Evaluating Splitter: An anniversary still in the making

A year ago today, the Spurs made up major ground in their quest to match the height and length of the Los Angeles Lakers. They added a player who could, conceivably, help tilt the balance of power back their direction in the West.

Conventional wisdom can sometimes seem foolish in hindsight.

On July 12, 2011, after three years of waiting on their erstwhile No. 1 draft pick to finish out commitments in Spain, the Spurs signed big man Tiago Splitter — the nearly 7-foot Brazilian who, if press clippings at the time were to believed, could leap the Christ the Redeemer statue in a single bound.

One rival NBA executive at the time gushed Splitter was “the perfect player” for the Spurs. He had been the best big in Europe the season before, having led his Spanish League team to a championship and earning MVP honors en route.

He was the perfect complement for Tim Duncan, not quite reaching the Twin Towers apex the latter had enjoyed with David Robinson, but a decent enough facsimile to get people excited.

Splitter was the Spurs’ present and future all rolled into one. Some people, , compared Splitter’s arrival in San Antonio with LeBron James’ more heralded landing in Miami a few days earlier.

So what happened?

Splitter appeared in just 60 games, averaging 4.6 points and 3.4 rebounds. Contrary to preseason predictions, he wasn’t one of the best rookies in the NBA. He wasn’t even the best rookie on his own team, an honor seized by undrafted guard Gary Neal.

Was Splitter’s rookie season a bust? It depends upon how one defines the word. Certainly, he didn’t live up to lofty expectations which, despite Gregg Popovich’s attempts to tamp them down, had three years to bubble to too-lofty heights.

Injuries were clearly an impediment to Splitter catching on. Worn down from several seasons of year-round basketball, Splitter strained a muscle in his  foot the second day of his first NBA training camp. He’d miss the entire preseason and eventually the first two games of the regular season as well.

In a way, Splitter never did catch up. Popovich limited the big man to spot duty for much of the season. At key moments when Splitter seemed poised to gain a greater foothold in the rotation, injuries would set him back again. Throw in the fact that the Spurs were en route to 61 victories with DeJuan Blair and then Antonio McDyess playing next to Duncan, and Popovich seemed hesitant to mess with a good thing.

It is among the more surprising aspects of the Spurs’ season that they were able to notch the best record in the Western Conference — better than the two-time champion Lakers or eventual champion Dallas Mavericks — while the player purported to be the biggest addition of their offseason barely registered a ripple.

Not all of this is Splitter’s fault.

When Splitter did play, he generally proved to be as advertised — or at least how Popovich tried to advertise him, before expectations spun out of control. He was a blue-collar guy, a hard-hat and lunch-pail and punch the time clock guy. Not a star. He was never supposed to be.

By the time the playoffs dawned, Splitter found himself where many Spurs rookies do — superglued to the end of the bench, watching, even as the bigger, stronger Memphis Grizzlies pushed around his team’s front line. When he finally made his playoff debut, in Game 4 with the Spurs in a 2-1 hole, Splitter logged 10 points and nine rebounds in 21 minutes.

What does the future hold for Splitter? The Spurs still harbor high hopes. Popovich laid more expectations at Splitter’s feet than he ever had before, calling the Brazilian big man the Spurs’ “linchpin of the future” and a “stalwart going forward.”

As his No. 1 offseason personnel goal, Popovich cited the need to find a better defensive complement for Duncan in the front court, a role that could go to Splitter. He will still be a hard-hat and lunch-pail guy, but perhaps allowed to punch his time card a little more regularly in season two.

Most new additions to the Spurs’ program famously fare better in their second year than their first, though the ongoing lockout and potential for a truncated training camp might mitigate that effect this time around.

Whatever happens, decision-makers in the Spurs’ organizations seem to believe Splitter can live up to the promise of last summer. Even if that promise arrives year behind schedule.

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