The San Antonio Spurs develop role players as well as any organization in the NBA, and on Tuesday they locked up one of those success stories to a long-term deal. As reported by Yahoo!'s own Adrian Wojnarowski, the Spurs agreed to terms with center Tiago Splitter on a four-year, $36-million deal that will keep him under contract through the 2016-2017 season. Now, as with most every announcement this week, we must decide if all that money is worth it.
[Related: Manu Ginobili, Spurs agree on two-year deal]
At first glance, this may seem like a lot of cash to throw out for a player who managed only 20.4 minutes per game during the Spurs' recent run to Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Yet, while it could have made more sense to wait around for an offer and match when necessary, this contract is also the going rate for players of Splitter's caliber. As Rob Mahoney explains at The Point Forward, Splitter is an intelligent defender capable of carrying out San Antonio's defensive concepts in a myriad of situations. He doesn't do anything spectacular, but he does play angles well and force offensive players into uncomfortable situations. That makes him an excellent fit in the Spurs' defense, which often resembles a form of triage in which the team takes away the opponent's best options and gives them a less ideal path to scoring points.
This ability speaks to another rationale behind the move: that Splitter, who's only ever known San Antonio as an NBA player, allows the Spurs to pick up where they left off this spring next season. Assuming that they are able to retain free agents Manu Ginobili and Gary Neal, the Spurs can return next fall with roughly the same team that took the Miami Heat to the brink, give or take a few secondary players and the usual improvements and depreciations associated with players of various ages. Splitter knows how to play next to Tim Duncan in the middle, understands his role, and gets the Spurs' working philosophies. If the Spurs have a rapidly closing window with Duncan, Ginobili, and Tony Parker all aging, then it makes sense to minimize risk and take away any complicating variables. Bringing back Splitter for perhaps a little more money than absolutely necessary obviates many of those questions.
The potential pitfall of this deal is that the Spurs' situation is likely to have changed dramatically by 2017. Although the emergence of Kawhi Leonard suggests new possibilities for the franchise's future, it's still the case that they're built to challenge for a title only as long as Duncan stays near the top of the league's big- man hierarchy. With a $10 million player option for the 2014-15 season (also the last year of Parker's contract), Duncan may opt to play only two more years.
Simply put, Splitter becomes a lot less valuable without Duncan. As we learned throughout the postseason, he does not necessarily have the mobility to anchor a defense by himself, shows a paucity of post moves, and isn't always the strongest finisher. Under those circumstances, this deal looks a lot worse. If the Spurs enter a rebuilding period after 2014-15, then this contract could keep them from exercising full financial flexibility at a time when they'll need it.
This is not to say that the extension is a mistake. San Antonio has an opportunity over (at least) the next two years that few teams ever get, and it makes sense to maximize that chance while they can. It's just a peculiar wrinkle of free-agent contracts in a league where teams hardly ever have all key deals come off the books at the same time. By virtue of his role on a contending club, Splitter could be a bargain and an albatross within the same four-season period. For the Spurs, that's merely one risk of trying to win a title.
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