In today's NBA, positions hold less weight than they did in previous decades. Whereas experimental lineups were saved for a select group of squads in the past, the five-man lineups that grace the hardwood today all have their own quirks and peculiarities.
Some utilize small forwards at the 4, while others feature dual-point guard sets. However, even with structural unorthodoxies trending, nearly every lineup features a man in the middle around whom the offense and defense can operate. The world champion San Antonio Spurs are no different.
Even without depth at the position, the team still trots out a duo of big men capable of providing the team with a defensive backbone and an offensive foundation. And while one player earns more time in the national spotlight, both talents give fans reasons to be optimistic about the Spurs' center situation for 2014-15.
I know, Tim Duncan is a power forward.
Historically, that's been true. Alongside big men like David Robinson and Fabricio Oberto, Duncan manned the 4 slot and earned the reputation as the greatest player that the position has ever seen.
And in 2014-15, he'll still be a power forward in a large number of the five-man rotations that San Antonio will employ. Next to Tiago Splitter—a 6'11'' defensive presence with an offensive game limited to the post—Duncan isn't the designated center. But in every other situation, the Big Fundamental will assume the center role.
At this point in his career, the 38-year-old's fundamental play is more than simply a trademark. It has become his livelihood.
He's no longer athletically capable of outmaneuvering opponents, nor is he physically dominant enough to simply bully them around inside. That said, there's a reason he's still a top post player despite the limitations brought by age.
Duncan's IQ is off the charts, and he has capitalized by perfecting the aspects of the game unaffected by declining athleticism.
While many of today's big men—take Dwight Howard, DeMarcus Cousins or Andre Drummond for example—rely on pure dominance to put points on the board, San Antonio's veteran is tactical. His array of post moves is overflowing, thanks to 17 years of experience, and his status as a legitimate mid-range threat—especially from the elbows—keeps defenses on their toes.
At his position, he's one of the best passers in the league—making him a dual threat offensively as both a scorer and a distributor.
And, of course, he's a stud defensively. He ranked fourth in defensive rating last season, behind Joakim Noah, Andrew Bogut and Paul George, and in the top 10 in defensive win shares. He finished fifth in blocks per game and sixth in defensive rebound percentage.
All while playing under 30 minutes and shouldering more years than anyone in front of him in any category.
From a simple outsider view, Duncan's window should have shut years ago.
But a closer look will reveal that the veteran has adapted with age, lessening his workload while maintaining his fundamental excellence. In 2014-15, even with monitored minutes, there's little reason to doubt his ability to return as a top-notch post player on both ends of the floor.
The vast majority of people who identify Duncan as a center and only a center are likely unfamiliar with Tiago Splitter.
That is, unfamiliar beyond the single play that made him a household name for all the wrong reasons.
But in reality, the Brazilian big man brings a lot to the table, including a skill set that allows Duncan to play the more traditional power forward role when they appear alongside each other—a frequent occurrence in 2013-14, per 82games.
Splitter's biggest impact lies on the defensive end, even if it goes vastly unnoticed.
He may not strike you as a fearsome rim protector—again, he is more often remembered as the guy getting blocked at the rim, rather than the blocker—but advanced stats show that Splitter is more than capable as an anchor.
Throughout the regular season, he held opponents to the league's fifth-lowest field-goal percentage at the rim—after weeding out players without a strong sample size—joining elite defensive company in Roy Hibbert, Larry Sanders, Robin Lopez and Serge Ibaka.
And, unlike some big men who have earned an undeserved rep as quality defensemen—his success comes from something other than solely the ability to alter shots at the rim. Splitter is a legitimately great defensive player—on the ball and off the ball—in every sense. He doesn't get caught asleep—he saves that for the offensive end—and reads opponents well. He can provide help defense when necessary, all the while handling tough assignments to lessen Duncan's burden.
So next time Splitter's name is brought up, forget his unfortunate encounter with LeBron James in the 2013 Finals. Instead remember him as the under-the-radar defensive backbone to one of the league's stronger defensive teams.
His offensive game—currently revolving around strong pick-and-roll play and a fantastic distributing ability—is still developing, and his limits on that end have prevented him from earning consistent playing time. That said, he's trending up offensively and—after a summer leading Brazil in the FIBA World Cup—he may very well make his biggest jump yet.
But even without a dynamic scoring ability, there's no denying that Splitter is a legitimate center and an ideal complement to Duncan.
He'll play an important role in the transition into the team's next era, meaning he may log more minutes without Duncan at his side in order to acclimate him to a world where he's the primary big. He may spend more time with the second unit than in previous seasons, but that's more so a reflection of the lack of depth at the position outside of the notable two, rather than a signal of any decline. But even if he loses his starting job to Boris Diaw, Splitter should see an increase in both his playing time and his role.
Even without depth at the position, San Antonio has retained its strength in the middle. And with a hard-nosed unfaltering presence valued significantly on both ends of the floor, the Spurs can rest assured knowing that, with either Duncan or Splitter—and in many cases both—on the court, they'll have the strength at the center position to compete for a championship once again.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are from Basketball-Reference.com.
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