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.

  • Martin


    I agree that it’s just the little things. As an example, I was following the Golden State vs. Denver game last night through the play-by-play.

    Last 24 seconds of the game, no shotclock difference, GSW have the ball 1 point behind.

    What would Manu do in that situation? You let the clock run and drive to the basket as a Kamikaze pilot looking to score or make contact with less than 3 seconds to go…

    What did Monta Ellis do? he shoot a 9 footer with 15 seconds to go, Denver comes back, the Warriors stop them go to a jump ball and then…they foul JR Smith behind the 3 point line…

    What a lack of Basketball IQ and leadership…and that is a player that signed a 5 year 66 millon contract!!!

    Had Manu or TP done that, Pop would have benched them for at least 2 games!….

  • the little o

    Excellent post Jesse, and I completely agree. Ginobili’s upside to this team is so much more than what any trade might be able to give us. It’s his downside that the front office is worried about, but I really hope they don’t move him.

  • Cory Clay

    Great post!
    Like mentioned Manu the playmaker is what is most important to this current Spurs team. With so much depending on Manu’s playmaking ability I think it is very easy to say that Brent Barry’s playmaking skills the last 4 season’s and even Hedo’s playmaking ability the season before that were greatly underappreciated. I loved seeing Brent Barry check in b/c while the man he was guarding might get a couple of open looks the rest of the Spurs lineup became that much more dangerous due to Barry’s ability to hit the open man almost anywhere on the court.

    That is what the Spurs have been missing these last two seasons, that one player that can still keep the offense humming when Ginobili is out or not at his normal Super Manu level. If a move is made that is the area I would most like to see addressed.

  • Cory Clay

    I also wanted to address the topic Allstar vs Role Player, which Manu is needed. I think the Spurs can challenge the Lakers with Role Player Manu but I think the Spurs can beat the Lakers with Allstar Manu.

    The difference being the Spurs challenging the Lakers would need a couple of breaks and maybe a couple of lucky bounces to beat the Lakers in a 7 game series.

    Whereas the meaning of the Spurs can beat the Lakers is winning that 7 game series even being on the wrong side of a couple of breaks, calls, etc.

    The perfect example of this is actually the last time we faced the Lakers in the playoffs. I really doubt anyone outside of San Antonio realizes how close that series was, facing the quck turnaround from a game 7 to game 1 of the next round, plane issues, leading by 20 points in game 1 only to lose after running out of gas, and of course the Barry no-call in game 4 which potentially could have tied the series at 2-2.

  • Chris

    I can understand the Spurs not wanting to resign him at this time but if he can prove that he stays healthy and provide the intangibles that he does can you see him joining the Lakers. It would be a nightmare to see him in a Laker’s uniform backing up Kobe and them having two of the most competitive and clutch players out there. I know Kobe really loves Manu and Manu has said that the Lakers would be a contending team that he would consider during FA. Well it should be interesting this summer.

  • Ant Gomez

    Very good Post Jess!

    Manu is a game changer….bottom line, he was the Spurs go to player down the stretch in close games and/or when the Spurs need a energy player to lift the team from a funk before his injuries. We almost take Tim Duncan for Granted for what he can do, but Tim is a living legend, and without him, Manu or Tony dont even exist like they do today! So that being said, the additions of other players are a precaution, just incase Manu does not get it going or gets hurt. But one thing they cannot replace is his All-star capablities! He makes clutch Freethrows, and when he is at the peek of his game, he makes things happen! I hope they dont trade him, because he has been playing pretty well with much more upside to him going furthur into the season! With a healthy San Antonio Team, and Manu at the top of his game, I like the Spurs Chances going into the playoffs!

    But like you said Jess, much depends on Manu’s status/future with the team!

  • Cory Clay

    The only $ the Lakers would be able to use to sign Manu is the MLE and no way would the Spurs make an offer that low, especially considering their options with how the Salary cap is structured.

    What I mean is, when the Lakers were playing hardball with Lamar Odom they were able to offer him a large contract only b/c of the fact that they had his Bird Rights and could exceed the salary cap to sign him. If Odom had left and gone to Miami, then the Lakers would have been stuck b/c they wouldn’t be able to just give the same offer they made Odom to another player b/c the only reason they were able to offer the high amount was b/c of the before mentioned Bird Rights.

    This would be the same position the Spurs would be in with Manu. If they can’t work something out and use the MLE on Splitter they will have no cap flexibility to even come close to getting a comparable player that would fill the gap by Manu.

    I see the Spurs offering a 3 year deal at around $7.5-8.5 per with maybe a 4th year Team Option.

  • agutierrez

    Another factor that has to be put into the equation is the Spurs fan base. If you draw a line from Del Rio to San Antonio to Corpus, inside that line are a couple of million Chicanos. They LOVE Manu. While I’ve never seen an empirical study on it, I think it’s a safe bet that at least 500 to perhaps a couple of thousand people who attend games and thousands more who watch on TV, do so because of Manu. I watch all Spurs games that are available to me in Corpus. I only record those in which Manu is playing. The point is he adds to Holt’s bottom line in a big way. There’s no other player in the league or on the Spurs roster who could do that. They’d be looking at a major revolt if they got rid of him. Oh, and by the way, that revolt might be led by South Texas Hispanics, but there’d be a shitload of non-Hispanics joining in.

  • randomfan

    I’m a Filipino, i’ll join the revolt if Manu is not resigned.

  • wraw

    Good analysis Jesse. Everything about Manu has ALWAYS been a gamble, and the Spurs have been rewarded at nearly every turn for the gamble they’ve made on him. Expect the team to let it ride, and go w/ Ginobili one more time. I believe the Spurs started the season with little more than a snowball’s chance in (48minof-)hell of winning the NBA championship this year, but without a fully functioning Ginobili on the team, the snowball comes pre-melted.
    Manu’s BB-IQ is fully in the genius range, but he has the very special capability to ramp it up to off-the-charts levels in moments of decision/desperation, a capability few share. Without him the Spurs offense stagnates in crunch time, too predictable.
    On the subject of BB-IQ, how ’bout D. Blair? A veritable Einstein in transition or the low post. A complement to Manu’s court vision like no one since Oberto and hope for team-wide viral synergism enough to raise the Spurs from Western Conference mediocrity?

  • grego

    Manu is your classic catch 22-

    He offers so much, but also can kill you in the sense of money and how much time he can actually be on the court (how many games he’s going to play relatively healthy).

    Unlike Duncan, injuries slow Manu down so much more in his game (or at least compared to the Manu we all know and love).

    Part of that catch 22 is the fans. Spurs would really have to do something amazing to be able to replace Manu, and even then fans wouldn’t be happy. The list is probably less than 10 players who would make the majority of fans happy (or at least win them back by winning on the court).

    Now, he probably won’t leave unless some winning team offered him $7-8ish M for the first year. It would have to be a really good offer, but also for a winning team to make him relocate, because money isn’t his most important thing.

    The problem with Manu is you’ll never get equal value for him because of his highs (regular Manu) and lows (the health issues +age). Summer play has really took some years off his body, but then it did the same to Duncan as well.

  • http://www.nba.com fatsocalifornia

    Spurs means Manu. Without Manu, Spurs ar’nt going nowhere. It’s only been a year that Manu’s been unhealthy, that has nothing to do with age! Even young players get hurt on and remain out (benched) for a year or more. So whats a big deal about?
    He playes with all his heart LIKE NO OTHER – AND THAT WAS RISKy ON HIS PART HEALTH WISE.

  • grego

    ^ 2 years.

    Injured 08-09 post season (Couldn’t play). Missed a lot of the season.

    Injured 07-08 post season (played but was not even close to his actual self – unless Sasha V is that good of a defender). Yeah, he’s not that good, but Manu’s poor play got him an MLE level contract which was his market rate.

    If he was healthy, Spurs might have had enough to beat the Lakers. They played solid D on the Lakers (held them in the 80’s/low 90’s), but just couldn’t score enough as a team.

    There’s a reason why Spurs didn’t give him an extension on his contract or offer him a new one yet.

    No one on the team can offer what he offers currently. And only a few players can do some of the things he does, but generally their contracts are too much and their team likely won’t move them.

    Ellie, Horry, and Rose did some of that stuff but they are gone now. Blair offers some of those qualities, but he is still so raw and is a real rookie (with only 2 years college experience and limited offensive game). So yes, his value is there, but value is only so good if you can’t keep it on the court at a high up value.

    As far as stepping up. No one is saying that it’s all Manu. However, he has struggled and until very recently has not even shown he’s worth the MLE based on this season. That’s not to say that Parker has been a let down for the most part (summer play, of course has some part in that as it does with Manu’s game and Tim’s injuries in the past too).

    RJ has definitely not taken off as one would hope. He’s too passive and needs to be more selfish, as nice and as much as he doesn’t want to step on toes.

    Hill has been up and down as far as offense goes. He also doesn’t have the refs respect yet, so sometimes he has to tone it down on D and move more and try less to deflect if refs are calling it tighter.

    McDyess has underwhelmed, but then he has shown what he can bring. I’d rather most of that be saved for big games and post season. But his coming off the bench seems to have done a lot of the work in getting his comfort back. But still a solid pick up with Ratliff. Will come in handy when they play teams that aren’t as run and gun happy.

    But outside of Parker, Manu knows the system. More expectations are always going to be on the key guys who know the system more. In that sense, they are a bigger disappointment due to those expectations. Obviously if other guys are out of place it kills things though and it shows with some of those turnovers based off of passing from Manu and Parker.

  • Chris

    ^So if he’s brings more bad to our team then good and it always comes down to blaming him for when we don’t succeed then why don’t we let him go. I’m sure his agent can still find some teams willing to go after him and if he can stay relatively healthy he might be a nice last piece to add to a contending team to take them over the top. If we don’t succeed this year I don’t see Manu staying anyways. The Spurs aren’t going to offer him anything or much at all and Manu may decide to go in a different direction and be part of another contending team that has a chance.

  • Jesse Blanchard

    The thing is, no one says he brings more bad than good. Manu Ginobili brings risks, it has and always will ultimately come down to whether or not he does more to help or hurt. And he can hurt you, whether it not being there due to injuries or fouling Dirk on a last second drive for an “and one” opportunity when you’re up three.

    The thing is, his personal ceiling is a top three shooting guard in the league. And who knows whether he reclaims that, right? But even if he can’t reach his own personal ceiling, a regular (even role player) Ginobili puts the Spurs ceiling so much higher. It allows Parker to concentrate on scoring. It gives RJ and Blair an opportunity to be secondary offensive players and finishers. (Good call on comparing Blair and Oberto by the way–offensively they just understand spacing and how to get open).

    I’d like to think that even if he’s not dropping 40 anymore, he can be like Kevin Garnett–that is to say he can do so many “little things” at such a high level it merits superstar status.

  • agutierrez

    The point of the “little things” Manu brings to the game was again underscored last night against the Pistons. For the entire game, Rip H had almost single-handedly kept the Pistons in the game and no one had been able to handle him. In the fourth Pop put Manu on him and he proceeded to really get under Hamilton’s skin. Manu was all over him, playing defense inside his uniform to the point that Hamilton got pissed and eventually committed a foul on Manu with a hard and vicious shoulder to his chest. More importantly, Hamilton had been take completely out of his game … he was more interested in retaliating against Manu than in winning the game. Manu’s done that more than once. It’s a whole ‘nother dimension to effecting the outcome of a game and one that no stat sheet shows.

  • Tristan Wilkins

    I say sign Manu back. Yes his injuries are a concern, but Manu will change and is changing is style of play to fit his age. More three’s, looking for more open shot’s for other player’s, which he was alway’s good at. But there are alway’s concerns. Yes his age and wear and tear is the main reason, but if Timmy is playin this good, wait and see how Manu come’s out of his shell towards playoff time. I think we will see that explosiveness we been waiting for. Good article.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Jesse Blanchard

    I just love when I write a post about a player and that player turns around, right on cue, and just makes that post look brilliant. Of course when you’re writing positively about Manu, chances are you’ll be right.

    But yeah, it was great to see that Manu was over his cold and doing what he does. He’s like an entire army of role players wrapped all in one.

  • junierizzle

    I cant even fathom them not resigning Manu.
    POP said it himself, No Manu, No Championship.
    Think about it. WHen he went down last season, it was over. In 08 when they los to the Lakers, it was because Manu got hurt. Game 3, the one game Manu played great, they blew the Lakers out.
    Having said this, I can see why The front Office is concerned. WHat if he goes down again????

    I made me wonder, why go over the cap THIS SEASON? why put it all on the line THIS SEASON???
    Maybe they aren’t planning to sign Manu at all.
    But they can’t get anyone to replace Manu this offseason anyway. They’re over the cap.

  • grego

    @ Chris –

    I don’t blame Manu any more than I blame anyone else who is at fault at the time. Overall though, you win as a team and you lose as a team. That’s the end story.

    If we are talking about on the court, Tim and Parker have had their share of bad moves. Heck, if it wasn’t for Horry, Spurs might have lost because Duncan missed that easy shot. Luckily Horry went off that night.

    Heading back to Manu.

    Manu still is a catch 22 in the sense that he’s so good and so bad at the same time. His value when he’s so good is worth 8-10M/year. But if he’s not playing, especially not playing in the post season near his level, then you are spending a lot money and getting very little in return. All the good in the world means nothing if you aren’t playing. Grant Hill was good, but was burning a hole in Orlando’s pocket.

    Spurs championships follow Duncan. Spurs have a limited time frame and they need all the help they can get for Duncan before that train is gone. 8-10M can go a long way.

  • Pork Fried Rice

    Brilliant writing Jessie, work has kept me away from 48MoH and this is only my first (or 2nd?) time reading you but it has just lightened up my Friday!

  • diehardSAfan

    i say that it is time for the spurs to try and get younger and replace manu this off season by exploring a sign and trade with atlanta to acquire joe johnson. maybe they can include bonner and finley to make this deal work. i think that would keep the spurs competitive for many years.

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