Manu the guard

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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.

  • Tim in Surrey

    Interesting post, Andrew. I’ve noticed over the (far too many) years that the whole position thing is partly fashion, partly to do with a team’s particular offensive and defensive systems, and the rest an easy way for the media to put a label on a player. And it reshuffles every so often, typically when someone comes along who does things differently and captures everyone’s imagination. In the old, old days, there were basically just two guards, two forwards, and a center. A good example is the early 70s Lakers. Who was their point guard, Gail Goodrich or Jerry West? Neither. They were both guards. 

    But a few exciting mid-70s ballhandlers–Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Tiny Archibald, Pistol Pete, etc.–along with the success of North Carolina’s Four Corners system got everyone excited about the role of the “Point Guard”. And a wave of tough enforcer types, best personified by Maurice Lucas, got everyone jazzed about the “Power Forward”. Next thing you know, everyone adopts the five-position paradigm. When Magic Johnson led a wave of bigger players who handled the ball a lot, including Robert Reid, Rodney McCray, Paul Pressey, and even Larry Bird a little, people started talking about “Point Forwards”. Like I said, fashion is a big part of it. The latest fashion seems to be the “Stretch 4″. 

    To me the whole idea of “Combo Guards” and “Combo Forwards” was a throwback to the days of just guards and forwards. But it’s definitely true that most teams have a lead guard or a point guard. And these days there is an awful lot of overlap between power forwards and centers. (The original role of the center was more like it is in the Princeton offense. The big man stand in the high post, everybody cuts like crazy, and the center becomes the primary ballhandler.) As a result, some folks tend to think it’s better these days to think of three positions: point guards, wings, and bigs. There’s something to that. 

    Personally, though, I think if you want to win, all your perimeter players have to be good ball handlers, all of your bigs have to be good interior defenders and rebounders, your point guard has to be able to score, and everybody has to be able to guard multiple positions. So maybe it’s still better to think just in terms of guards, forwards, and centers.

  • Bry

    I’d say your description of point-guards, wings and bigs best describes the basic positions. There will always be players that can play more than one position, but they are almost always better at one than the other. The point he makes about ‘combo guards’ is true. It’s now just what they call small players who don’t run offenses and like to shoot a lot. Although it’s not his first instinct, Tony can pass and run the offense, so I wouldn’t put him in that category. To me, the generous descriptions NBA players get shows the bias most observers (and commentators) have toward offense. In my opinion you shouldn’t ever be described as playing a position, if you cannot defend that position. Some big guy will have handles, or a great outside shot, and you’ll suddenly hear “and he can play three positions”. That’s why John Stockton is easily the best point-guard in history. Steals and assists; the most in history. Exactly what point-guards are supposed to do. Magic Johnson, on the other hand,  could not defend point-guards. He was just a really talented big guy. He was a superb player, but no more a point-guard than LeBron James is now. The same thing goes for Timmy and Manu. I’ll call them a point and a PF for as long as they are capable of defending those respective positions (not surprisingly, the position a player can defend tends to move up a slot as age takes away their agility long before it takes away their strength). Timmy is the best PF to ever play the game, but he’ll undoubtedly finish up his career like most veteran PFs that have sufficient height and strength; as a Center.

  • Bob

    Good point. In general as you go from pg to c the player’s speed goes down and as you age you’re ability to defend quicker players go down. But height also factors as a sharpshooter shooting guard may be slow but if he doesn’t have enough height he won’t be able to play small forward.

    Back to the Spurs. I think the team does better when the ball is mainly in Manu’s hands. He’s a good decision maker and is able to get everyone involved.

    Parker was showing evidence of getting everyone involved earlier in the year Jefferson was averaging 20 ppg and Parker was getting 8+ apg. But by the time they played the Grizzlies he was a inefficient scorer that couldn’t get anyone else going. He’s usually able to get a pass for not being a pure point guard by being able to score efficiently. But when he’s not doing that he really hurts the team. Teams sag off him and he’s unable to get the outside shooters going.

  • Bry

    I agree. Everyone piled on Bonner and Blair for losing that series, which I found bizarre since they are roll players and Tony is in his prime, gets big minutes, is part of the Big Three, and somehow got out-played by his counterpart. I still like Tony, so I’m not joining the “Tony sucks” or “Trade TP” bandwagons. But, I would argue that him being outplayed decided that series. I mean, we all knew Randolph was a beast, and Gasol was/is turning into a very good center, but I personally predicted that the Spurs would win the series because their back-court was far better than that of Memphis. Shows what I know….

  • Tyler

    You’re not alone. I was shocked Conley outplayed Parker, by a wide margin no less.

  • Billy

    Good point.  I really think that the Spurs need to get some big men in the free agency this year because the big men that we have are getting older and can’t handle the rough and tough of the younger big men in this league (Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol).