You know who was the only player in the NBA to play over 600 minutes and have above .600 effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage and an above 30% assist percentage? I'll give you a hint, it rhymes with Nanu Ninobili. If I reduce those number to 550 on eFG% and TS% and to a 25% assist percentage, he is joined by LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Steve Nash and...Jordan Farmar?
You know who led all shooting guards in assist rate? Manu Ginobili. Pure Point Rating? Manu Ginobili. Manu assists teammates at a higher rate than Russell Westbrook, Ty Lawson, Mike Conley and Jason Kidd, to name a few. Manu Ginobili is a scoring point guard.
Now, those of you who have been unfortunate enough to follow what I write know that I've been saying this for some time now. That's why I want a combo guard and not a traditional point next to him in the second unit and why, as much as I love Kawhi and think it was the right decision, I still miss George Hill.
What makes Manu a shooting guard is his inability to guard point guards, but on offense you want him running things. He's not Ray Allen or Richard Hamilton - guys that thrive playing off the ball, curling off screens and just shooting. Manu needs the ball in his hands and knows what to do with it when he gets it. The only reason why he doesn't run more sets is because the Spurs have another elite scoring guard that can create for himself and others in Tony Parker and, unlike Manu, Tony is not a particularly good off-the-ball player.
So that's who Manu is. Now let's get to the point of this series:
How can he improve?
Over the last couple of seasons Manu has posted similar per 36 minutes stats. Points per game have dropped slightly while efficiency from the field and the 3-point line increased. He's also getting more boards and assisting more. This is consistent with his evolution from scorer to scorer/creator and it's not a bad thing. So which areas of Manu's game could use some improvement?
Throughout his career, Manu has been a good defensive player. Not lock-down, but disruptive and always ready to make an impact play. The Spurs had Bruce Bowen for containment, which freed Ginobili to play passing lanes. Without Bruce and with Tim Duncan devolving from "transcendent defensive beast" to "great defensive player", Manu has had to change his defensive strategy and become a more conservative player in a lot of facets. At his best, he's still a nightmare for opponents because you can never be sure what he'll do, but sometimes he becomes tentative and the defense suffers because of it.
Most of us noticed Manu playing off his man sometimes to soft-double a post player, only to see the guy he was supposed to be guarding hit a 3 after a feed from the post. That is in part by design (the soft-double, not the resulting 3) and it can wreck havoc on some post players, since not knowing when, from where or if the double team will come can throw even accomplished post threats out of rhythm, as Al Jefferson can attest to. The problem is there's a fine line between helping guard two players and guarding none. If you help before the post player starts to work, there's an easy pass to an open shooter in the perimeter available. If you help too late, the soft-double does nothing. Being in and out of the rotation because of injury surely played a part, but Manu sometimes struggled getting the timing right and ended up closing out too late. With some reps, I'm confident he'll get there.
The other sign his off-ball defense needs to improve comes from his steal percentage, which was a career low 1.6% last season. Since he injured his hand going for a steal, it's possible that Manu played it safe from time to time. I'm OK with that - health is really the most important thing to consider with Ginobili. At the same time, Manu's biggest impact on defense comes from his disruptive style, and he will need that back if the Spurs are to improve on D. I'm not suggesting being overly-aggressive trying to chase steals, but a return to the top 20 in steal percentage after ranking 9th in 2010/11 would go a long way to help the Spurs create turnovers, something they are not particularly great at. As a bonus, having another guy with quick hands to go with Blair, Kawhi and Green might not only help the defense, but also trigger some fast break points, which coincidentally is another facet the Spurs could afford to improve.
Increase free throw attempts or develop a mid-range game
Manu is an unbelievably smart offensive player. While some of his peers, like Kobe and Wade, launch mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper, Manu takes most of his shots either at the rim or from 3 and tries to draw fouls. Unfortunately, Manu has been having a hard time getting to the line recently ; just last season he shot 1.5 less free throws per 36 minutes than his career average. His flopper reputation, fair or not, probably plays a part on why the refs sometimes swallow their whistles when Manu drives. The rule change on the so-called "rip shot" is also probably to blame, as Manu was a master of getting calls by pulling up whenever a defender reached. Other than those external factors, Manu has been taking less shots close to the basket (3.8 shots at the rim per game in 2009/10, 2.6 in 2011/12). Getting those shot attempts up and forcing refs to make decisions more often would ideally result in more free throw attempts.
If Manu's diminishing speed on his first step limits him when trying to drive or he doesn't want to risk injury by absorbing contact at the rim during the regular season, developing a mid-range shot could be a good way to keep defenses on their toes. Teams guard Manu well behind the 3-point line, because he can pull up at any time, and bigs try to contest him at the rim, because he is a great finisher. There's room for Manu to work in between, especially after screens. Ginobili's mid-range jumper is almost as good as Tony's; the difference is Manu uses it much less. I'm not saying he should go from his recent one shot a game from 16-23 feet to a Parker-esque five, but going back to around two per game would force the defense to adjust to account for the new weapon. Adding variety to his shot selection would be a good way for Manu to keep defenders guessing and limit wear and tear during the regular season. While more mid-range shots would surely mean a slip on efficiency, sometimes taking not-so-good shots helps set up the ones you want to take and I believe this would be one of those instances.
As you see, Manu seems to not only be maintaining his level, but actually becoming a more well-rounded player. He's an amazing P&R ball-handler, he's shooting incredibly well and he's generally having a positive impact on the team. Aside from "play more minutes without getting hurt", these are the only areas in which I wish Manu would improve for this upcoming season.
Disclaimer: Manu Ginobili is my all-time favorite player, so be advised: there might be some inadvertent bias in play here. Don't be afraid to call me on it.