An alternative explanation for Manu's struggles

Christian Petersen

Sure, Ginobili has been struggling. But expecting him to completely change his game would do far more harm than good.

Manu Ginobili had his second stinker of the Finals and some fans are getting restless. The notion that Ginobili has nothing left started circulating years ago but now it's getting traction. I simply don't agree with it but I know I'm not going to convince people who think he is done. So instead I'll focus on the two most common complaints I see and tell you why I think that, despite the results so far, he needs to basically keep doing what he is doing.

Manu needs to stop shooting threes

One of the biggest Manu-lovers I know, J.R. Wilco, recently supported the notion that Manu should simply not take a three pointer until he scores a layup or gets to the line. In theory, it makes sense. Get inside and score, get your confidence up and then try a long shot. Unfortunately, that ignores how Manu's game has devolved.

Since his explosive first step is essentially gone, Ginobili must now set up his drives with outside shots. You know those step-backs he takes and those three pointers off a ball screen? He has been using those all his life to prevent the defender from sagging back too much and continually going under the screen. And he needs them now more than ever. He is not hitting those and it's making driving much harder for him.

He usually plays lead guard, which means he can't benefit from off ball cuts or spot ups that can be turned into drives the way say, Kawhi Leonard does. It's not a coincidence that Ginobili dunked off a Parker pass in game three; he needs to be off the ball to get clear penetration opportunities (more on this later). When he does attempt to drive with the ball in his hands, he doesn't get the whistles he used to get.

But when the threes fall, spaces open up and driving lanes appear. So if you are going to impose some sort of limit on Manu it should be that he doesn't get to pass the ball unless he takes and makes a three pointer, because that's what sets up the rest of his game. He needs to be more mindful of when he takes those attempts, but the three pointer is, at this point, a necessity for an effective Ginobili.

Manu turns it over too much

No. That should be all I have to say, really. During the season Manu turned it over around the same amount most point guards that have his usage rate and assist percentage do. That has mostly held in the playoffs and per 36 minutes, Ginobili's turnover numbers against the Heat are lower than his playoff averages. His assist percentage, however, has taken a dip. The problem then, is that Manu is not creating as many open looks for his teammates, and the Heat should get credit for it.

Ginobili gets out of traps by using his height and length to throw over-the-top passes for the screener. The Heat not only trap the original play but send help from the weak side to the big that receives the pass. Then they either swipe at the ball, cover the big's passing angle, or trap again. You've seen Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan receiving the pass and turning it over. Unless the big can score before help comes or pass to an open teammate fast, the play doesn't work.

Miami's pick and roll defense has been discussed extensively by now, so I'll just mention that it targets the ball handler, which means Manu will have a hard time scoring off those plays. Tony Parker can simply speed past the trap; Manu can't. That leaves reversing the ball as the best option, but Manu is usually the primary ball handler, flanked by shooters that can't create. So it's he must either reset, or risk having a guy that can´t really dribble try to create off the bounce.

So while turnovers aren't really the issue, the offense does suffer a bit with Manu taking the role of sole playmaker. But the Spurs don't really have anyone else that could do better. Even a slumping Manu is only ineffective relative to his usual high standards. He's better than most playmakers in the league and certainly better than anything the Spurs have on their bench. Even solid playmakers like Tracy McGrady or Nando De Colo have never been as good as Ginobili has proved this very season that he can still be. But having one of those guys help out Manu instead of replacing him could, in theory, help. Having an acceptable outlet for when the Heat force the ball out of Manu's hands would take pressure from him and even allow him to play off the ball some.

The other option is to play him as a true two guard next to Parker for as long as possible and I believe it could yield great results. As a secondary option when the ball is forced out of Parker's hands, Ginobili could wreak havoc on the rotating Heat defense. Manu still has fantastic playmaking skills. The question is finding a way to maximize them against the Heat, and that's something the Spurs just haven't found just yet. That, and not trying to find a replacement for Manu, is the key.

An alternative explanation to Manu's terrible game two (and four)

Two words: foul trouble. Manu had two terrible games and they happened to come on Spurs losses. In the two wins he averaged 10 points and 4.5 assists with 1.5 turnovers. That's a solid Manu game at this point. He played 29 minutes in game one and 23 in game two's blowout. He was called for two fouls in each of those games. In games two and four he struggled with foul trouble early and played 17 and 25 minutes, the latter number inflated by the fact that Pop kept him in when the game was out of reach.

Being called for fouls means Manu's minute distribution takes a hit, which means he can't get in rhythm, which means his play suffers. He shares the court less with the players he fits with better and the frustration from not being able to contribute results in him trying to do too much when he finally sees the court. Ginobili clearly is in a fragile state of mind after a very tough season, and every setback affects him. What we all should be rooting for is for Manu to play more, not less. That should happen if he stays out of foul trouble.

Final thoughts

I'm not saying Ginobili's age has nothing to do with his decline - his injuries prove that he is at least as fragile as ever - but what makes it hard for Manu to be Manu is that his outside shot is not falling. Asking him to stop taking it might seem like a good idea at first but it pretty much ensures Manu will struggle scoring with the ball in his hands. And with the defense playing off of him, his passing would suffer as well.

As for the turnovers, high usage ball handlers/creators will inevitably cough it up, and Manu is pretty much performing as expected. Similarly to what happens with missed three pointers, the timing of some of the turnovers creates the illusion that Manu is constantly making mistakes, but that just isn't the case. I understand that against the Heat the Spurs need to take care of the ball but they also need to find easy buckets, and that sometimes means taking risks. And with the way the Heat are defending, it's better to be bold than coy.

Manu is not having a good series by any means. But if his outside shots start falling a bit more frequently, and Pop figures out a better way to use his passing skills, I'm confident he can turn things around and become a valuable asset in these Finals.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com\stats and Basketball-Reference

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