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The Last Stand Of Manu Ginobili, NBA Unicorn

Once it becomes apparent a star player’s career has begun winding down, it’s a ritual among NBA fans to hit the crates and dig out the old hits. Kobe’s got the 81, but what about that 48 and 16 in Game 4 against the Kings in 2001? Sure, Jordan gave the Knicks the double nickel in 1995, but have you watched the highlights on that 51-point game as a 38-year-old lately? Good golly. On and on down the line — Magic’s 42-15-7 when he was forced to play center as a rookie, Hakeem’s prolonged annihilation of David Robinson’s Spurs in 1995 playoffs — the impactful moments of a star player’s career are preserved in the box score fossil record.

That’s how things go for the NBA’s most venerated stars. Just not for Manu Ginobili, who will turn 40 this July and finds his San Antonio Spurs down 3-0 to the Golden State Warriors.

Ginobili, who could potentially play his last game in tonight’s Game 4, is unlike any other star of his caliber in that his game logs never quite captured his effect on the court. Ginobili’s career was borne out in moments. And pulling a moment out of a Play Index can be difficult.

Mostly, this came down to playing time. Ginobili has averaged just 25.8 minutes per game for his career and had just two seasons in which he played more than 30 per game, leaving him without the per-game numbers of his peers. But dig into his per-minute stats, and you begin to see his true effect in the game.

By Win Shares per 48 minutes since 1960, Ginobili career number is 28th, just behind Dirk Nowitzki. If we refine that to just the first 10 years of a player’s career — since dinosaurs like Manu and Dirk get docked points for playing a bunch of years in their decline phase — Ginobili rises to 16th, tucked between Larry Bird and Jerry West. Minute for minute, Ginobili out-produced contemporaries such as Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, though he was never asked to carry a team the way they were, either.

It’s franchise-player talent stuffed into a super-sub role, and it makes it difficult to find a historical comparison for Ginobili. His comps via Basketball Reference’s similarity score, for instance, contain a puzzling mix of Terry Porter, Jeff Hornacek and Allen Iverson — three profoundly unsimilar players. (My notion for Manu’s aesthetic comparison was always a stubbier Tracy McGrady, but Ginobili’s catch-all style makes him comparable to any tallish All-NBA level guard from the 3-point era.)

Yet even among those allegedly similar players, Ginobili’s career stands apart from the others, again, owing to his minutes. We can quantify the number of “big game” performances using John Hollinger’s Game Score, a measure of how well a player played in a given contest. A 20-game score is something like Ginobili’s 27-point, five-assist, three-steal performance in Game 3 of the 2010 Western Conference semis; 30-game score is more like a 40-point, nine-assist, six-rebound performance from 2005. Ginobili’s short minutes meant that while he was producing at a Larry Bird level possession by possession, he had fewer big game lines than Hersey Hawkins.

NO. OF GAMES WITH A GAME SCORE OF …
PLAYER SIMILARITY SCORE 20 30
Manu Ginobili 110
14
Terry Porter 89.8 171
21
Jeff Hornacek 89.2 164
15
Allen Iverson 88.6 381
92
Vince Carter 88.2 267
57
Jason Kidd 87.8 244
25
Eddie Jones 87.6 127
6
Hal Greer 86.2
Lenny Wilkins 85.7
Ray Allen 85.4 239
28
Hersey Hawkins 85.3 138
18
Manu Ginobili’s legacy runs deeper than single games

Similarity scores for first 14 seasons of career. Game Score since 1983-84.

Source: basketball-reference.com

Manu does have his share of signature games, such as a career-high 48-pointer against the upstart Suns in 2005. But his legacy runs deeper than single games. Ginobili made the eurostep’s side-to-side weave on the way to the rim as central to the modern game as the crossover or step-back. He was the posterboy for the rise of flopping, but he was also one of the first guards to combine a high free-throw rate with a high volume of 3s. By our homebrewed Morey Index, which finds the players who lean most heavily on three pointers and free throws,1 Ginobili’s 2004-05 ranks 56th of all player seasons since 1980, with multiple other appearances in the top 100. He punctuated that season with a standout Game 2 of the 2005 Finals — back when Ginobili had hair and Al Michaels called basketball games — with 27 points on just eight field goal attempts, going 4 for 5 from 3 and 11 for 13 from the line.

But not every piece of a player’s game can be quantified, and with Ginobili it feels as if more than most goes unaccounted for — whether it’s the no-look passes that were as much a danger to the cotton candy vendors as they were to defenders or the little funk he put on something as simple as an entry pass. Ginobili has always been reckless — he smashed the bat, and fouled Dirk and played with an abandon that had Gregg Popovich with one breath holding him up as an exemplar of competition, and with the next reminding him, “Manu: It’s f—ing September. Never do that again in September,” as quoted by ESPN.com. Every one of his minutes was a delight because you never knew what would happen next and, you suspected, neither did he.

A lot of things can happen between now and the end of the Western Conference finals. The San Antonio Spurs may push the series to a gentleman’s sweep. They may even force the Golden State Warriors to six or seven games, or even take the series. But regardless of the outcome, the time we have left with the inimitable Manu Ginobili is running short. He has spent a career packing memorable moments into short minutes; we can hope he’s got one or two more on his way out.

Footnotes

  1. Using the geometric mean of free-throw rate and 3-point attempt rate.

Kyle Wagner is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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