The San Antonio Spurs pushed the Miami Heat to seven games in the 2013 NBA Finals but were unable to eliminate the defending champions. Summer had come without a championship for the organization, just as it had for the other 28 teams in the NBA who watched "Three," "King James" and Chris Bosh parade through the streets of Miami once again.
The Spurs had decisions to make after coming so close to claiming the Larry O'Brien as their own. Could they keep Manu Ginobili on board? Were Gary Neal's spontaneous outbursts of three-point shooting worth spending salary cap on? Is Tiago Splitter good enough to fit within their budget? In the end, Ginobili stayed, Neal left and Splitter fetched himself a four-year, $36 million contract to play beside Tim Duncan.
Is that too high a price tag for a player who averaged 10.3 points and 6.4 rebounds in 24.7 minutes per game and was rendered useless in the Finals?
No, at least not if you look beyond those numbers. Splitter's game doesn't lend itself to attention-grabbing production, but he was an important piece of the Spurs' run to the Finals.
His mobility on defense alone could be cited as why he's so useful for a team that otherwise has 37-year-old Tim Duncan to rely on as their anchor. It's one of the reasons why Gregg Popovich sat Duncan during late-game stretches against the Golden State Warriors. It's one of the reasons why Pop sat Duncan during the following "clutch" play in an elimination game against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Memphis is down five with 29.7 seconds left in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals and are inbounding the ball. Duncan is on the bench; Splitter is not. Marc Gasol sets an off-ball screen for Jerryd Bayless to curl around while they inbound the ball to Mike Conley at the top of the arc:
Splitter rotates to the perimeter and stops Bayless from having an open shot on the wing. Bayless then tries to take Splitter off the dribble, but Tiago stays with him and doesn't foul when he blocks the layup attempt:
Video of the play:
Splitter is also an overlooked passer. He averaged just 1.6 assists per game last season, but that isn't reflective of his ability to move the rock.
Here, the Spurs pass to Splitter, the trailer big man, in transition. He sets his feet at the top of the arc while Tony Parker slides between defenders off-ball:
Randolph doesn't crowd Splitter on the perimeter because he isn't a three-point shooter, so Splitter zips a ridiculously precise bounce pass between both Randolph and Tony Allen while leading Parker to the rim.
Video of the play:
Every assist looks the same on paper. Few big men can make that type of pass from the perimeter.
Still, it's hard to find a place for a big man who could only toss around a few fancy passes on offense. That's not Spilitter. He's even more effective finishing in pick-and-rolls, averaging 1.25 points per possession as a roll-man, good for 15th in the league, according to Synergy Sports Technology. He completed 114 of his 172 attempts (66 percent) in this category.
Here, Splitter sets a screen for Manu Ginobili at the top of the arc. Andrew Bogut sits back to contain Ginobili's dribble penetration:
Ginobili squeezes a bounce pass between both defenders, a difficult pass for a big man to catch. However, Splitter is able to gather to pass in traffic while in stride and finishes easily with a one-handed dunk:
Video of the play:
Splitter is a great target out of the pick-and-roll for a few reasons:
1. He has great hands and is able to catch passes, whether they're on-target and to his chest, over his head or down by his legs:
2. He opens his chest toward the ball-handler and raises his hands, giving them a large target to hit:
3. He's mobile enough to be a threat as a roll man after setting screens from beyond the arc, using long strides and his wingspan to finish after the catch without dribbling:
The pick-and-roll is the bread and butter of the Spurs' offense. Over twenty-three percent of their total possessions were finished via a pick and roll, according to Synergy Sports Technology. Splitter was their best finisher, so it makes sense that they valued him so highly. Here's a mix highlighting his ability as a pick-and-roll finisher. The qualities listed above are on full display:
Centers in the league often have to be more than simple rim protectors in the NBA. They have to be able to switch in pick-and-rolls and slide from beyond the arc to the basket. Splitter may not be as much of a game-changer in this area as the league's very best defenders, but he's very good. Good enough that Popovich trusted him to make enough of an impact to warrant benching Duncan for critical defensive plays.
Partner that with his well-rounded offensive abilities and elite pick-and-roll finishing, and the sum of Splitter's game is superior to numbers in a box score.