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Aron Baynes or Tiago Splitter, Who Should Be Spurs' Starter to Finish Season?

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2015

San Antonio Spurs' Tiago Splitter (22) reacts to a call during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Charlotte Hornets  in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015. The Spurs won 98-93. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Aron Baynes stepped in for Tiago Splitter when the San Antonio Spurs' starting center sustained a calf injury during the first month of the 2014-15 regular season.

Once the defensive specialist healed, Gregg Popovich eased Splitter back into the rotation, giving the Brazilian plenty of time to readjust to the NBA grind.

But mere days before March, Splitter still hasn't reached the level to which San Antonio expected him to return. Consequently, Pop has utilized Baynes in the starting lineup during seven of the last eight games.

Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News notes "Popovich said he wasn't sure if Baynes would remain the starter for the rest of the season, or if Splitter would garner another look."

Moving forward, which center should San Antonio send out for the opening tip?

The Case for Baynes

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Without a doubt, Baynes has put together the most effective NBA season of his brief career. The 6'10", 260-pound specimen has compiled career-best marks of 6.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, 54.8 percent shooting, a 110 offensive rating and a 103 defensive clip.

As a starter, he's tallied 9.7 points and 6.4 boards per outing, and the Spurs know exactly what they're getting from Baynes on a nightly basis: effort and physicality.

"He looks like a big block of concrete," Popovich said, per McDonald. "You say, 'This is not a basketball player.' But upon closer inspection, he has some skills."

Now, an important distinction must be made when arguing in favor of Baynes. This conversation is only happening because Splitter has underperformed this year. Said Popovich, "He hasn't played well."

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It must be said: Aron Baynes has been playing better than Tiago Splitter this season.

Opponents have managed a meager 100.5 offensive rating when Baynes is on the floor. In comparison, Splitter—whose defense is ordinarily his forte—has allowed a 103.1 clip.

"I know what I'm out there [for] first and foremost is defense," Baynes said.

But that doesn't mean his offensive contributions are irrelevant.

Tim Duncan has basically abandoned his free-throw-line jumper, and Splitter has only attempted five shots outside of nine feet. In turn, that's created spacing issues and hasn't aided Tony Parker's struggles in the lane, either.

Conversely, Baynes has knocked down 18 of 44 attempts outside the same distance, including a 10-of-21 mark between 15 and 19 feet, per NBA.com. The third-year pro could be a sneaky pick-and-pop option, though he's only attempted 0.9 shots from 10 feet or farther per game.

Baynes isn't a premier post player, but right now, he's the most consistent center San Antonio has to utilize alongside Duncan.

The Case for Splitter

PORTLAND, OR - FEBRUARY 25: Tiago Splitter #22 of the San Antonio Spurs shoots against the Portland Trail Blazers on February 25, 2015 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Late in the first quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers on Feb. 25, Splitter resembled the 2013-14 version of himself.

He set a perfect screen for Manu Ginobili, then rolled to the rim, gained position and grabbed an offensive rebound. Splitter kicked it out, scurried to the arc and set another pick, which led to an easy bucket.

No, that sequence certainly isn't a Splitter exclusive. Baynes has improved in that regard throughout the year, but he'd still be hard-pressed to match the pair of screens Splitter set with similar body control.

But the biggest problem is that though "old Tiago" flashes an appearance or two, the former version hasn't been consistently displayed. That offensive series was the only time Splitter looked comfortable in the team's go-to offensive set against Portland.

"I'm not sure where the Splitter pick-and-roll has gone," ESPN's Matthew Tynan said, "but this dude seems so out of rhythm with the offense. With everything, really."

His defense hasn't been up to par with past seasons, most clearly evidenced by a porous 60.6 opponent field-goal percentage allowed within six feet of the rim, per NBA.com. In 2013-14, the 6'11", 232-pounder surrendered just 47.3.

If he's stuck grinding in the second unit, however, can Splitter revert to his prior form? Call it a subjective notion, but a starting lineup with Baynes over Splitter doesn't spell championship for San Antonio.

Even with the entire roster healthy for the first time all year, the Spurs have only compiled a 4-5 record since that first full-strength showing on Feb. 4. In other words, it can't get much worse.

San Antonio is nowhere near championship form, and Splitter is a key component in reaching that level. He's not necessarily being wasted as a reserve, but that's simply not Splitter's most effective role.

Verdict

SACRAMENTO, CA - NOVEMBER 15: Aron Baynes #16 of the San Antonio Spurs stands on the court during the game against the Sacramento Kings on November 15, 2014 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agre
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

At its current levels of production, Baynes gives San Antonio a better chance to win than Splitter does. For now, Popovich should continue tabbing the powerful center until his counterpart finds his rhythm.

With that being said, it need not be a permanent decision. The Spurs' best chance to make noise in the postseason comes with Splitter in the starting lineup with Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Duncan.

San Antonio's reserve unit plays at a faster pace than the starters, which suits Baynes more than Splitter, who isn't the fleetest of foot.

Additionally, should Duncan start taking more 18-footers, Splitter will once again fit seamlessly in the starting lineup. Duncan buried all four jumpers from that range against Portland, according to NBA.com, so it's not like he's lost the touch.

The Spurs have problems in numerous other areas, too. Their starting center certainly isn't the No. 1 issue that must be resolved before the postseason.

But just because it's not the top priority doesn't mean San Antonio should ignore the dilemma. Without improvement from Splitter and an efficient transition by Baynes into the second unit, the Spurs will have yet another obstacle standing in their way of repeating as NBA champions.

Unless otherwise noted, stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of Feb. 25.

Follow Bleacher Report NBA writer David Kenyon on Twitter: @Kenyon19_BR.

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