Friday, August 10, 2012

Manu Ginobili - Greatness Wasted or Greatness Fulfilled?

Against some of the best players the United States had to offer, Manu Ginobili, then a mere one-time NBA champion, far from the man thrice coronated with crowns of locker room champagne, looks coldly across the floor in Athens, Greece. The Argentinian national team had stood toe to toe with the number one ranked team in the world, taking a double digit lead early in the semifinal matchup. The US team had looked shaky during the entire tournament, falling twice in pool play, doubling the losses that the United States basketball program had ever endured in Olympic play. Ginobili, then 27 years old, only added to their misery. Over and over again, he killed the US with back breaking jump shots and momentum stopping lay-ins. Manu ended the semifinal with a game-high 29 points, as Argentina took down the highly-vaunted United States men's basketball team. Two days later, he would score 16 points, with 6 assists and 6 rebounds, to lead Argentina to its first Olympic basketball medal, Gold. Ginobili wasn't just the best player on his team - for two weeks, he was the best basketball player in the world. The question is: could have been the best player in the NBA as well?

Of course one two week stretch of hot games doesn't officially anoint you the best ball player on the planet. But Manu certainly has the resume to be named amongst the greats of his generation. Coming into the NBA in 2002 at the age of 25, Ginobili had an immediate impact on the San Antoio Spurs. They won the title behind the Finals MVP play of Tim Duncan, but also on the backs of retiring Hall of Fame center David Robinson, second-year point guard Tony Parker and on 27 minutes, 9 points, 4 boards and 3 assists per game from Manu Ginobili. He went on to two All-Star games, two All-NBA Third Team spots and of course, two more titles in a career that's still ongoing. He owns a lifetime NBA slash line of 15/4/4 on 45/37/83 shooting percentages, which is great, but certainly not jaw-dropping. However, keep in mind that he's done this starting only 346 out of 667 possible games in an average of only 28 minutes.

Manu's playoff slash line is largely the same as his regular season performance, but looking at his prime - 2004 to 2010 - he averaged 18 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists in the postseason, including an unbelievable 21/6/4 in the 2005 playoffs, which ended in his second NBA title.

Ginobili, regardless of the slightly less than elite statistical line, has remained one of the toughest and most competitive wing players of his era. He's gone through a decade of duels with Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Steve Nash and Chris Paul, and has emerged from these battles with the reputation of being one of the most cut-throat, stone cold fourth quarter killers in the entire league. In the words of Kobe Bean in the documentary Kobe Doin' Work, "that's a bad man."

However, watching Manu in these London games, and knowing his skillset and pedigree, I'm left wondering how truly good he could have been if not for the restrictions of his role on the San Antonio Spurs. Going back to his career stat line, Ginobili has been limited to only 28 minutes per game, coming off the bench for nearly half of his games. He's played in a system predicated on ball-sharing, a bevy of long-range shooters and a dominant big man in Duncan. Combining everything we know about Manu, his reputation around the league and his propensity to step up in big moments, could he have been a top five player? Not just in a year, or in a playoff series, but over a series of years, like how Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul have lorded over the sport for years? Or how Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and Kevin Garnett did before them? I wonder, could Manu have gone from merely one of the greats of his era, to one of the greatest?

Now we can have the argument of whether greatness is defined more by titles won and the role a player has in winning them, or individual achievements with perhaps less team accollades. By that metric, is Robert Horry a greater player than Charles Barkley? Is Tony Parker greater than John Stockton? Not sure. But that's not the scope of my argument. We're wondering if Manu Ginobili could have been an elite player of his era, in terms of individual achievements, but also using those to win championships, a la Kobe Bryant, LeBron James or Dirk Nowitzki.

We opened this up to the MAMBINO forum to ask is Emanuel David Ginobili has been a victim of greatness wasted, or greatness fulfilled?

Greatness Wasted - by KOBEsh

Ginobili the champ
I do truly believe that Ginobili could have, if given the opportunity, been a superstar in the ilk of Wade, McGrady or Kobe, averaging in the 25/4/7 range and carrying a team to the playoffs. My contention largely has to do with not just the type of player he was, but the limitations he's had on him his entire career.

As the introduction states, Ginobili has had a surprisingly limited role considering what a deathly effective player he is. When extrapolated to 36 minutes a game, which are normal starters minutes, Ginobili's statistics jump to 20/5/5, which would rank him amongst the best in the league for any season, any time, any era. If not just the sheer time on the floor that limited his production, there definitely also has to be some onus placed on the system he played in and the coach he played for.

Gregg Popovich will go down as one of the greatest coaches of all-time, not just for the offensive and defensive schemes that led him and the Spurs to four titles, but also for his mangement of great players and convincing them to bend to his plan. Manu, definitely to his team's benefit, but perhaps to his personal detriment, voluntarily came off the Spurs bench, playing less minutes and within the system that Pop set out for him. The San Antonio offensive scheme, until the last two years, was largely built around a dominant big man in the post, most often Tim Duncan, with a series of slashers and shooters waiting to feed of the production in the middle. This type of offense depended on an incredible amount of ball-sharing and unselfishness, especially amongst the perimeter players always looking for the open corner jumper. Ginobili, whose ability to penetrate and finish, as well as shoot is amongst the best at his position, sacrificed a lot of individual glory playing in this system. In an offense dependent more on fast breaks and guard-heavy play, perhaps Manu's numbers and touches would go up greatly.

Which brings me to his skillset. In his prime, Ginobili really had no weaknesses for a wing player. Of course there was his scoring, which he could do by the boatload. He's remained a great three-point assassin, and though he rarely shows it, has a mid-range game to match. Manu is most effective at slashing, penetrating and finishing at the rim, demonstrated most pointedly by getting to the line nearly five times a game in, yes, just 28 minutes per contest. When he wasn't shooting, Ginobili was almost at his most dangerous. He had, and still has, some of the best court vision in the league, passing crisply and with imagination. Part of his penetration game is largely effective because of what a deadly passer he is out of crashing defenses.

And finally, there is the endless amount of passion and competitiveness coming out of Argentina's finest baller. In years of watching Manu torch the Lakers time and time again, I've noticed that the man plays with a fire only rivaled by the greatest players of the era. He badly wants to win, and shows on a nightly basis that he's not afraid in the least to go to any lengths and means to do so. The man throws around his body like Wilt threw around...things. He's absolutely fearless in the clutch moments of the game, with moments as poignant as this:

Now I'm not degrading the role Manu played on those Spurs teams. He was the most valuable player in their 2005 run, and should have rightfully been named Finals MVP. Winning three titles, a gold medal, being the greatest South American player ever and being probably one of the five best foreign players in NBA history certainly makes for a Hall of Fame resume. My argument is that if you replaced Ginobili on the 2006 Miami Heat team instead of Wade, they could have won the title on his merit, which Miami relied on far more than San Antonio singularly relied on either Duncan, Parker or Manu individually for any of their three championships together. Looking at his career arc, his incredible skill, combined with his drive and fearlessness in the most important moments, I have no reason to believe that Ginobili couldn't be one of the era's greatest.

My two dilemmas, which I'm sure CDP will touch on, is if his body could handle the pressures of being the primary offensive focus and if Ginobili would ever truly want to be the focus of the team maybe at the expense of winning. In regards to the first question, Manu has been injured throughout his career, missing an average of 13 games a season. However, I'm curious as to if a player as intelligent as Ginobili would alter his game so that he could still be effective, but not throw his body around with such reckless abandon.

Perhaps most importantly, I have a hard time figuring out whether or not it was Manu dialing back his individualistic desires because of the team he was on and the professionals around him that he respected so much, or that's just the person he is. I'm not sure if he ever wanted to be like McGrady, Iverson or Kobe in regards to individual glory as a player, or could even program himself that way. However, I lean heavily towards "yes", in that given the opportunity, his competitiveness and desire to win would drive him to do whatever he had to do to emerge victorious. He's proven he could on an international level for four to five game stretches and I'd like to think he could put a team on his back for 82 per year. Again, the question isn't "whether he wanted to". The answer, more than likely, is probably a resounding "no", as he's opted to stay in San Antonio through two contract extensions, but the question we're asking here is "could he if he desired so".

Manu Ginobili has had a Hall of Fame career for certain, but could he have been amongst the greatest ever to play? Yes, he could have.

Greatness Fulfilled - by CDP

I have to admit that I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Ginobili. Lakers killer or not, I’ve respected him for his fearless game, role as a sixth man, and huge moments in the clutch. On the other hand, I cringe every time he flops, double flops, or whines until even Duncan blushes. Ultimately, my distaste for Ginobili pales in comparison to my seething feelings towards Bruce “Kick Em When They’re Down” Bowen (1, 2, 3), so I believe I can be (relatively) impartial.

We need each other big guy
Sure, he probably underachieved his ceiling a bit on the Spurs with Tony “Great French Hype” Parker and Mr. Tim Duncan, also known as the Greatest (and Most Boring) Power Forward ever. Duncan took rebounds and scoring touches, especially early on. Parker became the primary ballhandler, limiting opportunities to showcase his playmaking to the second unit. Even behind their sizable shadows, he’s managed All-Star games, NBA titles, and enough dominating international appearances to make a name for himself without playing a minute of NBA ball. But… I think Ginobili has redefined the 6th man role under Pop’s tutelage because that’s his basketball destiny.

To answer your hypothetical question, I think Manu would rather exist on a balanced team than dominate himself like a Kobe/Iverson/McGrady type. Unlike the Joe Johnsons of the world, he’s never tried to escape to make a name for himself. He's never complained about his role, ever. Similarly, he's never helped his teammates leave like Kobe or inherited the role by default like Scottie Pippen. Still, the truth is, however they get their chance, most rising 2nd bananas are not meant to be an alpha dog on a championship team. Yes, health and team environment contribute, but the vast majority of NBA players don't have the right constitution and skill set. More of them (looking at you James Harden) should accept this fact, helping to sustain a dynasty rather than freezing to death, alone in the Toronto winter, or withering away, unwatched on League Pass in Charlotte.

Yes, Manu Ginobili has dominated for stretches of international ball and for the playoffs a few times, but so have Trevor Ariza (sniff) and Jerome James. There lots of reasons why there are many flash in the pan players, like impending free agency, but none may be as big as comfort and national pride.  As Tyson Chandler blogged, “When [NBA players are] playing for their country, they're not the same players.” These players grow up under international rules along with their teammates, system, and coaching staff. I’d also contend Ginobili is so dangerous with Argentina for the same reason he's dangerous with the Spurs; his team has a clear hierarchy and culture with the right role players.

Robo-Kobe is
nigh indestructible
There’s no doubt he’s a natural scorer, outside shooter, and effective at driving into the lane either to kick it out or take it to the rack. He’s an underrated playmaker and could handle the ball more than he does. Could he have averaged 20/10 and racked up assists for a few years? If he was on a freewheeling D’Antoni team, I could see him stuffing stat sheets with reckless abandon. But not for long. His stellar per 36 minute numbers ignore that he’s also never managed more than 31 minutes a game. Sure, his role limits minutes to some extent, but he’s also been carefully managed because he’s been hurt every season and never managed to play 82 games (although most have nagging, not been season ending injuries). In contrast, just think about what Robo-Kobe has played through or how LeBron has never played less than 75 games in a full season.

I don't think his game was fashioned to carry a team 24/7. He's benefited from single teams his whole career because Duncan and Parker were there. How does that change as a primary option with guys like Battier on you full-time? The Spurs had the perfect role players, providing him with spacing, shooting, and targets who know what to do with the ball. Guys who take the mantle as best player in the league have elite talents that allow them to score consistently. What is his? Ginobili is a good 3 point option, but he’s only averaged 40% twice and can’t realistically jack 8 threes a game. He can’t manufacture points in the post like Kobe and isn’t as good of a mid-range shooter either. His frame is more slight and he'd wear down over the course of a season. I fear that double teams and a decline in teammate quality would dramatically affect his playmaking and ability to get to the rim. Going from his peak of 19 PPG to sustaining 25+ just doesn’t seem feasible.

Where Manu feels right at home
It's a leap for me that a guy with that mindset, health (imagine him with Kobe’s minutes), and no proven track record would jump from being the best 6th man to the best player in the league. He's never shown the ability to consistently dominate the way LeBron has or carried subpar teams. Let’s use a simple thought experiment and put 2005-06 Ginobili on the 2011-12 Bobcats, versus a Kobe/Wade/LeBron in their prime. Without quality teammates on the wings and a defense focused on stopping him, I don’t see Ginobili improving the Bobcats as much and doubt his efficiency would be anything near its current levels. We’ll never know, but I’m comfortable asserting that his Bobacts would mightily underperform Kobe or Lebron’s.

In the end, I don’t think Ginobili ever could have been an all-time great, but also fail to see that as a shame--why isn’t Ginobili’s already impressive resume and three rings enough?


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  2. CDP i agree with you. i will like to add to that argument by bringing in another example of AK47. here is a guy who plays a role in the NBA and plays it well. but in the international game he seems like a russian lebron james. at one point he almost got a penta double (seriously pts, reb, ast, stl, blk) however, international game is different then nba and not everyone's game translate perfectly. i think this is the case with ginobili. his International team is built around him and he succeeds with flying colors, but, his game is more suited for international play. i like the mention of Joe Johnson because i think he is similar in that he only looks like an super-star because of those around him. not to take anything away from ginobili but he is no lebron like star where he can take a team who's best players are a past-his-prime shaq and mo williams and take them to the best record in the nba. so i think ginobili fell into a perfect situation for his skills and abilities and he would not be much better (if at all) if he had his own team.

  3. Man I just randomly came across this article, but this CDP guy seems to be full of hatred and jealousy towards one of the greatest international players of all time, spewing pure vitriol. Manu Ginobili is an All-Time Top50 player in terms of Skill, Will Power, Bball IQ, and his all around contribution to winning games.

    Only those who have watched him play for years will tell you how he has carried the Spurs through long stretches (20-30 game stretches) through several seasons when TP or TimmyD were injured. He has always been the Closer for the Spurs, always making the right plays in the last 5 mins of the game, unlike a certain Laker who believes it is his birthright to shoot over triple teams. Coach Pop has repeatedly said over the years that Manu is the Larry Bird of the Spurs, and that it was his fault that Manu's stats are so screwed up.

    Finally after watching James Harden dominating this season (Manu>Harden --Defense) while leading his own team, after being in the Sixth man role for OKC for years, it is proved now beyond doubt that Manu would certainly be a Top 10 player in the league, had he been given the opportunity to lead his own team.

    TY Keep Hating.