Ball Don't Lie

Tiago Splitter, comfortable in his ‘own house,’ is flourishing in San Antonio

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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"At center, Tiago Splitter ..." (Getty Images)

Tiago Splitter’s per game stats this season won’t blow anyone away, and his per-minute numbers actually haven’t shown that much improvement in comparison to the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. The eye test tells a different story, though. Though Tiago’s San Antonio Spurs are just as potent in this regular season in comparison to the last (the team has won 38 of its first 49 games and once again boast the best record in the NBA), Splitter seems like a better and calmer fit on these Spurs.

It could be because he’s started 27 of those 2012-13 contests, after getting the opening nod just eight times in his first two seasons. It could be because coach Gregg Popovich has dimmed the behind the scenes criticism a bit. Or it could be that Splitter, at age 28, is just confidently working through his prime. Whatever the influence, Splitter is enjoying himself, and the Spurs are grateful for his fantastic play on both ends.

From NBA.com’s Ken Rodriguez’s fantastic feature on the Spurs big man:

The difference between this season and the last two? Splitter uses an illustration to explain. After arriving from Europe, Splitter felt like an occupant in a stranger’s house. A little tight. Seldom relaxed. After two seasons adjusting, Splitter feels like he’s back in Spain. In familiar surroundings. Comfortable.

“Like when you are in your own house,” he says.

In Splitter’s house, there is a new addition. His name is Benjamin, he is 7-months-old and he attends all of daddy’s games with his mother, Amaia, Tiago’s wife. “It’s been a great experience,” Splitter says, “maybe the best thing that’s happened in my life.”

Rodriguez goes on to tout Splitter’s achievements away from the box score stats, including his work helping screen for San Antonio’s always-fascinating offense. He also touts the center for the Most Improved Player award, noting that his recent run of starts will take him out of consideration for Sixth Man.

This is where we have to go away from the box score and into a different direction. Stats that don’t show up in the daily paper.

Splitter isn’t the NBA’s most improved by a long stretch, as he remains the classic case of a player that is just responding to more minutes by playing the same way he did while working with fewer chances last season. What he is, though, is one of the league’s best centers – or power forwards, considering where you rank Tim Duncan positionally in San Antonio’s longtime twin tower/ham and egg approach.

The team plays slightly better on offense with Tiago on the court, and far better defensively with Splitter hanging around. Each of San Antonio’s most potent lineups feature Splitter on the court, and the individual stats herald the work of one of the NBA’s most underrated performers. Splitter’s turnovers have reduced drastically this season while his free throw percentage (remember, this was the guy that was sent to the line intentionally during the 2012 Western conference finals) has now shot way up to the “damn good for a center” mark of 75 percent.

He shoots 60 percent overall, and is fantastic at finishing the rare San Antonio broken play. The rebounding has dipped, but consider who he’s lining up alongside in the Spurs starting lineup. Just as it was when he seemed less confident on the court in his first two seasons, you still get the feeling watching Spurs contests that Splitter is being underutilized. That he could put up gaudier numbers if he played more than his current 23.3 minutes per contest, or was afforded more shots.

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Bow to this man (Getty Images)

It’s hard to argue against San Antonio’s sixth-ranked offense, though; a number that has shot up since Splitter was placed in the starting lineup. Let’s not overrate Splitter’s improvement, but let’s also credit the guy’s fantastic play on both ends.

And give the Spurs credit for going all Spurs-y with the guy all over again. Giving him exactly what he needed in terms of the slow and pressure-less start (a lot of us thought Splitter, an NBA rookie at age 26 with a formidable international resume would be a starter out of the gate in 2010), and how they’ve structured their off-court dealings with the 7-footer.

Splitter was thought of, for years, as a lottery-level big man that would probably go in the top five of the NBA draft were he ever to get out of his Spanish league contract. NBA teams can only offer so much in international buyouts, so teams shied away from claiming draft rights to him knowing that they would be using a high level (and appropriate) draft pick on a player that would have to pay his own way into the NBA.

The Spurs don’t care about any of this. The team was coming off of an NBA championship when it decided to draft Splitter in 2007, knowing full well that they could wait out his international contract. Of course the Spurs were the ones to do it right. Of course they’re the ones that would still be at the top of their game when Splitter came over in 2010, and working with the NBA’s best record in 2013 when Tiago Splitter of course finds his groove as one of the NBA’s top big men.

And of course the Spurs will be in the right payroll mindset this summer when Splitter takes to the NBA’s open market as a restricted free agent. Tons of teams will have cap space this summer in a new post-lockout NBA that massively rewards players for sticking with their teams, so you know some team is going to present a huge offer sheet to Splitter to be their team’s new All-Star level center; promising possibly maximum money and 35 minutes a game along the way.

San Antonio is the team that made Splitter comfortable stateside, though, and that goes a long way. And the team’s payroll setup is designed to take on a big contract for their center without hitting the luxury tax. Should Manu Ginobili and Stephen Jackson (two 2013 free agents) decide to return to the team at a reduced rate, a good hunch considering their love for all things Popovichian, San Antonio can well handle being able to keep the whole gang around. Even as it anticipates a big 2015 payday for Kawhi Leonard.

Of course they’ve mapped this out correctly. And with the best record in the NBA, you chumps. If the Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford-era San Antonio Spurs aren’t the most respectable team in NBA history, then we’ve sussed this out all incorrectly. Remember that they didn’t need territorial rights and insurance salesmen-sized contracts to do their work, as the Red Auerbach-era Boston Celtics relied upon. This front office is transcending eras and starting trends and yes oh by the way sure Tim Duncan helps.

Tiago Splitter helps, too. And it’s been great to watch.

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