Manu Ginobili was more than a super-sub

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FILE – In this Dec. 8, 2017, file photo, San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili (20) pumps his fist after hitting the winning shot in the final seconds of the team’s NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

When Manu Ginobili announced his retirement on Monday, the NBA world rightly leapt at the opportunity to proclaim him a future Hall of Famer.

With four rings on his fingers and a gold medal around his neck, Ginobili has more than enough hardware to earn himself a bust in the Basketball Hall of Fame. But even if the Spurs somehow lost every Finals and Argentina didn’t pull that stunning upset at the 2004 Olympics, Ginobili still belongs in Springfield.

Ginobili’s two All-Star appearances don’t do him justice. Ginobili belongs in the same conversation as Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Allen Iverson when discussing the greatest shooting guards of the 2000s. The difference between Ginobili and those players is that Ginobili was a small dagger in a league full of sledgehammers.

The NBA in the 2000s was dominated by long stretches of hero ball. Just roll out the basketball, put it in Kobe’s hands and let him attack the defense over and over. Ginobili was the player that would kill you slowly—a textbook backdoor cut here, a behind the back pass to Tim Duncan there, and Ginobili would have 15 points and five assists before the half, despite not playing the first six minutes of the game. Like Brad Stevens inserts Marcus Smart into games to cause defensive mismatches, Popovich would unleash Ginobili to create as much offensive havoc as possible. He would use every angle and fit the ball into passing windows the defense didn’t even know were there to generate offense in an era where offense wasn’t at a premium.

Ginobili willingly came off the bench for almost all his career because he knew it was best for the team’s success. If Ginobili wanted to, he could have easily forced a trade to another team and averaged 25 points per game for the majority of his career. Instead, he accepted the role as the NBA’s premier sixth man, sacrificing individual glory to be just another piece for one of the league’s most dominant teams.

That isn’t to say that Ginobili couldn’t take over a game by himself on occasion. Look no further than Argentina’s run to glory in 2004. During those eight games, Ginobili was Argentina’s unquestioned leader, averaging 19.3 points. In the semifinal game against Team USA, Ginobili was the best player on the floor in a game that included LeBron James, Tim Duncan and Dwyane Wade. In the gold medal game against Italy, he seamless slipped back into his role as the backup dancer, feeding Luis Scola and (checks notes) Alejandro Ariel Montecchia in a 15-point blowout win.

The three seasons that Ginobili did start the majority of the Spurs’ games he averaged 16 points per game and made two All-Star teams. Still not the eye popping resume some other shooting guards boast, but Ginobili was playing in a system that rewarded grind-it-out defense and had Tim Duncan to lead the charge.

Where Ginobili really shined was during the playoffs. During the 2005 playoffs, Ginobili averaged 20.8 points on .507 percent shooting and collected 5.8 rebounds per game. In his next 88 playoff games, a sample size stretching to 2011, he averaged 18.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists. In the postseason, Ginobili has a higher VORP than Ray Allen, Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady.

Perhaps no better moment summarizes Ginobili’s career then the final moments of the Spurs’ 2017 playoff run. With retirement rumors swirling, the home fans chanting his name and Pop asking him if he wanted back in, Ginobili waved him off and placed a towel over his head.

It could have been a great moment, a heartwarming highlight for the ages. The second-best player of the team’s most successful era taking a chance to finally bask in the spotlight. The player that had given up more than anyone else returning the love of the only people who truly knew just how much he sacrificed.

Instead, Ginobili was just fine sitting on the bench once again.


Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at bryan.lambert@uconn.edu.

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