Manu the guard
Last summer, thousands of words were exchanged via blog posts and Twitter on the positional revolution, the idea that traditional basketball positions weren’t accurate enough. The positions we’ve all grown to know and love only told the story of one side of the ball, and often even that wasn’t the case. Sometimes those positions only described the general size of the player, not the actual role he played on the floor.
One crutch we lean on from time to time is the descriptor of “combo guard.” We tend to label perimeter players with no discernible point guard skills — yet posses the general size of a point guard and inability to defend shooting guards — as combo guards. There’s usually some negative undertone to the label, as if the player is faulty or lacking something. If the player was big enough to defend opposing shooting guards, he’d simply be a shooting guard and no one would have a problem with it. But since he’s often taking up a spot on the floor reserved for a traditional point guard, he tends to be viewed as a gunner and is rooted for cautiously.
But what of it when the combo guard is lacking nothing? What if the combo guard actually possesses the skills of both a point guard and shooting guard, and his ability to play both positions is a blessing? Is combo guard the right word for this player, or are the negative feelings it arouses too much? Do we need to create a new term, like hybrid guard, to describe players who can balance both roles with great effect?
Watching Manu Ginobili play for Argentina at the FIBA Americas Championship, the dual threat of Manu’s guard skills was on display. As the best perimeter player on the team, Manu seamlessly switched back and forth for Argentina between being the catalyst for the offense and acting as a perimeter finisher. His fluid ability to go between roles is a luxury for offenses that necessitate such a thing — like the Spurs — and that pair Ginobili with another guard able to adjust to Manu’s free flowing ways. After years of playing together, Ginobili’s Argentina teammates have long been schooled in the ways of Manu, likewise has Tony Parker, who seems to thrive as much off the ball as Ginobili does on it.
Ginobili has the skills of what you would traditionally describe as an “all-around player.” At 6’6” he is tall enough to defend shooting guard. He doesn’t have the ideal foot speed to defend point guards, but he has excellent anticipation and defensive instincts which prevent him from getting burned. After years of playing for Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, Ginobili’s defensive ways have been hardened and he is capable of defending positions 1-3 if called upon.
Offensively, Ginobili is a good ball handler and has all the craftiness in his repertoire of the old man in your pickup game. He also has years of running the pick-and-roll under his belt, a staple of any NBA offense. His innate knowledge of this set makes him dangerous whether setting up at the top of the key or on one of the wings. Even in his mid-30s, Ginobili can attack the basket, though not quite with the same reckless abandon he used to. Instead, he prefers to shoot 3-pointers and use a dribble step-back, one I’d argue he relies a bit too much on these days.
The San Antonio Spurs offense strips away the five distinct positions and instead has just two: guards and bigs. The three perimeter positions on the floor are all interchangable. No matter where the perimeter player starts out on the offensive set, eventually every one of them is going to make the same cuts. The same goes for the big men on the floor. This partly explains why Richard Jefferson had trouble adjusting in his first season with the Spurs, as the small ball power forward, Jefferson had to know every spot on the floor for every offensive play. This fluidity in positions means that many players on the Spurs, not just Ginobili, are forced to expand their roles on the perimeter. There will be ample time for everyone to dictate the offense or play off the ball.
Even before the Spurs traded backup point guard George Hill to the Indiana Pacers on draft night, Ginobili was the de facto point guard when Tony Parker was off the floor. Most offensive sets began with Ginobili initiating the offense and Hill running through screens off the ball, hoping to get open in the corner for a 3-pointer. With Hill’s trade, Ginobili should reprise his role as playmaker for the second team, along with Gary Neal. Rookie Cory Joseph will probably spend most, if not all, of next season in the D-League, so unless the Spurs bring in a backup point guard via free agency, Manu and Neal will be supporting Tony Parker in point guard duties.
Ginobili’s versatility is much needed in these cases, as he will no doubt play off the ball when Parker is in the game and run the point without him. Ginobili is usually the first starter off the floor during the regular season, typically at about the midway point in the first quarter. When Tony Parker gets a rest at the end of the first quarter, Ginobili comes back in and takes over the offense. This flexibility gives Coach Pop room to use different lineups on a whim and protects the Spurs from short-term hiccups like foul trouble and injuries.
Combo guards and “tweeners” have long been dangerous players to have on your roster. On the one hand, they can provide production in unexpected areas. On the other, they can torpedo a potentially strong defensive lineup. But in the case of Manu Ginobili, his ability to play both guard positions is a blessing for the Spurs in that it gives flexibility to the team without sacrificing defense. Whether in the NBA or abroad, Ginobili is the best of both worlds.