The San Antonio Spurs extended their $4.9 million qualifying offer on Tiago Splitter yesterday, meaning he is currently a restricted free agent. This puts San Antonio in a very advantageous position, since they can match any offer sheet Splitter receives from another team. The Portland Trail Blazers have already expressed interested in the 28-year-old Brazilian, and there will be plenty more suitors given his size, offensive efficacy (especially in the pick-and-roll) and defensive mobility (Splitter can cover more ground on the perimeter than most guys his size, allowing Tim Duncan to operate as a weak-side rim protector).
But if the Spurs really want Splitter back, they can guarantee his return. This begs several questions: How much should they value Splitter? Is he worth an eight figure deal (upwards of $10 million?) Or is his success conducive to the system in place, rather than his actual talent level?
Fans seem to be split. Some would like Splitter to return, but there is still a vast subsection that desperately want him out the door. There are plenty of appealing options on the market should the Spurs veer that route, too: Josh Smith, David West, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, JJ Hickson, Carl Landry and restricted free agent Nikola Pekovic all represent capable replacements.
Splitter may have inadvertently depressed his market value with seven consecutive poor games in the biggest series of his life. He averaged 4.9 points and two rebounds per game, while making just 44.8 percent of his shots. San Antonio scored 12 points per 100 possessions fewer with Splitter on the floor during the Finals, per NBA.com. Miami's hyper-aggressive defense, coupled with the addition of Mike Miller into the starting rotation, clearly stymied Splitter. Gregg Popovich shortened his rotation to compensate for his ineffectiveness, and instead of significant minutes, Splitter garnered scant minutes primarily to give Duncan a breather. Is that guy worth significant money?
Probably not. But the other alternatives each have their own warts. West and Pekovic will be very difficult to pry away from their teams. Jefferson and Millsap, both excellent offensive weapons, were defensive liabilities with the Utah Jazz last season. Landry and Hickson are undersized power forwards. Josh Smith isn't glued to Atlanta, but he's going to receive near maximum money on the open market. San Antonio will have to wiggle significantly, pull a few salary cap strings, just to offer something decent.
So lets pump the brakes and review the regular season, specifically the Splitter-Duncan pairing that Popovich was admittedly reluctant to employ prior to this year. They played 819 minutes together, an awful lot of playing time, and the results were outstanding, especially on the defensive end where having two abnormally sized men makes it difficult for opponents to score. San Antonio allowed just 92.7 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, about six points fewer than the league-leading mark. Only the Kawhi Leonard-Splitter two-man combination was more effective.
The trend continued in the playoffs. In 201 Splitter-Duncan minutes, opponents made just 41 percent of shots and their overall output depreciated to 90 points per 100 possessions.
Here's where it gets weird. The tandem actually was at their best against the Heat, albeit in a very minute sample size (39 minutes). The Spurs outscored Miami by 19 points in this span, limiting them to 38.1 percent shooting and an abominable 76.4 points per 100 possessions. So even with Splitter being a wildly ineffective offensive option, it still worked splendidly. It did stifle the Spurs' offense quite a bit, compromising their floor spacing, but the pairing's immense strides on defense still made it a worthy counter to the Heat's smaller lineups.
If you're still weary of a hefty contract — and it's understandable — there is one more quick and dirty way to ascertain Splitter's true value. Multiple $1,560,000, the amount it costs for a "win" in the NBA, by his win shares, available on Basketball Reference, and that equation yields an approximate dollar amount for his production. (Hat-tip to Rohan_Cruyff of At the Hive for the methodology.) Splitter should've "earned" $12.7 million based on his raw production last season. This isn't a perfect method, since it doesn't encompass several other important factors (market, age, health, etc) but it does shed some light on Splitter's value, which is pretty difficult to judge admittedly.
There is a decent chance that Splitter will receive a healthy dollar amount, especially with the mounting pressure to reach the $52.65 million salary floor. San Antonio should be prepared for this reality and they'll respond accordingly.
They'll have three days to either match or decline his offer sheets. Splitter certainly isn't a perfect player, but it will be very difficult to find a big man more effective (and for a reasonable price tag) in the free agent market.