Avoidable Contusíon: Manu Ginobili Must Remain a San Antonio Spur

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IMarch 29, 2010

Manu Ginobili raced in from behind and sent a would-be layup and an All-Star into the first row.

His victim, this time, was Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett.

Sunday's box score did not credit Ginobili for any blocks, but anyone who watched the San Antonio Spurs crush the Celtics 94-73 should remember the play.

Mere weeks ago, Oklahoma City Forward Kevin Durant sprinted down the court for what looked to be an uncontested slam. A bucket that would have knotted the score.

Instead, Ginobili entered the picture at warp speed and erased the first time All-Star's breakaway dunk. Get that weak stuff out of here, the Spurs guard said with one amazing leap and a highlight reel swat.

The Spurs also won that game 94-87. Credit Ginobili for game saving plays in the team's other two victories over the neophyte Thunder.

He saved his own errant pass right to Richard Jefferson for a game-winner in an overtime tilt at the Ford Center in January. He drew a foul, nailed three of four clutch free throws, and stole a critical pass to help the Spurs fend off the Thunder last week.

Thanks to a 3-1 season series edge—should the squads end the year with identical records—San Antonio would get the seeding advantage.

Friday night, two days after a disheartening pratfall at home to the L.A. Lakers, Ginobili again willed the Spurs past a team ahead of them in the standings.

The Cleveland Cavaliers own the league's best record and employ the reigning MVP in LeBron James.

As the Kenyon Martin and George Karl-less Denver Nuggets fall, as the Dallas Mavericks crash back to earth, and as the Phoenix Suns pile up overrated victory after overrated victory, the Spurs' surge matters.

It matters because Ginobili still does.

Midway through Spike Lee's documentary "Kobe Doin' Work," Kobe Bryant points at Manu Ginobili and then looks at the camera. "That's a bad man."

The Ginobili that sparked Bryant to lob such a compliment in a self-serving film has returned.

In truth, he never left.

Letting Ginobili sign elsewhere this summer would be really bad for the Spurs, and I'm not using Bryant inspired flattery here.

His agent Herb Rudoy has told the San Antonio Express-News his client would consider a contract extension before season's end. Ginobili can become a free agent July 1, and given his monstrous play of late, there will be no shortage of suitors wanting to pry him from the Alamo City.

Ginobili's departure would crush Tim Duncan's chances of winning another title before he calls it quits. Fans might storm the AT&T Center with torches, pitchforks, and axes in protest.

His future remains uncertain, but this fact does not: Gregg Popovich does not want to lose the player he calls "the greatest competitor I've ever coached."

Ginobili, for his part, does not want to learn a new system or play with any other power forward and point guard. Duncan and Tony Parker do not want to play with another shooting guard.

Odds are he'll return with a higher price tag. Even then, he will rank as one of the league's best bargains.

How many franchises would love to find a crunch time superstar with the third to last pick in the draft? How many of those would believe you could keep such a championship hero with $10 million or less?

If LeBron James and Dwyane Wade salivate at the thought of this summer's free agent bonanza, in which they are the chief stars, Ginobili likely dreads July 1 more with each passing day.

The Spurs give him an opportunity no other contender could. Even at 32, alongside a Parker in his prime, he rules winning time.

Sunday's rout highlighted that.

Who assisted on Robert Horry's go-ahead three in Game Five of the 2005 NBA Finals? When Duncan nailed a rare three-pointer to send a playoff opener against the Suns into double overtime, who threw the perfect pass that allowed the post behemoth to set his feet and shoot in rhythm?

Who scored the final eight points in the second overtime of that series defining win?

If Ginobili bolted for Cleveland, he would play second or third fiddle to James, Antawn Jamison, or Shaquille O'Neal in the clutch. Not to mention Mo Williams and Delonte West.

The Spurs made him an NBA star, and he in turn solidified a dynasty.

GM R.C. Buford might be sandbagged by an exorbitant payroll this summer.

He cannot afford, however, to let Ginobili leave.

Team Was Worried About Commitment to Argentina

Credit the Spurs brass for not embracing bad business. The last thing Buford wanted was to give Ginobili the insurance to play for his home country in the World Championships.

The last time he suited up for Argentina, the Spurs and Ginobili paid dearly. In the early part of this season, many wondered if the slashing guard's ankle would ever recover.

Hip and groin injuries had also sidelined him.

His decision to defend his gold medal in Beijing instead of resting irked Popovich. The coach, though, reluctantly understood and empathized.

Ginobili was offered the chance to carry his nation's flag at the opening ceremonies. A gold medal is a precious piece of hardware, and no one could have asked him to watch his teammates try for another without him.

If injured, Wade and James can be replaced on the U.S. squad by Durant and other talented youngsters. There was no one waiting in Argentina's wings to take over for Ginobili.

Winning is a part of his DNA. What made Ginobili Hall of Fame material also clouded his judgment that summer.

Count it as one reason the Spurs have yet to ink him to a new deal.

Ginobili Shows Unflappable Commitment to Spurs

The player Brent Barry once dubbed "el contusíon" has looked like his championship clinching self for much of 2010.

The Spurs reside in sixth place instead of eighth, despite a hand injury to Tony Parker, because Ginobili has carried the team on his back.

The squad finished a murderous week with a commendable 3-2 record. The Spurs lost in overtime at Atlanta and at home to L.A. They beat Oklahoma City, Cleveland, and Boston.

Had Duncan made more than two field goals, and had other players put the ball in the hole in the second half, the Spurs would have also bested the Lakers.

The morning after Wednesday's game, NBA observers were buzzing about Ron Artest's lockdown defense. It is easier, of course, to defend a star getting no help from his teammates.

Kobe Bryant should know all about that.

The truth was obvious last week. The offense became a Ginobili or bust operation, and an aging Duncan could not carry his usual share of the load.

The Spurs head into tonight's match against the league-worst New Jersey Nets with an 11-4 record in March.

In two of those four losses, Ginobili gave them a chance, help willing, to get in the 'W' column.

He poured in 38 points at Quicken Loans Arena, but San Antonio bowed to a James-less Cleveland 97-95. Ginobili was the only reason the Spurs ever sniffed a win that night.

Roger Mason, as he has done for much of the year, bricked a wide open trey that would have tied the score. He finished his dismal outing 0-8 from beyond the arc.

Wednesday against the Lakers, Mason missed wide open look after wide open look.

It would be understandable, then, if Ginobili decided to weigh his options this summer.

He might want to play for a team capable of executing down the stretch against the Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers. San Antonio finished 0-7 against both foes.

The Spurs once owned those squads. Maybe they could resurrect that dominance in a playoff rematch.

With this Ginobili, no team save the Lakers should want to meet the Spurs in the opening round of the playoffs.

Anyone can see that a healthy Ginobili would have made a difference in the 2008 Western Conference Finals and in last year's first round ouster at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks.

Buford and Popovich should know the next step.

Jefferson Acquisition Can Still Work

The Spurs' hallmark offseason get does not care where he fits into Popovich's rotation as long as he plays with Ginobili as much as possible.

In the team's trio of gritty wins this week, Ginobili led the way. Jefferson followed.

No one can look at Jefferson's consecutive 16 point outings against two elite defenses and declare the deal that landed him in San Antonio hopeless.

He weaved through Cavs and Celtics for layups and delivered emphatic slam dunks in transition. He was everything this last weekend that Popovich wanted last June.

The Jefferson of late is the athletic difference maker Buford coveted. As Mark Jackson said during a recent telecast on ESPN "if the guy's lost a step, I'd love to lose a step, too."

I have been as hard on Jefferson as anyone. With an altitudinous contract comes soaring expectations.

In recording his second double-double of the season, in Sunday's thrashing of the Celtics (16 points, 11 rebounds), Jefferson delivered another encouraging flash.

Ginobili has found ways to get the veteran forward involved. With the Friday and Sunday versions of Jefferson, the Spurs can remain competitive in the West for the remainder of the Duncan era.

All of that promise goes kaput if Ginobili leaves.

West Behind Lakers is Wide Open

The Spurs are not going to win their first championship in an even year. A Ginobili averaging 40 points could not change that.

They might not be better than the Lakers now, but their chances against some of the other hopefuls are as good as anyone else's.

The Nuggets sans Martin play some of the worst perimeter defense Adrian Dantley has likely ever seen. Denver has lost to woeful New York with proper rest and went 1-3 this week.

Those two Nugget wins in San Antonio might not matter as much now. How a team plays in March always matters.

The slumping Dallas Mavericks could make a convincing case.

Many analysts want to celebrate the streaking Suns beating up the West's worst in Minnesota. They have won six in a row, right?

Those giving the Suns a longer look should still see a defenseless bunch that routinely surrenders 100 points. Robin Lopez may block a few shots, and the second unit does defend with an admirable energy.

That does not change the ease with which Phoenix's opponents score inside. The Suns could not beat the Lakers, either. They played with a full compliment, too.

Imagine this dream scenario for the Spurs, should they finish sixth or seventh. The Suns could continue their charge, given the number of weaklings remaining on their schedule, and seize the second or third seed.

If the Suns could not beat the Spurs when had a much better shot at a title, why would they do it now?

Phoenix's 116-104 victory earlier in the year means little. Another home win over San Antonio would still ring hollow.

The Suns have always been able to challenge the Spurs in the regular season. The playoffs have proved their annual undoing.

Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili would take turns undressing them as they did in 2005, 2007, and 2008.

The Nuggets boast the physical talent required to oust the Lakers. Does anyone trust their collective acumen or psyche in a seven game series against the defending champions?

After an impressive 13 game winning streak helmed by deadline acquisitions Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood, and mainstay Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs have played defenseless, offensively predictable basketball.

Dallas will always own its game seven overtime victory against the San Antonio in 2006, even if it never wins a title under Mark Cuban's stewardship.

If the Spurs can avoid the Mavs and Lakers in the first round, Popovich could not hate his team's chances against the Nuggets, Suns, or even the Jazz.

The Spurs had chances in the fourth quarter to win every contest against the Jazz. An uncontested Matt Bonner floater would have sealed at least one victory.

After the Indiana Pacers threw up 122 points in a regulation win over the Utah Jazz at Conseco Fieldhouse this weekend, do you trust Carlos Boozer when he swears this edition is different?

Unless the Spurs somehow sneak into the top half of the West bracket, a matchup with the Blazers seems unlikely.

Portland could give L.A. a six game scare, but anyone expecting Bryant to ever lose in the first round again is delusional.

San Antonio's prospects of doing some postseason damage look a lot better now than they did in January.

The Spurs find themselves at a crossroads with the star who has made this recent renaissance possible. Popovich almost lost Duncan in 2000.

The task he and Buford must accomplish before season's end: make sure the same scenario does not play out with Ginobili.

No Manu, No Chance

Duncan may never recover the spring in his step to match his lethal acuity. He struggles against length more than he ever has, and 2-12 and 1-10 outings in the same month do not offer reason to believe that can change.

Even if the Spurs never win another title, Ginobili can help Duncan retire the way he wants.

The Spurs remain an above average team with three of the most battle tested players in any sport.

Another young seven-footer could also make a massive difference. The frontline needs more size and athleticism.

What if Buford finds a way to get Tiago Splitter stateside this summer, re-signs Bonner on the cheap, and unearths another draft gem?

With Ginobili back in the fold, the Spurs would still have a chance to be the NBA's kings again.

All Duncan and Popovich ever needed or wanted was an opportunity.

Now management has another one it cannot ignore.

Ginobili, irreplaceable and tougher than titanium, has earned the right to retire a Spur alongside Duncan.

Another injury could cripple him five games into the 2010-2011 campaign, but Popovich and Buford must take that chance. Two or three years seems like a reasonable contract length.

No one else can carry the Spurs the way Ginobili has this month. No one else can give them this puncher's chance at postseason success.

The only thing worse than losing Manu Ginobili to another season-ending ailment would be letting his proud ankles crumple elsewhere.

When healthy, he performs more nightly magic tricks than the two Davids—Blaine and Copperfield.

What if he took his magic act to another town, endeared himself to another fanbase, and enfeebled San Antonio?

With the Spurs up 14 in Sunday's eventual rout, Ginobili rebounded a Paul Pierce miss, ran the length of the floor, and one-handed a triple off the glass just before the third quarter buzzer.

He did it, as Popovich would say, because he's Manu Ginobili.

The Spurs must retain his services for the same reason.