Whether All-Star or Role Player, Ginobili Key to Spurs Success
Yesterday Tim wrote a piece questioning how Tim Duncan’s continued level of elite performance could alter the Spurs trade market plans as the season moves towards the trade deadline. I believe that a lot of what happens over the next few weeks depends on the play of Manu Ginobili.
But unlike with Tim Duncan, I’m not sure the Spurs success or plans hinge on Manu’s return to peak levels; just that he regains enough magic to fulfill his role, which has been to hold together the Spurs system by playing outside of it.
While the days of El Contusion and 40-point outburst might be fewer and farther in between, even in an expectedly reduced capacity Ginobili holds more value to the Spurs then anything they could hope to gain in another trade or free agency.
There are worries about extending Ginobili, to be sure. If it was a matter of being out of rhythm or out of shape, those are things that one would expect to be remedied. But the craftiness, the instincts and skill set all seem to be in place. It’s an inability to get to the rim or finish–his FG% at the rim is 50%, down from 66% and 64% the last two seasons according to hoopdata.com–once there that would indicate a physical decline. While those gifts could return to a certain extent, his age and recent history make it hard to know what to expect from him.
It is something the Spurs will have to factor into their decisions, and it is a decision that will have to be made soon. Though I don’t envy the position R.C. Buford and Pop are in, I still believe Ginobili’s unique skill set makes him untouchable and more valuable than even a fantasy trade for someone like Chris Bosh or Anthony Randolph.
So much of what has shaped the Spurs into contenders has been what Popovich has referred to as “corporate knowledge,” the loss of which has contributed to our troubles this season. But corporate knowledge and systems are concepts that can be scouted and prepared for. What has always put the Spurs over the top is the unpredictability and frenetic energy of Ginobili.
Duncan, Richard Jefferson and, to a lesser extent, Tony Parker are all system players. That is to say that while they may be effective you can game plan for what each is going to do and adjust your defense accordingly. The rest of our supporting cast, with the exception of DeJuan Blair, also rely on their defense and offense to be carried out in the flow of our game plan.
Ginobili is the lone Spurs player that can create anything, at anytime, from anywhere on the court. And while we generally judge our stars based on their scoring average, the European leagues where Ginobili honed his game often rain accolades on those who score in the mid-teens while doing all the little things that help win games.
So perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Ginobili has most resembled himself when, as Johnny Ludden reported in his latest article, Popovich removed Ginobili featured sets from the playbook and asked him to once again focus on those little things.
Over the past several games Ginobili has been more important than a high scoring superstar. He’s been, for lack of a better word, a pest. Defensively he’s been relentless; seemingly in every passing lane or contesting every drive while never truly leaving his man. I’m not sure if his new teammates have finally adjusted to his tendencies–I recall a few rotations overreacting to his gambles early in the season–or if he has simply been feeling better but think of the implications of that previous sentence.
If you have to account for a player at all times, every pass, every spin move, even every outlet pass is slowed a fraction of a second while an offensive player checks for a lurking Ginobili (and with the way he has played the past few weeks, you’re really going to want to check for a lurking Ginobili).
That little bit of extra bit of hesitation is often the difference between an uncontested shot and a turnover in the NBA. The renewed aggressiveness on the boards by Manu also leads to quicker transition opportunities. Both lead to easy baskets and a running game that extends beyond the one-man fast break that has been Tony Parker.
Offensively, even without huge scoring numbers Ginobili keeps the Spurs system in place. As so many of you have pointed out, Tony Parker is not a true point guard. Parker, and for that matter, the Spurs, are at their best when he can concentrate on what he does best: which is to score at an efficient rate. Pairing Ginobili’s playmaking abilities from the shooting guard position with Parker’s scoring abilities keeps the Spurs situation from devolving into something similar to what the Warriors experience with Monta Ellis (not to say that Parker is anywhere near as oblivious as Ellis can be).
Furthermore, Ginobili in the second unit keeps reserves like George Hill and Roger Mason in roles they excel in. For all his progress as a point guard, Hill’s game still lacks creativity. He can finish drives and hit open jumpers but he still lacks that elusiveness that elite playmakers possess. Mason, likewise, has enough ball handling ability to not be restricted to merely a spot up shooter, but his success still depends on someone creating for him.
But when Ginobili is throwing behind the back passes through small windows while running at full speed, it not only keeps every teammate a threat at all times, it demoralizes a team. Tim Duncan might be able to score 20 points without anyone knowing it, but whether it’s eight points or 28 points, you can bet that everyone remembers how Manu got his.
Over the past few months we’ve bemoaned the lack of chemistry on this Spurs roster. But there have been moments over the past few games where we’ve caught glimpses of what could be and many of them have centered on Ginobili. There are so few plays that can cause sports writers to break the sacred edict of no cheering from press row, but if impressive displays like the passing highlight reel Ginobili put up against Minnesota can energize experienced, professional journalists, imagine what it does for a team.
If basic chemistry dictates that some formulas need a catalyst to produce a reaction, perhaps we need to look no further than the continued improvement of our sixth man to solve our chemistry problems.