This is part two of my comprehensive look at Manu's struggles. For part one, click here.
The defensive struggles are easy to explain
I won't write 1500 words about it because a) Fred Silva already did that, and b) it's not necessary. Manu Ginobili has not been a particularly good defensive player for a while, but he holds his own and doesn't really hurt the team on that end. Individual defensive rating is not a good measure of defensive competence but Manu fares well on that metric even though he doesn't get the benefit of sharing the court with Leonard and Duncan as often as, say, Danny Green does. His steals per 36 minutes are higher than they have been in years and his defensive rebounding numbers are very good for his position.
So why has Ginobili looked so bad on defense, especially recently? The Spurs have played against teams that like to run two point guard lineups, which has led to Ginobili having to defend guys that are faster than him like Damian Lillard, Maynor, Jarret Jack, Ricky Rubio, etc. At this point in his career Ginobli simply can't guard those guys. They can drive past him on isolations or use ball screens to attack him. Other teams know it and try to take advantage.
Additionally, he's been Kobe-esque in his tendency to float off his man at times while defending off the ball, which is more a question of focus than physical ability.That leads to him having to rush to close out when the ball is swung to his man. The Spurs' commitment to discouraging the three at all costs can lead to situations where it seems like someone is playing matador defense, simply letting his guy blow past him in the perimeter -- but that's not the case. The opponent has to put the ball on the floor instead of taking the three and the big man is usually ready to defend the rim and surrender the mid-range look while the perimeter guy recovers or rotates. It's just how the Spurs defend. Manu could and probably should stay closer to his man off the ball but as long as prevents the three, he's playing within the Spurs' defensive schemes.
The fact that he too often seems to be behind his man, trying to poke away at the ball is pretty much explained by those two factors. It's not like Manu has been secretly playing great defense or anything, and yes, his tendency to gamble for steals sometimes leaves a guy open, but more often than not it pays off or is easily rationalized within San Antonio's overall scheme. I don't anticipate Manu having trouble staying in front of shooting guards in the playoffs and the off-ball stuff should be easily correctable with some film sessions and better focus.
It's not the number of turnovers, it's the type
A lot of the complaints about Manu's recent slump have to do with turnovers. This season Manu actually averages a little over two assists per turnover, which is pretty consistent with his career numbers. His TOs per game and turnover percentage are not that strange among players that have his usage and assist percentage. So why are turnovers seen as that big of a problem this year? There are three reasons: 1) Ginobili is prone to big turnover nights that look awful in the box score and therefore draw a lot of attention; 2) while he hasn't been turning it over a more than he has previously in his career, he also hasn't been produce the assists to offset his TOs in losses; and 3) a large percentage of his turnovers seem to come in live ball situations that the opponent can turn into fast break points.
Looking to see if there was a pattern, I looked at all 27 of Ginobili's turnovers from the last 10 games. Here's how those came to be:
One: travelling call.
Three flops: Manu looks for contact and in doing so loses control of the ball
Four steals: The ball was poked or swiped away while he was holding it.
Five handling errors: Manu loses control of the dribble and the ball is stolen or goes out of bounds.
Six bad ambitious passes; I'm calling passes ambitious if they are those in-traffic, high-degree-of-difficulty assist attempts that so often end up in the highlight reel when they connect.
Nine bad easy passes: these are the ones that are only mildly defended and pretty much anyone can make.
The turnovers resulting from ambitious passes and flops have always been the bad that comes with the good that is Ginobili's playmaking gift. The traveling call was questionable and having the ball poked away a few times happens to everyone. But the turnovers resulting from Manu losing his dribble and the ones coming from botched easy passes are inexcusable. Nobody is perfect and some errors are to be expected but, 14 of 27? That's too high a number of that type of turnover.
Here's where the fact that Manu has been out for a significant period of this season comes into play. The Spurs' offense needs perfect timing and precision to work in synchronicity, and Ginobili has recently been a step behind or ahead of his teammates. He makes passes to where they were supposed to be or without looking to see if the opponent has shut down that option already. The lineups, and even the players available, have changed a lot for the Spurs over the season but Manu has been back for a while now and if he has the court vision and talent to thread the needle, he should also have the patience and focus to not make silly mistakes.
As for the ball-handling errors, as well as the turnovers that come after contact, there are three reasons I see for them. 1) as I mentioned in part one, sometimes the screens are poor and Ginobili receives the ball with the defender draped to him, which forces him to create separation using his dribble only and he takes more risks doing so; 2) Manu seems to have less strength this season. Physical play bothers him more than ever; 3) He isn't getting the benefit of the doubt from the officials. Fans of other teams might scoff at this but Ginobili's reputation as a flopper has finally caught up with him, and he's getting fewer calls than he has in the past.
Worse yet, of the Spurs core rotation, Ginobili seems to be the one that has the biggest effect on opponents' points off turnovers and fast break points, which is not surprising since a lot of his TOs result in live ball situations for the other team to exploit. With Manu on the court, opponents score 2.4 points more off of turnovers, and 2.7 more fast break points. Ginobili definitely needs to polish his playmaking and get rid of the silly mistakes. The good news is that it really seems doable, especially if he shares the court with the Spurs' best players, especially Parker, as the post season approaches.
Manu's struggles don't seem to derive from physical deterioration as much as an uncharacteristic regression in parts of the game in which Manu has historically excelled. The best example of this problem is probably his free throw shooting. Manu is missing a lot of free throws and there really is no explanation for it. Something similar is happening with other aspects of his game, but fortunately it all seems fixable.
Having Parker back and having set rotations only featuring the Spurs' best players should also help tremendously. As the playoffs draw closer, the rotations should get shorter and more consistent and that will allow Manu to get comfortable with his running mates. Figuring out lineups that are balanced and versatile will be key and I'm confident Pop will manage to do that.
My faith in Manu was shaken after a couple of bad performances, but after looking at things so specifically, I don't find a reason why Manu can't regain the consistency he exhibited on past seasons. Of course, that doesn't mean he will. It only means that, as far as I can tell, Manu's declining performance is not inevitable but situational; having less to do with his body and his abilities than many have feared.
Stats and video courtesy of NBA.com/stats.