Eight games into the San Antonio Spurs 2014-15 campaign, starting center Tiago Splitter remains sidelined with a calf injury that allowed him just 10 minutes of court time before rendering him a regular on the inactive list.
In his absence, the team has fared well. Despite a slow start, the defending champions have risen to title form and appear poised for another postseason run.
Yet, the team's winning record—they now sit at 5-3—without Splitter belies his true impact. In reality, his absence has only reinforced the notion that Spurs fans have long realized: That Splitter, whose inconsistency and offensive limitations became trademarks of his first few seasons as a Spur, has since become the team's most unsung weapon and an under-the-radar key to their success.
A History of Splitter's Value in the Public Eye
Before we can label someone as underrated—a word that's tossed around by pundits as frequently as potential or raw—we first must dissect what his rating truly is.
At the beginning of his career, Splitter was anything but polished, and his poor play left a bad taste in the mouths of many Spurs fans. Though he continued to eat minutes, it became difficult to accept his trademarked inconsistency that left him near useless on certain nights.
It was frustrating, no doubt—as was the entire search for a post partner for Tim Duncan, the franchise's aging cornerstone. Duncan—in the final stretch of his storied career—seemed to be the lone frontcourt stud in a San Antonio squad whose depth and star power was far more prevalent in the backcourt.
Nonetheless, the Spurs confidence in Splitter never swayed, and he quickly began to prove himself as a legitimate complement to Duncan in the interior. But even as his play began to pick up, there still existed a large population who remained unswayed.
Those on the fence, and those who were unfamiliar with Splitter's play altogether, quickly found themselves on the anti-Splitter bandwagon after he flopped on the national stage when San Antonio faced Miami in the 2013 NBA Finals. The big men was less than a zero for the team—he was a liability whose terrible play triggered a sharp decline in playing time as San Antonio lost control of the series.
And of course, to guarantee that his poor play was not forgotten, he found himself on the wrong end of one of the season's most replayed highlights.
Naturally, when Splitter received a four-year, $36 million deal in the offseason following his Finals flame-out, people jumped at the opportunity to spew their anti-Splitter sentiments, from small-blog writers to national presences like Bill Simmons, who threw the San Antonio big man on his list of the worst contracts in the league:
By the way, I always take it personally when San Antonio overpays someone. The Spurs are supposed to be the smartest team! Come on, R.C. Buford! You’re a role model!!! You gave $36 million to someone who couldn’t stay on the court in the 2013 Finals???? Not you, too! Why??????
That was where things hit rock bottom. Splitter slowly played his way up, but even as he continued to improve his value remained unrecognized by many.
The rapid rise of Boris Diaw from space-filler in Charlotte to one of the best backups in the entire league gave rise to a population—much of it focused in San Antonio's own fanbase—who called for Diaw to push Splitter out of the starting lineup into the rotation's third big man slot. Diaw's incredible campaign in the 2014 Finals and Splitter's decreasing role in the series only tipped the scale as people saw Diaw as the best option beside Duncan in the interior.
And that brings us to the present, where Splitter—for all his good play—remains unrecognized by many outside the walls of the Spurs organization.
Even with public perception of Splitter consistently lower than it should be, the Brazilian big man has not only continued to prove himself as a solid player to those willing to watch, but he's fallen into a role that makes him the most important role player on the entire team.
What Splitter Truly Brings to the Table
Going into the 2013 series against Miami, Splitter was on the heels of a dynamic four-game outing against the Memphis Grizzlies. Of course, the Finals draw a significantly larger audience than the Western Conference Finals, and Splitter's effort, particularly on the defensive end where he played a principal role in containing one of the league's best frontcourts, was either ignored or forgotten.
People began to cast him in a negative light—despite a season-long trend in the right direction—after watching him play for the first time against the Heat. A large portion of that group likely never watched him in-depth ever again.
But Splitter, following a fantastic 2012-13 regular season, made another jump in 2013-14—one that went largely unnoticed by stat-scrutinizers and highlight-watchers.
On the offensive end, Splitter still has work to do, no doubt. But he's made significant strides from his rookie and sophomore seasons. Characteristic of the stereotypical Spur, he has morphed into a fantastic passer for his position.
He has also refined his play in the post, where he has become a reliable source of scoring with a growing repertoire.
Yet, his impact on that end is hardly what makes him so great—after all, basic stats—even if they don't show the nuances: pick up on offensive production.
Rather, Splitter has become a defensive linchpin—something that he proved last year when he consistently drew the most difficult interior matchup despite the presence of Duncan, who has historically been an anchor himself.
And now, in his absence, Splitter's impact on that end has manifested itself completely—and his value to the team has never been more clear.
Going into the summer, I was convinced that San Antonio was going to target another center. Duncan's health needed to be preserved—plenty of rest games were to be expected—and Aron Baynes, though improving, had not yet proved that he can be a nightly rotation player.
Yet, the team brought back its roster from last season, despite an expected decline in Duncan's visibility during the regular season.
In doing so, Splitter's importance was boosted twofold, perhaps even threefold.
And his absence this year, which has left Duncan and Baynes as the only players above 6'11'', has only made that increasingly clearer.
Duncan is still Duncan, even with a slow start. When he's on the court, there's little reason to worry. But the fact of the matter is, his playing time is setting itself up to be extremely limited this season.
We saw coach Gregg Popovich sit him against the Houston Rockets in the second half of a doubleheader and it would hardly come as a shock if he sits him against the Sacramento Kings (Nov. 15) or the Philadelphia 76ers (Nov. 17) with the team currently in the midst of a four-in-six-nights stretch that doesn't bode well for aging veterans.
And as seen in the game against Houston, where Baynes was the only center available to match up with Dwight Howard, the results without Splitter or Duncan on the court are disastrous. Howard went for 32 points and 16 rebounds as Houston marched by San Antonio with ease.
Looking at what happened that night, and forecasting plenty of other instances throughout the season in which Duncan is given the night off, it's easy to see why Splitter's importance to the team this season is unrivaled by any other player not seen as part of the core.
Not only has he proven himself as a legitimate talent, but he fills a role that nobody else on the roster consistently can.
When it comes to scoring, the Spurs have a host of talents capable of leaving their mark. There's no shortage of distributors either, and even perimeter defenders come with an increased frequency with Cory Joseph playing big minutes on a nightly basis.
But when it comes to anchoring the team in the post—on both ends—the crop ends at Duncan and Splitter. With Duncan's health of prime importance, it's integral that he can receive proper rest and not be pitted against the opposition's best post player every minute that he's in. The Spurs need to rely on someone else to do the dirty work.
In a manner that nobody else—and I mean, nobody else—can, Splitter has the means to fill that capacity. He has shown that he is capable of making an impact, and with his role boosting his importance, Splitter—for all the obstacles that has faced—will return from injury as a savior of sorts with tools rivaled by few on the roster, and a role that will make him a key to the Spurs' 2014-15 success as they look to defend the title.