Are Manu Ginobili's Days as an NBA Star Officially Over?
In terms of the both eye test and the stat sheet, this day has been coming for a couple of years now.
Ginobili was named to the All-NBA third team as recently as 2011, when he averaged 17.4 points and exhibited mastery over the full range of trick shots, crafty passes and timely cuts in his arsenal. Contrary to the popular image of Manu as a sixth-man extraordinaire, he started 79 of 80 games in 2010-11, the last season he could.
Since then, Ginobili has been consistently banged up, accelerating the 35-year-old's decline. He missed 32 games in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, then followed that up by missing 22 games in the next full campaign.
Credit Manu, though. He's such an intelligent, technically sound player that he tricked us into overlooking his subtle slippage.
He played just 23.3 minutes per game in 2011-12, which fans and analysts explained away as a product of his return to his role as sixth man. True, but it was still his least run since his rookie year—a product of Gregg Popovich protecting his player, but also not trusting him to consistently give him more time than that.
Manu made Pop look like a genius when he saw the court that year, nearly putting up 50-40-90 percentages in his limited time. Ginobili basically matched his usual per-36 numbers as his hyper-efficient shooting covered up his declining athleticism and stamina.
On paper, it seemed Manu had reinvented himself as a dependable beneficiary of the Spurs system rather than the flamboyant creator that fuels it. However, that season turned out to be an aberration; the lockout and injuries relegated those numbers into a small sample size.
He shot 53 percent from the field that season; his previous career high was 47 percent way back in 2004-05. Manu also shot a career-high 41 percent from three, breaking the 40-percent mark for just the second time in his career.
What happened next is clear in hindsight, but the logic is so obvious we should have known at the time: The outlying shooting numbers regressed to toward the mean, while the bangs and bruises simply accumulated.
In 2012-13, defenders more freely played up on a slower, less agile Manu than they once did, holding him to 42 percent from the field and 35 from beyond the arc. Both of those numbers are the second-worst rates of Ginobili's career.
The story has gotten even worse in the playoffs. Through 18 games, Ginobili is averaging 10.6 points on 38 percent from the field and 30 percent from three-point range. Manu has never shot so poorly in postseason play.
This isn't simply a cold streak for Ginobili; this is the player he is now. And since his scoring ability sets up his extraordinary passing, this drop-off has rendered him much more ordinary.
To get a sense of how far he has fallen, consider where he sits in the Spurs' pecking order this postseason.
It's by no means Manu's fault that Danny Green and Gary Neal are losing their minds from beyond the arc, relegating the vet to third on the depth chart at shooting guard. However, Pop is not giving him the same treatment his star teammates are getting.
Even when he played sixth man in his better days, Ginobili wouldn't have run with the second unit in garbage time like he did in the waning minutes of Game 4 of the NBA Finals. As Tim Duncan and Tony Parker looked on from the sidelines, Manu kept his head down and grimly dribbled out the clock of an ugly 109-93 loss.
He didn't have to be on the court anymore; bench-warmers like DeJuan Blair and Nando de Colo had stepped in, but Manu played on while Tracy McGrady never saw any action, garbage time or otherwise.
That's not a job for a star off the bench. By keeping him on the floor while the Miami Heat poured it on, Pop confirmed what the numbers had been implying: Manu Ginobili is a second-unit guy now.
He's still capable of flashes and even stretches of brilliance; that's the smarts coming through where his athleticism no longer can.
For every time he finds an opening and throws down a dunk that brings him back to his 20s, there's another when he comes up short, doesn't try the dunk or can't slash into the lane at all. Watching Ginobili play now is watching a great player understand his limitations and do whatever he can to hide them.
Being able to hide his limitations is not the same as overcoming them, though—especially when he cannot do so consistently. Ginobili is no longer a star player; he's just doing everything he can to conceal that sad, inevitable fact.
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