Manu Ginobili and his deteriorating clutch-time numbers

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As the Western Conference hangs in the balance, the Spurs are in the midst of a streak that’s added more stress to a situation that’s not exactly lacking in the anxiety department.

The 92-90 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies last night marked the sixth consecutive game that has come down to the final play of regulation for San Antonio — one of which actually ended in overtime with a 104-97 win over Utah — and the Spurs have managed to split that number with a 3-3 record during the timeframe. And speaking of splitting time, Manu Ginobili hasn’t played a minute since logging less than three of them against the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday.

It’s a hamstring injury that will keep him out for weeks. Another one.

It’s been a season of struggles for the Spurs’ sixth man, as the 35-year-old has dealt with everything from back issues to leg problems. Despite feeling healthy in recent months, Ginobili has struggled mightily from the floor, shooting less than 38 percent during the month of March. But his obvious savvy, still-refined skill set and veteran leadership have given San Antonio what it’s had for the last decade: a dependable secondary playmaker when the Tony Parker strategy doesn’t work.

But ‘dependable’ isn’t the word most Spurs fans associate with Manu’s ability as a playmaker.

Elite. Hall-of-Famer. Brilliant. All-World.

These are the labels more appropriate for what Ginobili has accomplished throughout his career. Yet, as we watch the 2013 version of the Argentine basketball savant, we wonder if that type of nomenclature will ever be applicable again. Throughout all these close games, the absence of Ginobili has been anything but inconspicuous. The Spurs have missed him, and there’s no question about it when you ask the coach.

“It’s a huge blow for us, because he’s the guy that allows our second team to do what they’ve been doing all year long,” Gregg Popovich said. “It’s a huge loss for that group, and in game situations it’s a tough one because he’s one of two guys, he and Tony (Parker), are the creators who make things happen for everybody else on the court.

“It’s an unfortunate loss at this point of the season.”

And Pop has made it clear Manu is most missed in clutch situations. When the game is on the line, Ginobili has long been his coach’s go-to guy. Now, that element has been removed and replaced with players well out of the Ginobili-in-his-prime league.

But the fact of the matter is, the numbers don’t necessarily reflect the supposed value Manu has for this title contender in the clutch.

Down the stretch of close games (last five minutes in a two-possession game) Ginobili has actually been at his best. His field-goal percentage has jumped to nearly 48 percent, and his turnover rate has dropped to just a little more than two per 48 minutes of court time. When the Spurs need consistency as the final moments near, Ginobili has been mostly vintage.

But once the last 60 seconds arrive, Manu’s numbers plummet.

The shooting guard is shooting no better than 28 percent in last-minute situations. And what’s worse, his defensive numbers have been abysmal. Defensive-efficiency rating isn’t always the best way to analyze an individual player’s impact on that end of the floor, but a number that typically sits in the mid-90s inflates to a number as bad as 153 points allowed per 100 ‘clutch’ possessions.

And it’s important to note that ‘clutch’ shooting numbers are typically lower than average, as defenses clamp down and intensify their focus on premier players. But these numbers are significantly lower than what Ginobili typically puts up for his career in these situations. In the past, his shooting numbers might have dropped a bit as the game’s final seconds wound down, but his defensive numbers always remained right around his average. (His 2011-12 numbers don’t work well with this analysis given he played in just 34 of 66 games, only six of which came down to two possessions in the final minute. Translation: the Spurs blew out a lot of teams last season.)

Now, this shouldn’t be taken as an unfair indictment of Ginobili. Clutch statistics don’t come in a very substantial sample size, and therefore shouldn’t be taken as an indication of his literal value to this team. But with the way Manu is shooting the ball this year — he currently has the second worst field-goal percentage of his career at .426 — these numbers probably shouldn’t come as a surprise.

As poor as his percentages have been, it’s difficult to expect him to suddenly snap out of it once the game is on the line. And the Spurs know this. When Pop outlines his importance to the lineup, he’s not approaching it from a delusional aspect. He knows Ginobili has struggled. But what he also realizes is this player knows the system inside-out and when execution is paramount he has to be on the floor.

Manu Ginobili has never been just a decoy within the Spurs’ offense. He’s not supposed to be limited as some kind of distraction meant to free Parker and Duncan when the two are being blitzed by the opposition. While they certainly value his ball-handling, system familiarity and playmaking ability, it’s his scoring that will be much-needed when the bright lights turn on for the playoffs.

And as we stare down the barrel of the final three weeks of the season, all of which will most likely be void of the sixth man’s presence as his right hamstring heals, it’s impossible not to question whether or not the oft-injured guard will be ready to go come postseason play. And even if he is, you can’t expect he’ll immediately be up to speed.

In the mean time, the Spurs will have to depend on the depth they’ve built. The biggest question: how much does that depth depend on the presence of Ginobili?

Only time will tell the story, a story that might include a first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com.

  • Daniel

    He needs to retire. His body can’t take it anymore and he can’t drive to the rim, and on top of that his shooting numbers are starting to dip. Great player for San Antonio, but Father Time is clearly out in force for Manu.

  • Daniel

    Ginobili needs to retire. He’s lost a step in all areas of his game.

  • merkin

    This isn’t 2010-11, the Spurs are not as dependent on Manu.

  • Len

    It has always been obvious that Manu would be the first of the Big 3 to decline. The reckless nature of his play for the past 15 years has all but ensured that. Now it’s up to Pop to earn that best coach in the NBA label he’s been given. Pop needs to adjust and use Manu more as a decoy and secondary playmaker. It’s time to give Tiago and Kawhi their chance to shine in crunch time because Manu the magnificent is not the same player anymore.

  • Len

    Retire? Maybe. But Manu clearly needs to take a reduced role.

  • Titletown99030507d

    What no farewell tour? I hope he signs for one more season to say goodbye. He’s my favorite Spur ever.

  • Titletown99030507d

    I second that. Give Tiago and Kawhi more plays and use Manu as a decoy when Timmy’s resting. I’m tired of that “jack up the 3 and see if it falls” type of game. You know what that has done to us lately. Icyhot is more Icy of late as the playoffs begin to loom. We were putting on clinics when Neal and Icyhot were banging from downtown allowing Parker and Tiago to get easy baskets. But isn’t the case anymore whats a Spurs team to do? We cant ride Timmy the entire playoffs he will get worn out. Somebody needs to start hitting their shots consistently like real soon and start playing above average perimeter defense or Timmy will be in trouble. How much longer can Timmy go blocking shots like a madman and playing hall of fame defense while playing ridiculous minutes? Yeah he rested a game but its during the playoffs he’s going to be on the court 35 minutes every night. And he can’t sit out games in the playoffs. Manu can still be 80% as long as shooters are consistent and knocking down shots in crunch time. Neal is key here.

  • Sir Timothy

    Well said. He is a one of a kind player. There have been other sort of Jordan Jrs out there. But there is no other Manu. Better assists that Rubio, more clutch rebounds than Durant, better at driving to the hole than Harden, better at last minute steals than LeBron. And that Manu-3 in the clutch! It takes 3 other players to replace him. Having Ginobili was like playing 6 on 5.

    Maybe he comes back and wins a couple for us in playoffs???

  • True Spurs Fan

    Manu retires on his time frame pal, not on yours.

    Who are you? Did you give you body for 11 years to the Spurs? Seriously who are you to say that? Just some guy, the same as me. Manu has a spot on this team for as long as he wants it.

  • Len

    He’s not retiring after the season. In every interview he’s talked about playing more and hoping he’s a Spur for life. I just really hope he’s realistic about what he’s got left in the tank and is willing to take a massive cut in pay and responsibility. This is the same guy that has sacrificed his numbers for the team his entire career, so I’d bet he’s willing.

  • Vermont Spurs Fan

    Let me tell you a quick story.

    I was playing intramurals while in Graduate School at the University of Michigan. I was also a referee so I did not play in the Men’s Open Division one year so that I could referee. I was awarded “Best Referee of the Year” and I called the Championship Game. I called a good game. I was a good ref, better than I was as a player.

    The next year I did play and my team made it to the Championship Game – no small task at U of M. I was way down the bench on this team. Patty Mills gets more playing time. Anyway, the refs where bad – I mean bad! We had players fouling out — I ended playing more in that game than any of the others. We ended the game with only 3 players on the court to their 5. We still only lost by 3 points or so.

    What is the point of the story? If I had been a referee in that game I could have done much more for the cause of good basketball than I could as a player. I have to say that the NBA has plenty of talent on the court, but they are sorely lacking in referees who have the ability and above all the courage to correctly call the game.

    Courage is what it takes. Call that charging foul on Westbrook in OKC with the crowd screaming. Call LeBron for the foul when he blocks a shot from behind and ends up riding the player out of bounds. Make the call! We need real refs in this game.

    No experienced gambler would ever make a bet on an NBA playoff game until they know who the crew of refs are for that game.

  • Daniel

    I realize that he’s given us a lot over the years. But if it’s anyone not named Manu Ginobili are you feeling different about the player? Of course you are. The Spurs need to take emotion out of it and take a serious look at what he offers going forward. He’s close to 36 and plays a position that requires elite athleticism to stay relevant. He’s always been injury prone but now it seems like his negatives are starting to outweigh his positives.

    I’m with the poster who wants to give him a farewell tour. Anything beyond that is just ridiculous for both parties.

  • Andrew G

    “But if it’s anyone not named Manu Ginobili are you feeling different about the player?”

    We don’t want to keep him because of his reputation, we want to keep him because we know what he’s capable of, and what he “offers going forward”. If he’s out on the court, he’s giving his all, and his all is better than what 90% of the NBA offers, even at his age.

    “…plays a position that requires elite athleticism to stay relevant.”

    As opposed to which position? Every single player in the NBA is an elite athlete, which is why they’re in the NBA, not the D-League.

  • http://twitter.com/kmgospurs kmgospurs

    I hope Manu decides to retire at the end of the season. Not that I think he can’t continue to produce but it’s been painful to see someone as competitive as he has end his career this way.

  • JB

    My tendency is to agree with the notion that the Spurs bench and Tony need to drive this team forward. I do not sense Manu is able to maintain his level of play any more. Instead I find he is pushing himself past what he is actually capable of now. If he was able to modify his game and play with in his diminished capabilities then he is still worthwhile allbeit at reduced contract.

    My concern of late has been an over dependence on TD than Tony (his injury and recovery not withstanding). I hope the Spurs are able to ride a healthy Tony and resurgent role play from players like Danny, Tiago, and Kawhi through the playoffs. The real impact from Manu is his creative leadership and health. Too much of the former seems to lead to injury and a growing lack of continuity from this team.

    Something most Spurs fans have seen before.

  • joshua bolding

    Kawhi is the third piece of the big 3 now. They need to get him the ball more.

  • Daniel

    You can’t teach being 7 foot. Centers and PF have a longer shelf life in the league due to the fact that they can always rebound (see Kurt Thomas or Rasheed Wallace). Those players don’t necessarily need to be faster because they can stay on the block. Ginobili simply can’t hang with guys like James Harden anymore. Even Kobe Bryant is at this point a step too slow.

    Lets put it this way…at what point do we cut Ginobili off from the bar? If its my move the Spurs offer him a year. A year longer is fair; he has earned that up until this point but past that it’s not staring reality in the face.

  • manudona

    yeah, ginobili is done hahaha

  • jason

    Ginobili should retire, hahahaha!!! what’s up losers?