This week’s fan email comes courtesy of ZILLA, his question:
Why isn’t Tiago Splitter getting any playing time? And do you think the Spurs should add another big for the playoffs?
It may be a question originating from well off the beaten path and completely out of left field, most likely on a topic San Antonio Spurs fans couldn’t care less about (ya know, like questioning government’s role or the concerns one would have for their loved ones), but what can I say… I’m a man of the people—and I cater to the entire audience.
Well, ZILLA (if that is your real name, and why wouldn’t it be?), I believe it comes down to a few things:
Two’s Company, Three’s a crowd; Four’s Fat Guy in a Little Coat
It’s pretty common to have a 5-man rotation when it comes to your frontcourt, the fifth player usually being relegated to situational or mop-up duties. And with 48 minutes to be had at both the power forward and center positions, that’s 96 minutes a team has to allocate to its players manning the frontcourt.
Right off the bat you can subtract 30 minutes by accounting for Duncan—who’s seen his minutes decline each year since the 2005-06 campaign, starting at 34.8 minutes per game and falling to 31.3 last year (currently 28.6 MPG)—which brings you to 66 minutes. Now you’re left with the three rotation players returning from last year’s frontcourt: McDyess, Bonner and Blair.
It would be reasonable to assume the trio of McDyess, Bonner and Blair would absorb roughly 60 minutes—an estimate of 20 minutes per game for the three seems about right. That leaves the Spurs with roughly 6 minutes left to be allocated, which would likely be given to small-ball lineups (playing a swingman at the power forward position) or to players simply surpassing their would-be averages.
Suffice to say, the team’s depth of talent surpasses their pool of minutes.
Behind the 8-Ball
Tiago Splitter’s long-awaited arrival was anything but ideal. After conquering the Spanish ACB league—winning its regular-season MVP, finals MVP and championship as a member of Tau Vitoria—the injury bug hit. Following up the most successful year of his professional career, he once again suited up for the Brazilian National Team. But a few nagging injuries weren’t given the opportunity to quite heel and a new injury was picked up—Splitter sustaining a thigh injury August 8, while training with Brazil.
Once Splitter finally did arrive in San Antonio, the coaching staff decided to proceed with caution—the amount of wear and tear their new acquisition seemed to be displaying, “his body is talking to him… and we’re going to make him listen,” to paraphrase Popovich, they sought to ease him back into the swing of things.
Splitter’s worn the label of injury-prone in the past, fairly or unfairly, something the Spurs were surely aware of. And given the state of his health at the time, the fact that he’s only averaged around 50 games a season for his career and that their NBA season could potentially extend somewhere in the ballpark of 100 games, the wise move was to err on the side of caution. But that kind of wisdom subscribes to a long-term outlook, not to the benefit of an acclimation process. Transitioning to the NBA is hard enough, even under the most ideal of circumstance, something Splitter surely didn’t receive the benefit of—not after he sustained another injury in camp even after the kid-glove treatment.
And They’re Off!
So it couldn’t possibly get any worse, right? Oh… but it did (and word to the wise: it can always get worse).
The Spurs raced out to a franchise-best start and were just roll-in’. Unlike Spurs teams of recent years, where the approach was that of a slow-build and a marathon rather than a sprint, the team was looking to get out of the gates strong. They weren’t looking to mess around dropping winnable games early—Ginobili and Duncan, among others, made sure the coaches (Popovich) understood they weren’t looking to ease into the season or deal with the same type of lineup-tinkering they experienced a year ago. Playoff seeding mattered, it was just too much to expect to win two or three or four series on the road.
Horrible, right? Just horrible to see the Spurs get off to the start they did. … Well, not really. But not-all-that-great if you’re a rookie in need of playing time—game-shape and the ability to learn a system aren’t things that typically come to fruition riding the pine. McDyess looked rejuvenated, seemingly sprinting his way to the finish line of what will very likely be his final NBA season, and Matt Bonner couldn’t miss. Blair played well enough to earn the starting nod with his pre-season play, but, in truth, the Spurs likely decided on his role pretty early this past offseason—the talent was undeniable and the youth would serve the likes of Duncan and McDyess well, should he be able to eat up minutes during the long regular-season grind. And, of course, Tim Duncan is Tim Duncan.
It’s often said the NBA game is about adjustments. But the most successful adjustments are the ones you never have to make, whether it be running the same play until the opposition forces you to run something else or if it’s simply keeping continuity for the sake of chemistry, flow and cohesion. When your adjustment is to go to that same well again and again successfully, or to combat the opponents adjustments with your tried and true, those are winning moves. But winning moves in this case have been a losing proposition for Splitter—the Spurs have been building a rhythm and chemistry with their continuity, the same continuity that’s prevented Tiago from building a rhythm and confidence of his own.
In the Year 2012?
2011, it’s a year that just may not be for Tiago—or so the circumstances viewed by this coaching staff may find them suggesting (see: Hill, George). Barring some kind of injury to their frontcourt, Splitter’s opportunity may not ever truly materialize this 2010-11 campaign. And if there’s any validity to the notion that Splitter’s integration into the rotation is essential to the Spurs’ ultimate success, suggesting that they still need a big outside of those currently ahead of Tiago in the rotation (Duncan, McDyess, Bonner and Blair), one has to wonder if the team is apt to believe this rookie just isn’t ready to be that guy, play that role—maybe Tiago’s year is believed to be next year, 2012?
And that’s the kind if thinking, ZILLA, that suggests a move will inevitably have to be made—if the goal is indeed, championship.
Deal or No Deal?
But is a trade absolutely necessary? Are the Spurs destined to come up short without one? Well, that really depends on two variables: Popovich and Splitter.
This team needs the potential of Splitter when it comes time to match-up against the likes of an L.A. or Boston. So the question becomes, is the potential capable of being fulfilled? And that’s where the coach comes into play.
As of this moment, Tiago Splitter represents potential. Nothing more. But it’s potential that needs to be explored. The coaching staff has to find out what they have, what Splitter is truly capable of giving them this year, because big men don’t grow on trees—and not being able to pluck one from the NBA’s orchard doesn’t mean you’re capable of going without.
Matt Bonner is not the answer. Frankly, he shouldn’t even be involved in the question. Bonner’s a great guy and teammate, and a very useful player to provide quality depth to a team’s bench. But he’s not someone you rely upon to be a top-3 rotation big, not when a championship is your goal—your big men need to play big and those that don’t, they need to be used situationally, sparingly.
This team does have the potential to be its own answer. But if that potential never gets the opportunity to be realized or if it proves to be at least a year away?
Follow Nick Kapsis on Twitter: @Project_Kap