Why playing Tiago Splitter is such a big gamble
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.