Could Spurs' Pricey Deal with Boris Diaw Mean End for Tiago Splitter?

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistJuly 6, 2014

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 12: Boris Diaw #33 of the San Antonio Spurs looks to pass as Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat defends during Game Four of the 2014 NBA Finals at American Airlines Arena on June 12, 2014 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The San Antonio Spurs like keeping their talent-base intact, and that urge reasons to be all the more pressing in the wake of winning a championship.

Just days after reaching an agreement with point guard Patty Mills, Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reports that the organization is bringing another key piece back, indicating that, "Free-agent forward Boris Diaw has reached agreement on a three-year, $22.5 million contract to return to the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, league sources told Yahoo Sports."

Per Wojnarowski, "The third year of Diaw's deal is partially guaranteed, sources said. Diaw is guaranteed $18.5 million over the first two years of the deal, sources said."

The front-loaded deal preserves the franchise's long-term cap flexibility, ensuring it the opportunity to pursue premier talent when it's time for the next chapter.

Wojnarowski explains, "The deal includes protections for the Spurs' salary-cap space should the organization change direction in the next few years and move toward a rebuild after the Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili era."

All the same, this is quite the expenditure—one that just might be an indication of the club's priorities going forward.

Priorities that might not include center Tiago Splitter.

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Diaw replaced Splitter in the starting lineup for much of San Antonio's final two series against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat. In each instance, head coach Gregg Popovich first opted to start Splitter only to realize that Diaw's versatility was simply too valuable to leave on the bench.

In turn, the 32-year-old Frenchman played pivotal roles in both the conference finals and NBA Finals alike.

He averaged 13.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and three assists per game against OKC and then 6.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists against Miami. It wouldn't be an overstatement to suggest that Diaw was indispensable, and that probably had a little something to do with him cashing in on a lucrative deal this summer.

Diaw gave San Antonio something Splitter couldn't—especially when it came to ball movement. As's Matt Moore notes, "Their best lineups consistently featured Diaw."

"Implementing Diaw into the lineup has given them another point guard on the floor," LeBron James told reporters during the Finals. "So Manu (Ginobili), Tony (Parker) and Diaw and Patty Mills on the floor at once, they've got four point guards basically on the floor at once. So all of them are live and they all can make plays. So it's a challenge for us all."

Diaw made plenty of plays. And he'll be making plenty of money.

Now the question becomes whether Diaw's breakthrough (and subsequent pay raise) has any implications for Splitter.

To be sure, this is purely a matter of speculation.

San Antonio isn't quick to trade its players, especially four-year veterans who've already spent significant time learning the Spurs' system and accruing corporate knowledge. It's certainly possible that Splitter and Diaw could coexist for another season together.

Perhaps Diaw will return to the bench, this time serving as a very expensive reserve. Perhaps the organization was willing to make such an investment precisely because it valued the lineup flexibility.

But there are a few reasons to believe Splitter may soon be on the trade block.

First, he's due to make $26 million over the next three seasons. It's a deal that's just pricey enough for San Antonio to contemplate moving it, while just affordable enough that another team might take it on. Should Diaw and Splitter both remain on the roster through the 2015-16 season, they'll be taking up a pretty significant chunk of otherwise untouched cap space.

Second, San Antonio has consistently been linked to free-agent big man Pau Gasol.

DENVER, CO - March 7: Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers attempts a free throw against the Denver Nuggets on March 7, 2014 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using
Bart Young/Getty Images

Gasol has a number of suitors, but the Spurs' interest could signal that they would at least explore trading Splitter. It's awfully hard to imagine the club finding minutes for Gasol, Splitter, Diaw and Tim Duncan. San Antonio's chances to actually land Gasol may be slim, but the fact it's even interested would seemingly suggest a willingness to part ways with Splitter.

Finally, Splitter probably won't get all that much better from here on out. He's 29 years old and entering his fifth year in the league. The Splitter you see will—for the most part—be the Splitter you get. Given his limitations as a difference-maker, parting ways wouldn't be the end of the world for San Antonio.

All that said, appearances can be deceiving. 

The Spurs also have plenty of reasons to keep Splitter, namely his effectiveness in pick-and-roll situations—one of the Popovich's favorite plays to run.

And while he became less of a factor against the Thunder and Heat, Splitter was fantastic in the first round against the Dallas Mavericks. He could continue to play a crucial role against teams with bigger lineups. 

Between Splitter and Diaw, San Antonio has rare versatility, the ability to go big or small on an as-needed basis.

Chances are the franchise isn't in any rush to make a move. It can afford to take a wait-and-see approach, perhaps watching to see if Splitter continues his improvement or becomes a sparingly used and overpriced appendage.

Andy Lyons/Associated Press

Should the latter scenario come to fruition, a trade could become more likely.

Much as this team shies away from splashy moves, it's proved it has the wherewithal to do what's necessary. General manager R.C. Buford went so far as to trade away club favorite George Hill when the opportunity to acquire Kawhi Leonard presented itself.

If Splitter could net a promising young piece in return, it would be difficult for San Antonio to look the other way.

Such is life for a team that's simultaneously attempting to win another championship with almost the same exact roster while building for the future.

It's a precarious position for San Antonio. If the Spurs stubbornly retain Splitter, it could come at the expense of youth and cap space alike.

The Spurs can afford to keep Splitter and Diaw. The finances work. 

But they can't afford to pass up opportunities, especially if Splitter becomes the rotation's forgotten man.

And yes, even this oh-so-loyal franchise can be opportunistic from time to time, as evidenced by its most recent Finals MVP. That could very well mean the end of Splitter.

And the beginning of something new.


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