In praise of the brilliant, baffling Manu Ginobili

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When I went to San Antonio to write this piece on Gregg Popovich (and, later, this piece on Tim Duncan) I was told, time and again, that the most popular San Antonio Spur in town, by far, is Manu Ginobili. At first, I found it a bit curious. I mean, Ginobili has been a terrific player, no question, but he’s certainly not Tim Duncan — who is the best, well, the best whatever-position-he-plays (big-power-center-forward-postman) in the history of professional basketball.

Manu is an amazing scorer and distributor and shooter, but he does not seem quite as much the force of nature that is Tony Parker, who is flashier and a bit less mercurial and speaks with a cool French accent and was married to Eva Longoria.

But, again and again, people said they loved Manu most of all … and watching him again these last few weeks I think I’ve figured out a reason why. I think there’s something about Manu Ginobili that is easy to recognize in ourselves. In the end,we might not connect with the consistent, almost numbing, every day brilliance of Tim Duncan, every move right out of a coach’s clinic, every game a perfect repeat of the one before. That kind of greatness may leave us wonderstruck but, like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it is hard to relate to.

MORE: Duncan, man of mystery … and fundamentals

And so it goes with Tony Parker’s blurring quickness — could we ever identify with a player who, at any point, can simply run around LeBron James? He’s so quick, so mind-blowingly quick, that sometimes he skips a video frame. He’s an optical illusion, and when watching him makes one of those moves you might involuntarily gasp, then pause for an instant to let the mind catch up, then explode in a croak that is half cheer, half disbelief. But, can you envision yourself — even with a few extra helpings of talent — making that move yourself?

Ginobili meanwhile — he’s utterly human. He makes preposterous blunders. He dishes no-look passes that blast the mind. He takes ludicrous shots. He makes some of them. He seemingly wins games singlehandedly. He seems to lose games all by himself too. At times, he seems like the gunner who shows up at the gym and takes every shot. At other times, he seems like the one guy on the floor who sees the game clearly, like he’s wearing Terminator goggles.

Obviously, you only have to look at the last two NBA Finals games to see the contrast. In Game 4 against Miami, Ginobili was a rare kind of abysmal. The numbers don’t quite quantify it — he shot 1-for-5, missed all three of his three-pointers, committed four fouls and one turnover. It’s not good, but it doesn’t tell the story. Maybe this does: Minus-22. That was how his team fared against Miami when he was on the floor. They were outscored by 22 points. There was something about Ginobili in Game 4 that seemed almost jinxed. He was like that guy Mayhem in the insurance commercials.

And Game 5? Well, you already know: Brilliant. Amazing. Spectacular. Ginobili started for the first time all season — seriously, Gregg Popovich should be given some sort of basketball knighthood and just wear robes when he’s on the sidelines — and he made eight of 14 shots, scored 24 points, dished 10 assists, added a steal and a couple of rebounds, and yes, this time he was plus-19. The Heat had no idea what to do when he was on the floor.

MORE: Pop — the bully, the buddy, the winner

The extremes are greater now that Ginobili is older and his body is beat up, but really this has always been true of him.  He has always been great and terrible, unstoppable and un-goable. Thirty two times in his career, he scored 30-plus points. One hundred thirty times he has played at least 20 minutes and scored single digits. He’s had nine games with double digit assists, and 10 games with double digit rebounds, and almost exactly as many when he had no rebounds (10) and no assists (13). He takes dives that are sometimes embarrassing, and he also makes no excuses and points at himself when things go bad. He ranges from the best player on the floor to a very good player to an OK player to invisible to car wreck.

And watching this, night after night, I can see how that gets inside you. Just when you think he’s shed the inconsistencies of the past, he has a game that makes you want to poke out your own eyeballs. Just when you wish the Spurs would just get rid of him, he saves a season with some bit of transcendent genius. In a weird way, it’s like the relationship with your kid. One minute, you want to ship them off to boarding school. The next minute, they bring you to a level of joy that never seemed possible.

I think now of a Spurs fan who tweeted me after Game 4. I had cracked wise about how great Dwyane Wade was in that game and how dreadful Ginobili had been. A brilliant reader named Ray Bailey tweeted back:

And so it was. See, that might be the best part of being a fan of a player — when you know them so well, so deeply, that you sense their patterns and feel their pain and know their rhythms. San Antonio certainly treasures Tim Duncan for being so reliably awe-inspiring and San Antonio certainly adores Tony Parker for being a wizard capable of powerful magic.

But you could see how it is something a little bit different with Ginobili. They have lived with him, died with him, screamed at him and blessed his name. He could cost them Game 6 or he could win them Game 6. They know him, maybe, at a deeper level. And at some point, with Manu, there’s really nothing left to do but love the guy.

Another name to watch at trade deadline: Minnesota’s Jeff Teague

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After a strong start to the season, Minnesota has lost seven in a row and slid back to 10-15. Amazingly, that’s not out of the playoff picture in a West where the back end is much softer than predicted this season, but for the Timberwolves’ brass it’s a reminder they are building towards something bigger down the line.

Jeff Teague, their 31-year-old point guard, is not part of that future.

Which is why they are open to trading him, reports Jon Krawczynski at The Athletic.

The Timberwolves made it known throughout the league last summer that Teague was available for trade and that remains the case right now, league sources said…

For a team that needs a point guard — either a starter or a backup — for a playoff push, Teague could be a nice fit. He has a wealth of playoff experience, is a teammate that generally meshes well in a locker room and in the right system can be an effective scorer.

His $19 million salary is expiring, so the money shouldn’t scare many teams away. But the sheer size of the contract does make it challenging to match up money in a trade.

Teague is averaging 14.4 points and 6.8 assists a game; he’s a solid pick-and-roll point guard who wants the ball in his hands. Which could help a lot of teams, it’s just not how Minnesota wants to play under Ryan Saunders.

It’s unlikely Teague is back in Minnesota next season, which is a big reason he could get moved before the deadline — Minnesota would rather get something than nothing for him.

However, that salary combined with the lack of cap space around the league makes a deal seem difficult, if not unlikely. For all the buzz about trades around the league, this is probably going to be a down trade deadline with only a handful of moves.

Maybe Teague gets moved, but in a related matter don’t expect Andrew Wiggins to be going anywhere.

Could the Knicks get a first-round pick for trading Marcus Morris?

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What are the New York Knicks going to do at the trade deadline?

It’s not a simple question, not with team president Steve Mills is on the hot seat — there’s a long history of GMs/POBOs making bad trades looking for a short-term boost to save their jobs. Will the Knicks trade veterans looking for picks and young players to be part of the future? On top of that, the Knicks are starting to get healthy and have won two in a row. Management may want to let this play out for a while.

The plan is not to make any sudden moves on Sunday — the day most players signed over the summer (nearly 40 percent of the league) can be traded — or early in the trade season. However, the offers are going to come.

Particularly for Marcus Morris.

The veteran forward is leading the Knicks scoring 18.6 points per game, and he’s spacing the floor shooting 48 percent from three. He’s gritty, physical, defends well — exactly the kind of player that can help a team make a playoff run. The Knicks are going to get calls about him, it will be one of the most discussed rumors out there.

Will the Knicks trade Marcus Morris (who is on an expiring contract)? That could come down to can they get a first-round pick, something Mike Vorkunov broke down at The Athletic.

The market for Morris, according to opposing scouts and execs, is probably a team that believes his addition could help push them further into the playoffs. Morris is likely the only player on the Knicks who could get dealt this season who could get a first-round pick back in return, those sources believe. The Knicks could also ask for a young player with upside.

It’s not unanimous, though, that the Knicks would definitely get a first-rounder back for Morris, those scouts and executives say. Drawing a first-round pick is difficult. Last season it was only done by teams willing to take on bad contracts to free up cap space ahead of free agency — something the Knicks were unwilling to do this summer and may not be willing to do now either — and by the Knicks when they traded Porzingis.

This trade season is different from last year because the NBA feels wide open. While there are teams that have separated themselves — Lakers, Bucks, Clippers — those teams have flaws and the gaps to them are not insurmountable. There are teams out there such as Denver, Boston, and others looking at the trade market and thinking one player could make a real difference. Plus, with a very down free agent market next summer, teams feel they may have a better chance of adding now as opposed to waiting until July.

Will those teams throw in a first-round pick to the Knicks for Morris? It seems possible, but it depends on how a quiet market right now starts to heat up and shake out.

It’s going to be an interesting couple of months coming up in New York.

LeBron, what sparked your second half turnaround? “My teammates got on my ass”

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In the first half in Miami Friday night, LeBron James scored 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting, and he had seven turnovers. The Lakers were down eight points at the break and LeBron was -6.

In the second half, LeBron looked more like the guy in contention for an MVP: 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting, 3-of-5 from three, and just one turnover. He was at the heart the Lakers come-from-behind win, 113-110 win.

What sparked that turnaround? From LeBron’s walk-off interview on ESPN with Israel Gutierrez:

“My teammates got on my ass. They told me you’re playing too passive, thinking about the game way too much instead of read and reacting and doing what you do… [Anthony Davis] got on me, Boogie Cousins got on me and they told me to just be me. So I was like, ‘Thank god we have two halves in a basketball game,’ where I can flush the first one and then come back and try to help us win.” 

After the game, Anthony Davis said it is the entire team’s willingness to accept constructive criticism has been a key to the Lakers’ fast start.

For most of the season it has been LeBron getting on his teammates’ asses that has fueled the 23-3 Lakers. Not only is he playing at the highest level we have seen from him this early in the season since Miami — 25.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, and a career-high 10.8 assists a game — but he’s pushing his teammates defensively and not letting them take plays off.

The Lakers have won six in a row, four of those on the road where they are 13-1 this season. The road tests continue this week, including Friday night against Milwaukee. Also looming out there in 11 days, a Christmas showdown with the Clippers.

LeBron can’t have an off first half in those games, and he knows it.

Toughest player to defend in NBA? Jonathan Isaac votes for James Harden

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Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac is turning heads this season. He has turned into the defensive backbone of the Magic, a long, switchable player who can protect the rim and make plays out on the perimeter.

In the past week, coach Steve Clifford asked Isaac to match up with Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and LeBron James. So who was the toughest to guard? (Via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.)

Harden dropped 54 on Orlando to lead Houston to the win. It was his second game in a row with 50+ points and hitting 10 threes.

Nobody should be arguing with Isaac here. For one thing, he’s the guy who had to guard them all this week, his opinion is informed. Harden has six points while Isaac was matched up on him Friday night, but the Rockets scored 14 others. Harden did most of his damage when Evan Fournierwas on him, scoring 18. (Via NBA.com matchup data.)

One could make the case that Antetokounmpo and LeBron contribute more on the defensive end and that makes them more valuable (a debate that will come up again at end-of-season awards time), but as a pure scorer there is nobody like Harden. Ever. He has ridiculous shooting range and the best stepback in the league, he’s physically strong and finishes through contact on drives, and he has turned drawing fouls into an art form. Defending James Harden is next to impossible (and incredibly frustrating for those tasked with it).

Houston has built its entire offense around Harden, and they are contenders because of it.