Ginobili's errors are being magnified out of proportion

Christian Petersen

Is Manu struggling? Sure. Any Spurs fan can see that he's not playing his best right now. But the fact that his play is sub-par is bringing undue focus on him. That creates a perception that's far more black-and-white than reality.

This will hopefully be the last thing I'll write about Manu for a while. Earlier this week, LatinD made the case for all of us Manu believers, and it seems like the more attention we give to Manu's situation the worse it gets. But I just want to make one point before I let it go: a lot of criticism (as well as praise) in not only this case but always, is narrative-based and not objective at all.

I'm as guilty of this as anyone. A couple of weeks back I took a close look at Manu's struggles and wrote about it (Here's part one and part two in case you missed it). I checked the tape and the stats and wrote as an unbiased article as my Argentine heart would let me. But no matter how hard I tried, I let my personal views influence what I wrote. It's unavoidable. It's basically the reason why I always make it a point to say that I'm a huge Manu fan when I'm writing about him.

That doesn't mean I can't write something even-keeled about him or that I will always shower him with praise. It means that before I even start to write the article, I already have an opinion at least partially formed, be it from my own views of the situation or from the established narrative surrounding it and I will interpret facts through that subjective lens.

As an example, here's a post by Wayne Vore from the Spurs blog The Big Fundamental. For those of you who didn't know, Wayne is the former editor in chief of Pounding the Rock and one of the most knowledgeable guys I know when it comes to basketball and the Spurs. Here's the excerpt:

I don't know if he is frustrated by his shot not going in or what, but his defense wasn't just poor. It was horrid. Poor defense would be getting caught out of position, not anticipating plays, taking bad gambles, etc. Manu didn't put in any effort to any of the details. He didn't box out, he fell asleep on screens, he lost track of his man, and he absolutely without doubt quit on plays. I kid you not. He quit. If there is one single thing I never expect of Manu it is lack of effort and quitting. Against the Rockets that is exactly what he did.

Wayne goes on to dissect Manu's defense by doing a play by play breakdown. By the language from the paragraph above you can guess how he views most of the plays. The reality is, Wayne chose to isolate those plays and, based on what he already thinks of Manu and the predominant narrative, used them as confirmation that Ginobili is actively hurting the team. It's pretty much the exact same thing I did when I looked at Manu's game and decided his slump wasn't something to get concerned about. We take things and interpret them using the filter of our preconceptions.

Now, that doesn't mean Wayne is seeing things that aren't there. He breaks down the plays beautifully and you can see he has a point. Even a Manu fan like myself can see that Ginobili's play has been poor recently. The team seems to do better with him off the court, unless he plays in specific lineups. His off-ball defense has been bad this season. He has been mostly good on the ball but a little too foul prone for my taste. And he sometimes closes out too aggressively and that allows guys to blow past him. At the same time, if I look at anybody's play under a microscope I will find a lot of flaws.

I have recently watched a ton of tape on the Spurs' defense (with an especial focus on Tim Duncan for our TD for DPOY series) and I have to say, even Tim Duncan loses his man from time to time. Kawhi Leonard often gets lost on screens and often inexplicably reaches in with the clock winding down. I can't tell you the amount of times Danny Green flies by on closeouts, just like Manu. Tiago Splitter can be moved out of position on defensive boards. The Spurs primary playmaker doesn't usually crash the defensive glass, preferring to leak out or get in position to receive an outlet pass. When someone closes out on a three pointer it's not uncommon for that player, even if it is a big, to leak out as well. I can mention a lot of individual mistakes players make and mention a lot of little things that can result in a bad defensive possession if I want to.

So now let's look at Manu's defensive performance from my perspective. The Rockets pulled down six offensive boards in the 21 minutes Ginobili was on the bench and six offensive boards in the 27 minutes Ginobili was on the court. Delfino scored two buckets with Ginobili on him. Both times it was a P&R play in which Ginobili wisely went over the screen and Delfino attacked Duncan. Patrick Beverly scored once on Ginobili, using his speed to go by Manu on a last second ISO. Manu didn't defend particularly well there, giving Beverly his right hand. Ginobili was involved in two plays in which Parsons scored. The first was after a Manu ISO against Parsons, in which it definitely looked like Parsons fouled Ginobili, who stayed on the floor. The Rockets pushed the pace, were 5-on-4 and found Parsons open for a three. The other play came after Ginobili ran into a blind screen, tried to recover and contest the three but Parsons pump-faked, blew past him and got a layup. There were other instances in which Manu was not in good position but it happens, especially against a good offensive team -- and the Rockets are certainly that.

Manu's defense might have been a reason the Rockets won but certainly not the reason. So why is Wayne discussing Manu's defense in such detail, noting every mistake like that was what doomed the Spurs? Because, since he's been playing poorly, all of us look at what Ginobili does a little more intently than we look at what other players do, actively looking for mistakes. Because it's topical to criticize Manu right now. Because it fits the narrative that Ginobili hurts the team. Because he has seen these flaws before but now everyone is interested in discussing them.

I'm simply using Wayne's latest piece as an example of the type of focused criticism Manu has been getting. I think Wayne has a fantastic basketball mind and he's not off track here. Ginobili has never been a stopper and this year he is displaying an alarming lack of focus off the ball. But it is strange that with so much to talk to from the Rockets game he chose to focus so heavily on Manu's defense. At least it would be strange in a vacuum. Until he turns things around, Ginobili will be under a microscope and will always receive some blame for bad performances. If he doesn't turn it over or force shots, like against the Rockets, then his defense will be scrutinized.

There's nothing wrong with slamming Ginobili when he plays poorly, but with everyone looking very, very closely at his every move, they will always find something to criticize him for every game, no matter how small. Just like it was when Tony was the patsy, and Richard Jefferson, Gary Neal and DeJuan Blair in their own turns. I feel it's now at the point that If Ginobili doesn't play great, he will be perceived as having played terribly.

If so inclined, an attentive observer can find flaws in every player's game. Granted, it's easier to find instances of Manu screwing up right now than it is to find Duncan making a mistake, but that doesn't mean that all Ginobili does is kill the team and all Tim does help. What I'm saying is, what each of us decides to emphasize is not just affected by the facts. Our own personal biases, and the narrative that surrounds them, play a huge part in what it is that we see.

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