It was early January when NBA.com’s Jeff Caplan, in a post on the very popular Hang Time Blog, asked “is Tiago Splitter the most important player on the San Antonio Spurs?” By the time the Spurs were done brushing aside the Memphis Grizzlies, 4-0, in the recently concluded Western Conference Finals, Caplan’s concluding remarks in the same piece rang out loud and clear. “No, Splitter isn’t the most important player on the Spurs. But on a team that’s been considered too small up front to get out of the West, his importance can’t be understated either.”
Consider this: Two years ago when the eighth seeded Grizzlies matched up against the top-ranked Spurs in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, Splitter played in only three of the six games in that series. That he didn’t play in Games 1, 2 and 3 and only came off the bench in Games 4, 5 and 6 was a reflection of his rookie season in the NBA and his relative insignificance in San Antonio’s scheme back then. At that time, it didn’t matter that Splitter had already been the Spanish League MVP in 2010. That he had won gold medals with the Brazilian National Team in the 2005 and 2009 FIBA Americas Championship was of little consequence. Playing in the NBA was a different matter and Splitter’s numbers in that series – 16.7 MPG, 6.7 PPG, 4.7 RPG and 0.3 BPG – weren’t exactly the kind of contributions that would have had Popovich incredibly excited about the hidden gem on his roster.
More importantly, Memphis’ Zach Randolph averaged 21.5 points in the series, including a 31-point effort in the Game 6 clincher at home and the Spurs were left stunned.
Fast forward to the 2013 Western Conference Finals where the Spurs finally exacted their revenge on the Grizzlies. After putting up a season where he averaged 10.3 PPG, 6.4 RPG and started 58 games for San Antonio (50 more than he did in the two previous seasons combined), Splitter was a big part of the Spurs’ success against Memphis. Not only did he put up 8.8 PPG and block nearly two shots per game, he was crucial in limiting Randolph’s efficiency in the low post through the four-game series. The Grizzlies power forward, who averaged at least 19.7 points in the first two rounds against the LA Clippers and the Oklahoma City Thunder, managed only 11.0 PPG against the Spurs. While the ageless Tim Duncan contributed in equal measure to restrict Z-Bo, Splitter’s success against Randolph was perhaps more unexpected, but also an indication of his coming of age in the NBA.
All this bodes well for Splitter. Irrespective of how San Antonio finished this season, he is already, as NBA.com’s Sekou Smith pointed out in a piece before the start of the Western Conference Finals, a top-10 restricted free agent heading into the 2013 offseason. “Like almost every skilled big man, Splitter is going to be worth more than a man half his size with better credentials,” wrote Smith on Splitter’s worth. “That’s just the way things work in this league. He’s due for a significant raise from the $3.9 million he’s earning this season. In fact, he should have no trouble doubling that in a free agent market (for unrestricted and restricted free agents) that is relatively light on centers.” But should Splitter impact the 2013 NBA Finals even more, containing David West or Chris Bosh, depending upon who San Antonio faces, his value could only be greater.
Looking back at Splitter’s performances over the last couple of weeks compared to a few years ago, it would be foolish to underestimate the Brazilian big man yet again.
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