The narratives that accompanied the San Antonio Spurs during their successful 2012-13 campaign included Tony Parker's MVP-caliber performance, Kawhi Leonard's transition onto the fringe of stardom and Tim Duncan's visible resurgence. Overlooked, however, was the improvement of another starter, whose contributions were larger than the credit he received.
During the regular season, Tiago Splitter made the jump from a bumbling big man to a legitimate inside presence; his performance in the Western Conference Finals confirmed his status as a formidable role player.
However, despite a watershed season, Splitter's contract situation took a backseat to more mainstream news—the storyline of Tiago Splitter was once again ignored.
In 2013-14, however, he'll be thrust into the national spotlight as his performance will play a primary role in determining San Antonio's fate.
The Spurs' offseason was humdrum, at least when compared to the historically hectic team switcheroo that occurred beyond the borders of the Alamo City.
With significantly more cap space than they had enjoyed in prior years, many expected the front office to make a big-name addition. Instead, R.C. Buford used the cap room to re-sign Spurs with expired contracts; Marco Belinelli and Jeff Pendergraph were the only new acquisitions.
Among those re-signed to the Spurs' roster was Tiago Splitter, whose deal—four years, $36 million—received mixed reviews. Fortunately, he'll have the entire season to prove his worth.
His glaring improvement from 2011-12 to 2012-13 had many a Spurs fan buzzing. Instead of the awkward, soft player that fans had grown accustomed to, Splitter entered the year as a post presence on both ends. His ability to run the pick-and-roll headlined his repertoire of valuable qualities. Inconsistency and the lack of a mid-range jump shot remained his most unsettling facets.
While his improvement was welcomed, his room for growth remains substantial. If he wants to truly prove himself deserving of his contract, he'll have to continue his upward trend while capitalizing on the plethora of opportunities that will soon be available.
Tony Parker is the team's best player. He was in 2012, and barring an injury, he'll recapture that title in the upcoming campaign. Tim Duncan is another year older, but he'll enter the season in the upper echelon of NBA post players, and defenses will focus on him nearly as much as Parker. Kawhi Leonard has jumped onto everyone's radar and the future All-Star forward won't find himself open too often, especially if he matures into an elite scorer. Defenses know what to expect from Danny Green and, assuming they took notes during his NBA Finals performance, tight defense should be expected.
That leaves Splitter. Though he has proved himself to a certain extent, he'll begin the season as the team's biggest question mark in the starting lineup. The top big man will likely defend Duncan, so defense on Splitter will rarely be top-notch.
Especially if he is utilized often in the pick-and-roll, his defender will be forced to choose between remaining glued to his side, or helping to cover Parker. Assuming the defender makes the right choice, Splitter should find himself with lax coverage on several occasions.
A revamped jump-shot would be a welcomed luxury that would pay dividends to his future as a ballplayer and shooting coach Chip Engelland should target Splitter as his next big project in order to maximize the big man's talents.
However, even without a consistent jumper, Splitter's refined offensive game combined with somewhat loose defense will result in a number of golden opportunities. As long as he performs like a player deserving of his sizable contract, San Antonio will shine. The starting lineup's weakest link will have become a legitimate threat and while he emerged as one last season, continued growth would solidify his status.
With DeJuan Blair officially out of the picture there's no longer a Plan B. Duncan's minutes will be heavily monitored, and Boris Diaw is the only proven frontcourt talent off the bench. Aron Baynes has ways to go before he can be trusted with significant minutes, and Pendergraph's career in Indiana should make Gregg Popovich hesitant to give him a large role. Splitter will be the most played big man in San Antonio and the team will rely on him more heavily than in years past.
The Brazilian will find himself in positions to score numerous times and he can no longer shy away or use inconsistency as an excuse.
Parker will be the team's offensive catalyst, and Duncan will look to anchor them defensively. Coaches, players, analysts and fans all expect complete dominance from them. However, with competition in the Western Conference at an all-time high, the Spurs' non-stars need to step up if the team wants another shot at glory.
And Tiago Splitter fills the role perfectly. He may not be the team's best player but his play will put the team over the top in the upcoming season. He's secretly a better player then he's given credit for and worth every penny given to him this offseason.
Now, he has the golden opportunity to prove it.