Manu was not looking good at the beginning of the season, I think we can all agree with that. Back spasms prevented him from doing Manu things early on while making him uncharacteristically turnover prone (even for his standards) and unable to hit outside shots consistently. But as the season progresses Ginobili has shown a lot of progress in practically every area of the game.
Let's break Manu's play down in three sections of ten games each and then devote a little time to his game against the Knicks.
Games 1-10: Hell
In his first ten games, Manu had an assist-to-turnover ratio of less than two. He shot 38.8% from the field and 29.7% from three. His free throw percentage was 76.5% and he pulled down a measly 2.3 boards. Manu finished that stint with 9.9 points, in 22 minutes a game. But the stats can't show how bad some of those turnovers were or how awkward his stance was on defense. The back was certainly bothering him. But so was the rust of missing most of the preseason. There were fans calling for Manu to not be on the court at the end of games because he might hurt the team, and while I didn't agree with them, I could see where those fans were coming from. Ginobili was constantly overshooting passes and clanking shots. He was getting to the rim but not finishing particularly well and getting to the line but shooting well below his career averages. He was also taking a lot of mid-range jumpers and missing a lot. He was inefficient, predictable and un-clutch. He was not Manu.
Games 11-20: Purgatory
We start to see progress. Pop extended his minutes and Manu started shooting a lot more, especially from three. He reduced his attempts from mid-range, favoring the long ball, which he hit at a respectable 38.2%. His rebounding picked up and Ginobili became more cautious with the ball, which led to less assists but also fewer turnovers. The stellar 3.0 assist to turnover ratio and his efficiency from the corner three (70%) clearly helped the team, resulting in a 17.6 net rating. The higher pace the team favors when the second unit enters the game plays to his strengths and Ginobili made everyone around him, especially Tiago Splitter and Nando De Colo, better. The only problem is, Manu still struggled converting at the rim, actually dropping from 55.6% on 27 attempts in games 1-10 to 54.5% in 33 attempts in games 11-20. His shot returned, but Ginobili's legs were not still fully under him, as evidenced not only by his shooting percentages at the rim but also a dip in free throw attempts. Having to slide to small forward to cover for the injured Leonard and Jackson was a mixed bag; beneficial in some aspects and detrimental in others.
Games 21-30: Heaven?
First Jackson and then Leonard return, and Manu's minutes are reduced. He lowered his shot attempts per minute, but hit at a better percentage. Ginobili also increased his free throw attempts from 2.8 per game to 4.2, which yields a ridiculously high true shooting percentage of 63.9%. Manu turned it over a little more, but also assisted on a fantastic 33.8% of his teammates' buckets while on the court. With the return of the small forwards, his rebounding dipped a bit, but still acceptable (unlike the start to the season), and his steal numbers improved. Ginobili made his shots at the rim at a high clip (63%) and averaged 20.3 points, 7.9 assists, 5.6 boards and 2.6 steals per 36 minutes during the stint; numbers that are similar to or better than his career stats. Manu seems to be back.
The question mark at the end of the third section's title comes from the latest Knicks game. In it, Manu looked more like start-of-the-season Manu than his improved version. His only made field goals came from a couple of corner threes, he had more turnovers than assists and couldn't finish at the rim. His defense was acceptable, but not particularly good, and he didn't get to the line.
In watching tape from his shots attempts, though, it's clear that this was just one of those games where the ball just rattles out. It happened to most of the team and Manu was no exception. In a normal game, Manu probably goes 4-10 and his line doesn't look quite as poor. His turnovers came against a team that ranks in the top five both in opponent turnovers caused and steals. It was still a bad game, but nothing to lose sleep over.
What I think is noteworthy, especially after games when things don't go well, is that even when he's struggling, Ginobili usually manages to at least not hurt the team. Only Kawhi Leonard has a better on-court net rating and that's with 13 fewer games. Manu ranks fourth in the league in regularized adjusted plus/minus, behind LeBron James, Chris Paul and Tim Duncan. I don't think I'm alone in crediting Manu for making some of the guys around him better. The Spurs still need Manu: The Star (and I think he's getting there), but this is not 2010; Parker and Duncan are carrying the offense during the regular season this time. When the playoffs roll around, that is when the Spurs will need Manu to be able to take over games. For now, I'm happy with him picking his spots, deferring and getting shots for the Spurs' many other weapons.
Additionally, in my eyes, two things have prevented Manu from looking like his old scoring self. First, he was obviously recovering from an injury. Second, Manu simply started doing what the team needed him to do. When Kawhi and Jack went down, for example, his rebounding numbers soared, as did his three-point attempts, because that's what the Spurs were lacking. With a full team, I expect Manu to stop morphing into a hole-plugging utility player and start being the difference-maker on offense we remember him to be. Throughout the season, Ginobili has showed he can still score efficiently in a variety of ways, pass like a quality point guard and be disruptive with his defense. Now Manu just needs to be able to do all those things at the same time and consistently. Looking at tape and researching stats for this article, I think he will get there.
I always like to mention how huge of a Manu fan I am whenever I write about him, as a warning to the reader that I might be biased. But based on the evolution of his play as games have gone by, I'm pretty much convinced that the news of Manu's demise have been grossly exaggerated.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com/Stats. RAPM stats courtesy of Jeremias Engelmann's Stats for the NBA.