Why San Antonio Spurs' Tiago Splitter Is Worth His $36 Million Contract

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Why San Antonio Spurs' Tiago Splitter Is Worth His $36 Million Contract
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Tiago Splitter underachieved in the Finals, but it was only one series.

Tiago Splitter of the San Antonio Spurs had an up-and-down 2012-13 season, to say the least. 

Despite this, the 6'11" Splitter is worth every penny of his four-year, $36 million contract, which he signed earlier this month, according to ESPN. It wasn't a flashy signing and it won't have Spurs fans jittery with excitement for next season, but it was the right move. 

Why is Splitter worth $9 million, though?

Because Splitter is one of the best post defenders in the game, fits the Spurs system perfectly and there aren't many other quality big men in the league right now. 

 

Why Are Spurs Fans So Against Splitter?

Splitter had a solid regular season, taking steps forward in many statistical categories from his previous two seasons and showing a knack for defense and finishing around the rim. Then came the first round of the NBA Playoffs, where he suffered an ankle injury against the Lakers' twin towers, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.

Coming back for the next two series, his defense was invaluable in stopping the big men of the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies. Against Memphis, in particular, Splitter was able to shut down Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol all series long with his solid footwork and fundamentals on defense. 

Then came the Finals.

The Miami Heat went small-ball against the Spurs for long stretches of the series, which kept Splitter on the bench more than head coach Gregg Popovich probably would have preferred. When he did come on the floor, he was out of rhythm and was unable to make much impact on either end of the floor.

Take this play with a grain of salt—Splitter just made one wrong decision and the NBA's best player capitalized.

Of course, everyone remembers Splitter getting his dunk blocked by LeBron James in the Finals (link courtesy of YouTube) when thinking through Splitter's season, but nobody remembers him bottling up the Memphis bigs in the Western Conference Finals. 

The reason Spurs fans don't like Splitter is simple: recency bias.

Because Splitter was ineffective the most recent time they saw him play, they figure that Splitter will continue to play like that.

However, it's foolish to crucify Splitter for his last seven games of the season while forgetting how well he played in the first 93. 

 

Splitter Is A Fantastic Post Defender

We've already touched on Splitter's defensive work in the Western Conference Semifinals and Finals.  

But Splitter did that all season.

Check out this YouTube video of him defending star center Brook Lopez in a midseason game against the Brooklyn Nets

Brook Lopez was the top-scoring center (19.4 points per game) in the NBA, but Splitter was not intimidated.

On both plays, his footwork and hands are perfect. He overplays slightly to Lopez's right hand, and he keeps his hands from reaching in. Once Lopez goes, he puts his hand up to contest without leaning in to Lopez's space. 

Although Lopez does make the desperation shot in the second play, it's certainly not due to any defensive fault of Splitter. 

How's this for proof of Splitter's defensive aptitude: last season, Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol earned one defensive win share for every 517.8 minutes of playing time. Splitter was very close behind, at one defensive win share per 570.6 minutes.

So basically, you can compare Splitter to the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.

And just for kicks, here's another one: Splitter's defensive rating was ranked No. 15 in the entire NBA. Defensive rating takes into account how many points an individual would allow to the person they are guarding over 100 possessions.

Who was ranked one slot below Splitter? Three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard. 

 

Splitter Fits the Spurs' System Perfectly

San Antonio runs a high-motion offense with lots of screening action. In this offense, a big man must be a good screener. Splitter is not only a good screener, but he knows how to roll to the basket for easy points afterwards. 

Watch how he does it in this YouTube highlight:

See, Splitter did have at least one highlight from the NBA Finals.

Basically, Splitter is perfect for the current Spurs because he doesn't need the ball to be effective in the offense. Parker, Ginobili and Duncan all like to handle the ball more, and if another ball-dominant player replaced Splitter, things could get crazy. 

Many Spurs fans were hoping for the signing of center Al Jefferson before Splitter was re-signed. In fact, one fan even said the following in a Pro Sports Daily forum:

"I rather have Al than Tiago, I'm still pissed how he played in The Finals."

See what I mean about that recency bias I mentioned earlier? Fans assume that Jefferson would've given the Spurs the series win over the Heat, but in reality, he wouldn't have been any better against a small-ball lineup than Splitter was, with his 289-pound frame and plodding nature.

Back to his game, though—Jefferson is a great offensive post player (you don't want to know about his defense), but likes to have the ball in his hands a lot. 

Jefferson ended up going to the Bobcats on a three-year, $41 million deal, according to CBS Sports.

I know it's just conjecture, but I doubt Jefferson would have been as successful with the Spurs as he was with the JazzJefferson backs guys down in the post to score, while Splitter gets points out of the pick-and-roll and in the flow of the offense. 

The Spurs might have been the best team in the NBA on paper with Jefferson, but then again, so were the Lakers before last season. 

I admit that signing a big-name free agent like Jefferson, Josh Smith or Andrew Bynum could've raised the Spurs' potential. It also would've been a huge risk.

When your team is seconds away from a championship, it's best not to blow things up.

 

Skilled Big Men are Commodities

Remember the days when big guys like Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing ruled the NBA? 

Well, I was barely born, but that is beside the point. 

These guys were the best players on their respective teams, and they could score, defend, rebound, pass and pretty much do it all. Nowadays, it's all about the perimeter players who can do it all—shoot threes, pass, drive and dunk over big men and defend.

Just 10 years ago, in 2002-03, nine big men scored at least 20 points per game. Amazingly enough, only one post player (LaMarcus Aldridge) averaged more than 20 points per game in 2012-13. 

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Splitter isn't athletic, but he has big-man skills that very few centers nowadays have.

So basically, it's never been a better time to be Tiago Splitter. 

$9 million per year may seem like a lot of money for a big man that averaged 10.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game in 2012-2013, but those numbers are quite impressive for a modern big man in the sort of minutes that Splitter gets. 

Tyson Chandler, for example, will make $14.1 million in 2013-14, according to Hoops Hype. Splitter's production was surprisingly similar to Chandler's on both ends of the court. Their Player Efficiency Ratings (PER) were just 0.2 apart, in Chandler's favor, but Splitter had more defensive win shares. 

$9 million a year isn't an ideal price for Splitter, but neither is basically every other contract for any modern NBA big man. 

 

Bottom Line

Splitter is probably a better basketball player than you think. He defends the post excellently and knows how to do the little things to succeed in the Spurs' offense, even if he didn't get a fair shot at proving himself in the Finals.

Is Tiago Splitter worth $9 million per year for the Spurs?

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He might not make any significant improvements under his new contract, since he is already 28 years old and has played professional ball since age 14. Despite this, Splitter is still worth his $36 million contract.

Look for him to pair with Duncan to form one of the best post-defending pairs in the NBA yet again in 2013-14.

Oh yeah, and contend for another championship.

 

Note: All stats are compiled and calculated from Basketball Reference, unless otherwise noted

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