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The San Antonio Spurs’ Innovative Approach to Backfill Tiago Splitter

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How important is your starting center?  If you are the Houston Rockets, the Dallas Mavericks, or the Memphis Grizzlies, you will likely say, very important.  Perhaps critical is the appropriate word.  If you are the San Antonio Spurs, you should say, it depends.

Jun 15, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Miami Heat center Chris Bosh (1) shoots the ball against San Antonio Spurs center Tiago Splitter (22) during the third quarter in game five of the 2014 NBA Finals at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

In the center position for the Spurs two stats really matter: Defensive Rebounding Percentage (DRB%), and Points Per Game.  San Antonio is shooting just over 45% from the field this year, so offensive boards aren’t plentiful, and they are 50/50 balls at best.  DRB% is likely even more important that points scored- this is a player’s percentage of earned available rebounds while on the floor.

San Antonio has not relied on its center to score in the Tim Duncan era.  In fact, the best center in Spurs’ history, David Robinson, was an 8.5 PPG shooter in his final season.

So, with Tiago Splitter continuing to sit with injury, the Spurs have taken an innovative approach to backfilling his role, with five total centers seeing action this year.

In order for San Antonio to have replaced Splitter’s productivity this year the starting center has some pretty simple performance metrics to achieve: Score 8.3 PPG, and post a DRB% greater than 20.5%. Tiago  Splitter has seen only 10 minutes of playing time this season, so we can project his career statistics into this analysis.

The most successful of the replacement centers for Tiago Splitter has been Matt Bonner.  While certainly not a traditional fit for the center spot, specifically on defense, he does stretch the floor offensively as the opponent’s power forward will typically step away from the rim to guard against the outside shooting threat Bonner presents.

This season the Spurs have gone 5-1 with Bonner starting.  His per game averages in the critical center metrics are: 6.6 PPG, and 10.1 DRB%.  He does not quite replace Splitter’s productivity, but does a solid job as a fill in.

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Aron Baynes has started a single game at center for San Antonio in a game in which they lost.  His offense is improving, at 6.1 PPG, but he is truly solid on the defensive glass, 20.1 DRB%.  Baynes is showing that he has a significant upside in his role on the team.  Look for his minutes to increase over the course of the season.

Perhaps the most capable, if not completely unconventional, scoring replacement for Tiago Splitter has been Boris Diaw.  When Diaw starts at center, the Spurs are 3-1, and his statistics are 9.4 PPG, and 17.2 DRB%.  He is surprisingly fit on defense for the Spurs.

Of course, San Antonio will welcome Tiago Splitter back into the rotation and he will quickly reclaim his starting role.  However, as teams like Memphis, Dallas, or Houston would perceivably implode without their big-man, the Spurs have again found a way to play around the injury.

Next: Post-Game Grades: San Antonio Spurs vs Indiana Pacers

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