“It’s not a function of figuring out the time, it’s a function of what are your alternatives.” This was R.C. Buford’s reply when asked when the time would come to break up the team. This concept of “alternatives” is an excellent lens to consider whether the San Antonio Spurs should have re-signed Tiago Splitter to a four-year, $36 million contract or whether there were any other available players that would have been better suited for the Spurs.
Splitter’s per game stats last year (and essentially the year before) are a rather pedestrian 10.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. However, digging into some more advanced stats will reveal Splitter’s true value to the Spurs last season. Splitter’s insertion into the starting lineup brought the Spurs defense very close to the elite levels they have not exhibited in at least six years. The Spurs defensive rating was tied for third in the league this year, up from 11th last year. Granted Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green got better, but Splitter had a huge effect here as evidenced by the fact that the Spurs were third in the league in field goal defense at the rim, up from 18th last year. That difference is largely attributable to Splitter.
So what available free agent big men should the Spurs have considered as an alternative to Splitter. One such big man is Nikola Pekovic, the free agent center for Minnesota. While Pekovic has a much better post game and rebounds better than Splitter, he is not a very good defender, especially in the pick and roll, something Splitter excels at. Considering most NBA teams run the pick and roll with great regularity, Pekovic’s defensive shortcomings would become an issue. Minnesota just gave Pekovic a four year $50 million deal.
Another possibility for the Spurs was Al Jefferson. Jefferson is also much better than Splitter in the post and an excellent rebounder. However, integrating Jefferson’s post play into the Spurs offensive system would require significant revamping on the part of the Spurs. However, Jefferson is also an atrocious defender, especially against the pick-and-roll. Look no further than the Spurs sweep of the Jazz last playoffs for evidence of that.
Josh Smith would have been an upgrade over Splitter on both ends of the floor. However, Smith fetched a four-year $56 million deal from Detroit. In order for the Spurs to have signed him, they would have likely had to renounce Manu Ginobili (something that was not going to happen) in order to spend considerably more than they did on Splitter.
Right before the beginning of free agency, it was rumored the Spurs and Suns were discussing a Splitter-for-Marcin Gortat swap. I believe Gortat would have been an upgrade over Splitter. Gortat is a great finisher on the pick-and-roll, has a decent jump shot (something Tiago does not have) is a good pick-and-roll defender and a once-elite help defender. Plus Gortat makes $1 million less than Splitter and is on an expiring deal. Unfortunately, nothing ever came to fruition from these discussions.
So considering the plausible options, did the Spurs have any better alternatives over bringing back Splitter? The Spurs would have had to pay $4 million a year more for Pekovic or Jefferson, two offensively superior players, but ones that do not fit into the Spurs’ offensive system and are poor defenders. Was Josh Smith ever a realistic option? Who knows, but at $14 million a year probably not. The alternative that would have been an upgrade was Marcin Gortat. However, that attempted trade fell through.
So looking at Splitter’s $36 million deal when compared the “alternatives”, the Spurs were really presented with no better alternatives than to bring their big man back. So, Splitter at $9 million a year for four years, considering all the things he does well, albeit not great, is worth the money. The Spurs will take a top-three defense any year.