Manu Ginobili and his deteriorating clutch-time numbers
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.