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Fran Blinebury

Tiago Splitter and the Spurs have been flirting for a few years and have now solidified their relationship.
D.Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images

Addition of Splitter breathes new life into Spurs

Posted Jul 23 2010 11:56AM

It was quite fitting that Tiago Splitter had to interrupt his honeymoon to sign his contract in San Antonio. After all, his three-year courtship with the Spurs had taken everything except a bended knee and flowers at the altar.

"Finally, my dream has come true," Splitter said.

Finally, the Spurs might really be back on track for that next championship banner that would give them a handful.

Not that San Antonio had ever been far out of the picture. That's the beauty of what Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford have done for more than a decade in the Alamo City, always tinkering, forever tweaking, doing whatever is necessary to keep their team in the mix.

How many times since that third banner had been raised to the rafters of the AT&T Center in 2005 have the so many experts declared the Spurs too old, too worn-out, too-something?

It took them almost all of last season to eventually develop a rhythm that produced another 50 wins. They sneaked into the No. 7 spot in the Western Conference playoffs and then promptly bounced the No. 2-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round.

It was a completely different story in the second round, when their personal perennial playoff punching bags, the Phoenix Suns, hit back with a 4-0 sweep, leaving many to reach for the shovels to bury the Spurs again.

But maybe only Freddy Kreuger has raised a hand and climbed out of the dirt more than the Spurs.

Now Splitter, after a three-year chase, gives them a chance to do it again. At long last, the Spurs have reeled in the 6-foot-11 center they'd chosen with the No. 28 pick in the 2007 draft.

The big man had been shrewdly selected by the club in the days while the Spurs still bathed in the afterglow of their fourth NBA championship, the 4-0 sweep of Cleveland that made things look so easy

The plan had been to slide the Brazilian big man into the lineup to give an infusion of youth, rebounding and defensive prowess to the three-headed monster at the core of the franchise.

Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker would be able to take the power boost that Splitter would bring them, enabling the Spurs to keep their drive for five very much alive.

The Spurs were feeling so good about themselves in the summer of 2007 that they made one of the rare slip-ups for an organization that doesn't do many things wrong. They gave up their pursuit of Argentine forward Luis Scola, whom they'd taken with a second-round pick in 2002 and never been able to pry away from Europe, where he'd grown into a star (and MVP) of the Spanish League. What's more, in an effort to keep their payroll in check, the Spurs traded Scola just up the road to Houston.

The thinking that summer was that Splitter would fill the slot Scola would have occupied. Except that Splitter, due to an expensive buyout clause in his European contract, stayed in Spain and then extended his deal for two more seasons in 2008. Meanwhile Scola was making like a bull on the pampas for the Rockets. For the past three seasons, Scola has played all 82 games and been the rugged, steady, dependable frontcourt scorer and hustler that the Spurs have needed.

A year ago, the usually thrifty Spurs shot a hole straight through the salary ceiling, making the deal that brought in swingman Richard Jefferson and put them more than $8 million into the luxury tax. But rather than being the greyhound who was the finisher on the break in the running game, Jefferson was out of sync and out of sorts most of the season.

Bringing him back for the last year at $15.2 million on his contract hardly seemed palatable. However, having him opt out of the final year and then re-sign a new four-year deal worth $38.9 million made things more tolerable for the Spurs financially, gave Jefferson more money over the long haul and, most important, gave both parties another chance to make things work.

"I think he'll have a better year next year," Popovich said. "He'll be a lot more ready to understand whatever we might do."

The Spurs also got shooting guard James Anderson, last season's Big 12 scoring leader and player of the year at Oklahoma State, with the 20th pick in the draft and figure that all of the additions constitute reloading. A hamstring injury kept Anderson from playing in the Las Vegas Summer League.

Toss in the late-arriving Splitter, the MVP of the Spanish Supercup tournament in 2006 and 2007 and an All-Euroleague first teamer in 2008, and the talk of the Spurs' demise, as usual, has been greatly exaggerated.

There will be a period of adjustment from the European game to the NBA. But Splitter has a reputation for being exceptionally clever and aware on the court.

"One of his greatest attributes is how smart he is, his understanding of the game," Buford said. "He's never not adapted well to the style of play that's in front of him."

And no one adapts over time like the Spurs. Call it a long-sought marriage with a future.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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