By Michael Pina
Manu Ginobili has been the NBA's most unconventionally potent basketball player for a little over a decade. He performs in his own transformative way, combining the mesmerizing touch of a clown juggling three burning chainsaws with the basic effectiveness of a sewing machine.
Now 36 years old, he's having one of the most efficient seasons of his Hall of Fame career. But is all this awesomeness sustainable? Or can he be even more methodical in the future?
It's strange to ask two questions that directly contradict each other, but so goes the perplexing Ginobili, who can frustrate and impress at the same time. Let's begin with a look at how the San Antonio Spurs are impacted by his presence. (Spoiler alert: it's positive.)
The Spurs annihilate everything when Ginobili is on the court, outscoring opponents by 14.7 points per 100 possessions with an offensive rating of 114.9. They average 112.9 points per 48 minutes when he plays, and 96.5 when he doesn't. All are team-highs, per NBA.com.
Gregg Popovich's fourth-favorite five-man unit is the all-bench grouping of Ginobili, Patty Mills, Jeff Ayers, Marco Belinelli and Boris Diaw. Of all lineups that have tallied at least 60 minutes this season, that group trails only New Orleans' Tyreke Evans / Jrue Holiday / Anthony Davis / Ryan Anderson / Eric Gordon five-headed hydra in points per possession.
The Spurs haven't used that specific unit since the middle of December, but there have been other bench-heavy groups Ginobili's led with insane success. (For a larger sample size, in 218 minutes the three-man unit of Ginobili, Diaw, and Mills has outscored opponents by an insane 19.8 points per 100 possessions.)
These figures all suggest that Ginobili is San Antonio's best player, which could be true but -- thanks to Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Matt Bonner -- probably isn't. Pointing out Ginobili's reduced playing time is crucial when evaluating him as a player. He's in his mid-30s and averaging only 23.8 minutes per game. A good portion of them come against opposing benches instead of the best players teams have to offer.
As far as 36-year-olds in recent history go, different players in different roles have accepted different amounts of playing time. Jason Kidd averaged 36.0 minutes through 80 games in 2010, Reggie Miller did 36.6 in 2002, Steve Nash was at 33.3 in 2011, and non-human Ray Allen weaved his way through 34.0 in the lockout shortened 2012.
This isn't exactly new ground for Ginobili. His current playing time is marginally higher than that of both the past two seasons and his rookie year. He's been a 30-minute-per-night player only twice in his career. That accumulated rest might explain why Ginobili remains a game-changing talent over 10 years into an NBA career that doesn't include Olympic competition and a brief tenure as King of the Italian League.
Ginobili was last an NBA All-Star in 2011, averaging 20.7 points, 5.8 assists, 4.4 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per 36 minutes with a 21.7 PER and 58.1 True Shooting percentage. This year he's averaging 19.0 points, 7.0 assists, 5.4 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per 36 minutes with a 20.9 PER and 60.0 True Shooting percentage.
The two big differences between these two seasons (so far) is 6.5 minutes per game and a spot in the starting lineup. Ginobili's fundamental playing style has only changed a bit.
He's shooting 74.2% in the restricted area, where just under a third of all his field goal attempts are coming from (He shot 61.8% there last year). But despite all those attempts in the paint Ginobili is hardly getting to the line. His current free-throw rate is the lowest of his career. It's yet to matter.
In December Ginobili posted an otherworldly 50.4/42.6/92.6 shooting split. His jumper remains a permanent green light; he shoots when he's open, ignoring petty variables like "time" or "the score."
So far, it has been gravy. Ginobili's connected on nearly half his three-point attempts in transition. Teams that instinctually retreat into the paint to protect their own rim are instead forced to pick Ginobili up 25 feet from the basket. All he needs is an inch.
In the following clip Ginobili is the only Spur to touch the ball off the outlet pass, but he's wide open and takes his shot before the defense is ever able to set itself up.
Ginobili's passing remains meticulously timed and full of risk. He'd try to fit a basketball through a key hole if the sport asked its players to do that sort of thing. Most of his havoc instead comes after he pump fakes his man into the air before steering himself into the paint.
Few players are more daring visionaries in the pick-and-roll; Ginobili regularly leaves his feet before deciding where the ball should go. This either results in an ugly turnover (26.1% of the time to be exact, per mySynergySports) or a wonderful opportunity to catch the defense flat-footed. There's little in-between with Ginobili, and the line separating failure from success can be razor thin.
Here's Ginobili in the strong side corner, about to get free with a pindown screen from Mills to then take the ball from Tiago Splitter.
The handoff turns into a side pick-and-roll with Ginobili and Splitter. Clippers backup center Ryan Hollins is in position to hedge. While this is going on, Mills replaces Ginobili in the strong side corner.
Ginobili dribbles towards the top of the key and decides to act before Clippers agitator Matt Barnes can get back to agitating, and Hollins can drop back to Splitter. With his eyes glued to an open Mills, and Bonner holding Blake Griffin out near the weak side corner, Ginobili leaps in the air and needles a dart into the rolling Splitter's chest.
It's the riskier of two decisions -- to go for a contested two points instead of an open three -- but only a handful of players have the right balance of instinct, skill, and nerve to regularly create moments like this one.
The 4.7 assists he's dishing per game are the third highest of his career -- all the more impressive when you factor in his limited minutes -- as is his 29.5 assist rate. According to SportVU, Ginobili is creating 21.9 points by assist per 48 minutes, sixth in the league among players who've appeared in at least 33 games. (LeBron James is at 20.9.)
As creatively intuitive as he is forcing the issue, Ginobili is even less predictable moving without the ball. This season he's been as fantastic as ever working angles, faking one way before lunging in a different direction. He's so great lulling his man to sleep, changing his speed, setting a screen before using one himself. Defending him one-on-one is bowling in zero gravity. The man is full of tricks.
Here's Ginobili getting slippery against the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz.
Nobody plays professional basketball like Manu Ginobili. There will be no replication after he retires. He's refreshing on a nightly basis, a beautiful jazz solo embedded within the San Antonio Spurs' blemish-free orchestra.
It's cliché to suggest we should appreciate Ginobili while he's still around, but thanks to his basketball intelligence, unpredictably zany clairvoyance, and systematic minute restrictions, who's to say he'll be leaving us anytime soon?
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Michael Pina is a writer from Boston who lives in Los Angeles. His work appears at ESPN, The Classical, Bleacher Report, and Boston Magazine. Follow him @MichaelVPina.