Could Tiago Splitter become this season’s George Hill?

The San Antonio Spurs have a slight problem.  It’s a problem that didn’t completely rear its head until the Western Conference Finals, but once we saw it we couldn’t get rid of it.  When Tim Duncan wasn’t in the basketball game, the San Antonio Spurs couldn’t protect the paint and their overall defense went to Hell in a hand basket. Don’t believe me? Check out the Thunder’s offensive rating when Duncan is on the court and when Duncan is off the court.  We’ve heard the Spurs want Boris Diaw back and that they want Erazem Lorbek to come over from Europe.  That’s a fantastic way to keep the offense flowing, but it’s not going to improve their interior defense.

The Spurs faced a similar problem last season, just in a different position.  They were undersized at shooting guard and small forward and were able to turn George Hill in to Kawhi Leonard, a cornerstone for the Spurs’ future.  The same thing might need to happen this season.  George Hill was a great Spurs and a good fit for the franchise, but trading him was the only way to improve and keep the core of the team together.  This year’s draft has some guys in this year’s NBA Draft that could help the Spurs some defensive issues, but it might mean they have to part with Tiago Splitter in the process.

Make no mistake, I write being a big Tiago Splitter fan.  His work as the role man in pick and roll situations is some of the best in the league and he’s almost too willing of a passer (people who aren’t fans of Splitter will see he’s weak around the basket).  He’s a decent defender and the only other guy on the team besides Duncan we can consider a true center.  When Duncan sat out games due to rest Splitter almost always did a fantastic job filling in.  He is the San Antonio Spurs second best big man.

Two questions must be asked moving forward.  The first is why trade Splitter and second is what is his value.  The first question is easier to answer because it involves less of a guessing game.  The reason you trade Splitter is because despite his talents, trading him will help fill a need that will make the Spurs more complete.  As for his trade value, that’s more difficult to determine.  At face value Splitter’s numbers are decent but not overwhelming.  But look at his Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and Per 36 Minutes numbers. 17 points and nearly ten rebounds per 36 minutes are very good numbers and one could argue, though they’d be using a small sample size, that Splitter could be an all-star if he’s giving starter’s minutes in the right system.

I would argue Splitter is worth a late lottery pick.  Late lottery teams (teams picking from spots 10-14) are teams that are most likely a piece or two away from making the playoffs.  This year is no exception.  The Portland Trailblazers (picking 11) will no doubt be angling to return to the playoffs next season, the Milwaukee Bucks (picking 12th) nearly made the playoffs this season and the Houston Rockets… well, let’s not discuss the Rockets and a prized Spurs big man.  I would even argue that New Orleans, not wanting to overpay Chris Kaman, would be willing to trade the tenth pick in the draft if it got them some low post scoring.  Let’s remember, Splitter only costs three million dollars this season and is a restricted free agent the following year.  That’s a cheap price for a starting center.

Let’s assume the Spurs were able to trade Splitter for anywhere from pick ten to 14.  What kind of player are we talking about?  Here’s a quick rundown of some big guys that are projected to go in that range:

Terrence Jones, F, Kentucky:  Versatile, athletic and excellent on defense.  Jones is Josh Smith 2.0 right down to the occasional ill advised jumper.  But given Chip Engelland and Chad Forcier’s ability to work with guys on their jumper, those 20 footers may not be so ill advised.  Oh, and did I mention this guy is a tough, athletic defender?  He’s all over the place on mock drafts. ESPN has him at number seven, Draft Express has him at 17.

Perry Jones III, F, Baylor: He’s more of a small forward or stretch power forward then a traditional big man despite his 6’11” frame, but an athletic face up power forward might be the perfect person to put right next to Duncan.  He’s the ultimate boom or bust prospect, but if he’s a boom he could San Antonio’s next All-Star.

Jared Sullinger, F, Ohio State: More of an offensive weapon than a defensive one, but Sullinger can score from several different spots on the court and he’s a beast of a rebounder.  Paul Milsap is a good comparison, so is David West.  Kevin Love is what you want him to become.

Meyers Leonard, C, Illinois: Leonard was one of the darlings of last week’s NBA Draft Combine.  He’s a legit 7’1″, is super athletic and has nice touch for a guy his size.  It’s entirely possible he could move in to the top ten if his individual workouts go as well as the Combine did.

John Henson, F, UNC:  Long, athletic, rebounds incredibly well and would be an ideal pick and roll defender.  There’s a decent chance he’s going number nine to Detroit, but if he gains some weight he’s going to an amazing defender at the four spot.

Tyler Zeller, C, UNC: Zeller is one of the safest picks in the draft.  There’s not a lot of ways for him to fail, but unless he really, really works on his offensive game, he’s probably never going to be a good team’s best big guy.  Still, he’s athletic, can finish around the rim and his turn around baby hook from the block is damn near impossible to defend. Someone’s going to get a solid player with his kid.

There’s nothing that says Splitter is a goner.  Despite his Game Six blow up, Coach Popovich spoke very highly of Splitter throughout the season.  We should also remember Splitter hasn’t been through a full Spurs training camp which will make it easier for him to adjust to the Spurs’ defense and will also make it easier for the Spurs to work him and Duncan together.  That’s the risk you face when you trade a known commodity for a draft pick.  But it’s what the Spurs did last year and that seemed to work out well.

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