What Manu Ginobili’s doing at 39 may be going under-appreciated.
Maybe it’s because the future Hall of Famer can’t sustain his typical high energy for much more than 20 minutes a game, and that his play dips considerably on the second night of back-to-backs. Maybe it’s the $14 million contract the Spurs inked him to last summer and the modest statistics (7.7 points, 2.5 assists and 2 rebounds per game) he’s putting up against it. Maybe it’s that we were spoiled by Tim Duncan who, in his age-39 year, remained one of the most effective big men in the NBA.
But in a year in which the Spurs underwent considerable turnover, Ginobili’s playmaking and leadership have been key, helping keep the team on track through their surprising 22-5 start.
On Sunday night, before paying tribute to his former teammate’s timeless career, the Argentine had a season-high 17 points (including three three-pointers, a steal, a block, and a two-handed dunk) in a win over New Orleans. It was another impressive throwback performance for the league’s third-oldest player.
The Spurs are 12.4 points per 100 possessions better when Ginobili’s on the floor, the third-best net rating on the team. That’s partially because he shares the floor with other super subs like Patty Mills and David Lee, but the way Ginobili’s skills complement theirs is important. His playmaking abilities have allowed Pop to play Mills (a smaller guard, whose strengths lie elsewhere) beside him for years. The bench overall continues to be a dynamic, selfless group that feasts off ball movement and three-point shooting, and Manu is its spirit animal.
While the gloss on his game has waned, the grit remains. Even at his age, and despite a frightening injury last season after taking a rogue knee to the groin, Ginobili’s still willing to sacrifice his body on every play, mixing it up under the basket and stepping in to draw charges. Thanks in part to that effort, the team rebounds and creates turnovers at a better rate when he’s on the floor.
Manu knows he can’t make the same direct impact he once did – getting from A to B isn’t as easy anymore, after all. Where he excels is on the margins: decision-making, hustle, and other intangibles. There may not be a player in the league who defends inbounds better than him, or a smarter playmaker when there’s 35 seconds left in a quarter and Pop wants to create a two-for-one possession.
Before the season, Manu discussed in his column at the Argentinian newspaper La Nacion
the many challenges the Spurs were facing, while saying he still felt he had an important role to play on the team. It reads in the typical cautious optimism we’ve heard in his voice in numerous interviews.
In many ways, Ginobili’s playing career has been a continuous act of defiance. When he first arrived in South Texas, his cagey, improvisational style seemed antithetical to the Spurs’ steady, conservative ethos. He changed notions of what a 57th overall pick was capable of. Internationally, he led one of the few groups to ever challenge the United States’ basketball dominance.
Maybe the Spurs come up short this year, and maybe age makes up more ground with Ginobili as the season wears on. But both have exceeded expectations up to now, and that’s definitely worth appreciating, especially while we still have two of the old Big Three in uniform.