter certainly contributed to the Spurs’ amazing Game 5 victory.

Getting to the point: playing Splitter is an incredibly daring move by the typically conservative Popovich.

Some would say it is a move that Popovich should have made in January, and I’m inclined to think that’s true. But that’s not the point I’m trying to make with this post.

DeJuan Blair played in 81 games this season (missing one due to injury). Blair was a starter in 65 of those 81 games. He wasn’t a marginal contributor to the Spurs’ regular season success. Blair was a rotation staple.

On the other hand, Tiago Splitter did not see the court very often. He played in 60 games, but that number doesn’t really account for his many appearences at the end of blowouts. Filter out the garbage time and his minutes were far more modest. Splitter was at the end of the bench. Essentially, he was never a part of San Antonio’s rotation, save for a short stint of games when he substituted for an injured Tim Duncan. He averaged 12 minutes a game, but in terms of meaningful minutes, Splitter was a marginal contributor.

Let’s put this differently: Gregg Popovich paired Splitter with Tim Duncan for vital stretches of Game 4 and 5. Now have a look at San Antonio’s regular season team units.The two players almost never shared court time together. Ever. Think about that.

Popovich’s decision to play Duncan and Splitter together is not a matter of a small tweak to the rotation. It is, rather, a completely new wrinkle to the rotation. It’s a bold move. One that most coaches wouldn’t attempt with the season on the line.

Give Popovich credit. He’s a stubborn old man, but he’s not afraid to let everything ride on a big risk.

  • Jeremiah

    Eh. I love Pop. But it wouldn’t have been such a big risk if he had tried doing this when earlier in the season when Splitter was healthy.

  • NYC

    I would like to give props to Pop, but I agree with Jeremiah that this didn’t have to be such a bold move if he tried it earlier in the season. As you say, January would have been nice. I agree with Graydon that desperation forced Popovich’s hand on this one.

  • Rob

    A gamble it may be. But you hit it on the nail when you wrote.

    “The two players almost never shared court time together. Ever. Think about that.”

    That’s the gamble. Yet one I think has already proven more favorable than the Bonner/Blair combo. Which had several weeks to develop but never successfully matured. While granted the first time pairing of Duncan/Splitter lead to expected difficulty because they never played at the same time…I can see the combination of the two once more comfortable and understanding in each others role to being a significant front court duo against other teams that have strong post presence.

    Teams would have to respect Timmy’s jump shot range thus setting up a long overdue Hi/Lo situation much like Duncan and Robinson used to play. Not to mention two seven footers clogging the lanes will help the perimeter defenders of having to not chase so much.

  • Bob

    I think Pop was trying not to hurt Bonner/Blair’s feelings. You have to make the best decision for the team. You can’t be worried about players sulking. He should have simply said this guy can really help our team and I’m playing him. We see know Blair’s the guy who likely would have been squeezed if he had tried this during the season. He’s also the person who would have the hardest time dealing with a demotion. I think Bonner’s role should have been reduced as well.

  • manufan

    It’s good that Splitter is playing but wrong guy is on the bench. Blair should get some minutes at expense of Matt Bonner. And also RJ does not deserve minutes he’s getting. Hey Pop, throw some Danny Green in there, what the hell. He can’t be any worse than Dick Jefferson is.

  • manufan

    It’s good that Splitter is playing but wrong guy is on the bench. Blair should get some minutes at expense of Matt Bonner. And also RJ does not deserve minutes he’s getting. Hey Pop, throw some Danny Green in there, what the hell. He can’t be any worse than Dick Jefferson is.

  • manufan

    It’s good that Splitter is playing but wrong guy is on the bench. Blair should get some minutes at expense of Matt Bonner. And also RJ does not deserve minutes he’s getting. Hey Pop, throw some Danny Green in there, what the hell. He can’t be any worse than Dick Jefferson is.

  • Bruno

    Is not bigger than playing Bonner

  • 48 Minutes of Bacon

    Great writing as always. I have to agree with above posters that the only reason playing Splitter was a gamble was that we are in such a deep hole. It has nothing to do with his ability to mesh or adapt. I think the benefits of Splitter’s growing minutes far outweigh the risk, especially compared to the absolutely horrid job Bonner has done on both sides of the ball. The spacing argument is really starting to lose weight when you consider how poorly weve been shooting/defending when Bonner is on the court. At this point in the series where each game except for one has been decided by a crucial 2 or 3 points Id rather have a mobile big like Splitter or even Blair in there to attack the basket and draw a foul, and get easy pts. on the line rather than Bonner camped out on the 3 point line, bricking a shot, and then getting beat on defense on the return trip. Just my opinion though. I love Bonner as a human being, hell we have the same favorite band, but as a basketball player he is hurting more than he is helping right now.

    I don’t know how I feel about Bonner being paired with Splitter. It forces Splitter to far from the basket on defense when he has to guard Z Bo. Id like to see him and Dice on the floor at the same time, but that would be asking a lot of minutes from Dice in a series where is already working his ass off. I guess Splitter/Bonner it is. Unless Pop wants to gamble on a Splitter/Blair line up when Memphis goes small with Arthur at the 4.

    Last night’s victory though incredible was not without its troubling stats. Tim scoring 11 in the 1st then 2 the rest of the way. I think Pop waited too long to get our strongest lineup back in the game in the second quarter. Tony had eight assists at the half and only one the rest of the game. Our defense in the 3rd was atrocious, they killed us with the pick and roll. Our execution was once again spotty, a lot of turnovers with Ginobili insisting on passing across the court for some reason. Jefferson showed some aggression early getting to the hoop but then faded away. A lot of work to do but if on Friday they play like they did in OT, particularly on D then this series will be a brand new monster.

  • 48 Minutes of Bacon

    Yes Spitter is a terrible FT shooter but I have to say he is probably shooting a higher %FTs than Bonner is 3s

  • Chris

    Jefferson is killing us. Too slow to react on D, not aggressive enough, you name it. I would love to see Neal get more of his minutes – but then you risk Battier killing us in the post.

  • Mike

    Bonner is shooting 27% 3s, Splitter is shooting 0% free throws… so, no.

  • Mike

    Bonner was the best 3 point shooter in the league.

  • Mike

    Blair better grow 4 inches or get a jump shot in 2 days if you expect that to happen.

  • judd

    at times, the ginobili or hill pick and roll with splitter looks unstoppable. manu obviously believes in it effectivness. run it!

  • Xicano47

    I think all of us who have been yammering for Pop to play Splitter have been doing so ALL SEASON LONG, not just in the playoffs. I commend him for finally giving in but also can’t help but be pissed that he didn’t do it during the season to work out kinks. When he played TD and TS in game 4, I thought the biggest problem was not that the two didn’t quite know what to do but that the other guys didn’t. It just led to confusion, turnovers, stagnant offense and, of course, a brutal loss. All we need to know that the combo can work is look at the other end of the floor where Randolph and Gasol, neither of whom has much of an outside game, are killing us. And, yes, the decision on the Jefferson experiment is in … it sucked. But let’s look at the bright side, we ain’t dead yet, Splitter is getting some playing time and showing all us bloggers and posters to be not completely stupid, and hope springs eternal … or at least for another 24 hours or so.

  • td4life

    Exactly. I don’t think we can label a completely obvious and NECESSARY move made SEVERAL months too late “an incredibly daring move.” Some of us were lauding the usefulness of Tiago’s PnR offense, and his length and positional effectiveness on defense, during the first road trip of the season… he should have been given every chance to develop chemistry and NBA officiating throughout the season along with, and even ahead of, Blair. Would it have made us true contenders with this roster? Probably not, but it was the best move to be made with this group of guys on the payroll.

    We can’t mistake Pop’s season long bone-headedness for sudden creative daring.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joseph-Dooley/9203055 Joseph Dooley

    Popovich has never been afraid to gamble in big situations. He trusts his players to do what he knows they can do.

  • Anonymous

    Can’t really play Neal for long period of time unless it’s against Conley or maybe Mayo. Neal despite his great shot played pretty poorly last night. If memory serves he gave up two or three ‘+1s’ because of late rotations but making that shot sure makes up for them

  • Lvmainman

    My sentiments exactly. Crediting Pop for finally doing the obvious is not bold.

  • Therealkman

    Now that Pop is comfortable enough to give Tiago PT, I wish he would do the right thing and send Bonner to the end of the bench (atleast in this series) and play Blair at PF alongside Tiago. While neither is a threat offensively; playing them with a combination of Hill, Manu or Parker should produce a unit that is offensively sound and more importantly, tanacious on the boards which is the key ingredient when going against Gasol and Randolph.

  • Mike

    Yes, season long bone-headedness after going 61 and 13 before Duncan got hurt…

    Teams would be lucky to have a coach so stupid

  • Lvmainman

    A 26.7% 3pt shooter in this year’s playoffs does not a best shooter in the league make.

  • Mike

    Bob wasn’t talking about the playoffs.

  • Werdb

    I for one have wanted to see Splitter play all year, but I also realize what that means. It’s a fundamental change in the type of game Duncan plays and consequently a huge change to the entire offense.
    At this point I tend to think Duncan becomes the spacer with Splitter the low post guy, problem is Spitter isn’t the weapon Duncan was in his prime. This means teams can still cheat off him a bit down low and create spacing problems. I would love to see Duncan go back to the pure 4 and Splitter take the 5 role, but I don’t think Splitter is quite there yet, not enough time in the system and a too steep learning curve. Just ask McD.

  • Mark B

    The way Splitter was being used in game 5, as Duncan’s backup, seems to be working fine. Of course, the offense is different with Splitter in instead of Duncan, but it’s still something the other players can handle. The big problem with playing Splitter and Duncan in the same lineup is that they don’t have any experience playing together, and there isn’t any communication. The few minutes they were together in game 4, Memphis practically ran away with the game.

  • Mark B

    And I kind of hope Blair doesn’t go into a funk because he’s been relegated to DNP-CD. If the Spurs make it the next round, he’s going to need to be ready to play. The reason he’s been out has been matchups. He matches up a lot better against OKC than he does against Memphis.

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  • junierizzle

    Of course playing TIAGO was out of desperation. But it didn’t have to be. I don’t know why POP didn’t acclimate him into the rotation after he took over for TD. I’m not saying if TIAGO had been playing since March that the SPURS would be the ones up 3-2. But at the very least POP could have tried out TD and TIAGO together weeks ago.

  • Bob

    They will eventually be good together both offensively and defensively. It’s worked out well for the Lakers with Bynum and Gasol. In fact the main reason people think they can win it all. I don’t know why Pop never tried it. If they had played I think alot of people would have liked the Spurs chances better.

  • Bob

    I agree Bonner’s minutes should definitely go down. I don’t understand how a guy who can only shoot doesn’t hustle more. He should have several floor burns each game. I remember a game against the Suns when he was playing with Splitter and was really hustling and moving without the ball. If he did that more he could really help the team. It’s too easy to take him out of the game now.

  • http://www.nba.com/spurs/?tmd=1 TheRealDirtyP1

    Chasing home court advantage kept them from putting meaningful rotations together during the regular season, and that’s why they’re having problems. I’d much rather have fallen to 2 or 3 than to be in the spot we’re in with broken rotations right now.

  • Bob

    I think it’s relevant because if Bonner’s not going to play like in the playoffs there was no point doing that during the regular season. It’s hard to change the way you play when the playoffs start. Bonner’s leading the league in 3pt percentage was fool’s gold. He doesn’t have a quick release or hit them when they count. Neal is clearly a better 3 pt shooter. Bonner may be the best at unguarded no pressure 3 pt shoots.

  • Bob

    Mike how useful is that record right now. The record means nothing if you are not playing a style of play that will work in the playoffs.

  • Rob

    Randolph has a great outside game.

  • Rob

    Duncan is a good passer. So is Tiago. Problem is they haven’t had enough time on the court together to manifest a reliable play.

  • Mark B

    I have no doubt you’re correct, Bob, with the key word being eventually. Can they make it work during this year’s playoff run? Unfortunately, they have to win Friday to find out. And Sunday … etc. Because they are on such a thin edge, it’s going to be hard to deal with the learning curve, if any.

  • Bruno

    Top 10 PER in playoffs with 2 Spurs: Splitter #7 and Manu #9

  • DorieStreet

    Many fans weighing in about not giving Splitter the court time to learn the system, develop chemistry and acclimate to the NBA (officials, rules, etc.).
    I’m going back further; it’s not a season of stubborness/boneheadness- it is SEASONS, as in 3.
    The Spurs drafted the guy 4 years ago come this June. Why did the franchise let him waste (IMO) prime years in his basketball career continually playing internationally. Was it helping prepare for his game here? No. (Did the scouts forsee his shortcomings in the NBA game and worked with him during those 3 years to help his transition once he came over?).And if was a contractual thing that delayed his getting here, the FO should have gotten that worked out with his international team(s) right at draft time or immediately after (see Luis Scola).
    Even if the Spurs could have shaved one year off of this wait, and Splitter was with the team for 2009-10, where would his game be now–and the Spurs?

  • Rob

    Tiago was under contract in Europe. The Spurs had nothing to do with his coming over 4 years later. Tiago chose to stay in Europe until this past summer.

  • DorieStreet

    I know he was under contract–the point is –why draft him that year if he can’t, or WON’T –as you say– play for us the very next season? We went through the same thing with Luis Scola (and Ian Mahinmi).
    You draft a player late June, he should be in your city in the next day or so for a presser, then on to summer league, some pre-camp September training, then October camp & preseason; not continue playing for someone else.
    This is one practice the Spurs FO should discontinue ASAP. Ryan Richards (drafted 2nd round 2010 draft) should be in summer league 2 months from now to see if he can cut the mustard as a Spur for the next season–lockout or no lockout.

  • TD BestEVER

    I agree….Gasol was drafted 14 picks behind Splitter……..And he played year one………Also we could have had them both……..It’s not like anyone else was gonna draft Splitter and wait 3 years for him……….Bad move by our FO……….

  • Rob

    You could be right…but who was there at that time who would have made a more immediate impact? I don’t know. Do you or anybody else have the list of who was available at that time that has made or is a major player for the team they play on now?

    I’m talking about post players at that time.

  • Colin Rigney

    Good write up. Wishing that Splitter played earlier in the season is something we already know and I bet Pop is probably kicking himself for it now.

    I think how we use him from here forward is more art than science.

  • Mark B

    Just a guess, but some of those players would have been drafted higher had they been available for immediate signing, and the Spurs never would have the chance of getting them. Who would you rather have, a guy who can have significant impact a few years from now after he develops overseas, or some guy who is available now but won’t make the team? I think it’s obvious.

    The fact that the Spurs were willing to draft guys who weren’t available right away means they are taking a long term approach towards sustained winning. Very few franchises are stable enough to take that kind of long view.

  • Mark B

    BTW, I heard that Tiago took a pay cut to join the Spurs. It took some kind of sales job to get him to come to the NBA this year.

  • Mark B

    BTW, I heard that Tiago took a pay cut to join the Spurs. It took some kind of sales job to get him to come to the NBA this year.

  • Mark B

    Well, OK, if Pau was available, I’d take him over Splitter in a second … no wait … Pau was drafted a lot of years before Tiago …

    Oh, you mean Marc. I’d rather have Tiago than Marc, although the younger Gasol has picked up his game a lot in the last couple of years. Who could have known that he would get into shape and get so much better.

  • Rob

    His window of opportunity to make an impact in the nba had a lot to do with that decision…but a good decision at that.

  • TD BestEVER

    But we COULDN’T get Tiago right away……..So why not get Gasol and START working with him loosing weight…………The point is we have been stashing players for later on when we need HELP NOW…….and whoever can provide the help now should be picked….WE could have waited a year or so and drafted Splitter……..again, not many teams would draft him and wait that long so he would have still been available