As you probably heard, James Harden was crowned NBA's Sixth Man of the Year. It is absolutely deserved, as there was no one else that came close to playing as great off the bench as The Beard. He's a fantastic player that can do it all and this recognition is one of many to come, I'm sure.
I am genuinely happy for the guy since he's one of my favorite non-Spurs, but while I was reading the articles about Harden's excellent year, I couldn't shake the feeling that the media's treatment of the Oklahoma City Thunder's star was quite a bit different than it would have been if he'd entered the league before anyone had ever heard the name of Manu Ginobili.
Two of a kind
Now, the Harden/Manu comparisons started even before James was drafted, with Draftexpress.com using Ginobili as his best case scenario. Over the last couple of years, even Spurs fans have admitted to seeing similarities between the two. They are both lefties that come off the bench without complaining and they both perfectly complement the other stars on their team. Both are slashers who create scoring opportunities for others, while shooting very well both close to the basket and from behind the arc. Had they both come to the league at the same time, a little rivalry might well have started: "Who is the best of this new breed of stars off the bench?"
But they didn't come to the league at the same time. Harden is living in a post-Manu world. A world where his game isn't constantly under a microscope, and where all the questions about why a such good player is his team's best reserve instead of one of its starters, simply aren't being asked.
When Manu was young
I remember when I started reading everything I could find on the Internet regarding Manu a few years back. There were people that understood how good Manu was and what Pop accomplished by bringing him off the bench, but early in his career, a lot of people, from respected analysts to anonymous commenters, tried to discredit his game by pointing to the fact that he was technically a bench player: "How can he be a top-20 NBA player when he can't even start on his own team?" or "Of course he gets good numbers, he's playing against benches!"
That left Manu at a disadvantage when being discussed among the elite at his position. No one this side of Charles Barkley believed Manu could make a similar contribution to what Kobe, Wade or Roy would bring their teams by playing from the bench. It simply didn't fit the conventional narrative of the hero scoring guard Michael Jordan established.
That left a lot of the media scrambling to find a place for Manu. The discussions always included the assumptions that his body wouldn't hold up if he played more and that Manu was thriving mostly because Gregg Popovich was putting him in a position to succeed. There is some truth to that, of course, but it fed to the assumption that Manu Ginobili was not actually an elite player; just a good one on a great team.
Finally getting his due
While Manu has won over the majority of his critics over the years, it wasn't until last year that he proved in the eyes of many that he was one of the best players of his generation, and that the circumstances many thought were helping him succeed were actually preventing him from putting up the gaudy numbers the media wants to see from great shooting guards.
Last season, Ginobili played similar minutes to the ones he logged in his 6MOY campaign, and got similar stats, but this time he was starting and he was clearly the best player on his team. A team that sported the best record in the NBA for nearly the entire year. That got him mentions on MVP lists while convincing his detractors that a Manu-led team could be a contender. Then a fluke injury slowed him down in the postseason. I say slowed it him down and not stopped him because Manu was still one of the few bright spots of the Grizzlies series even with a broken arm. Historic upset notwithstanding, Manu had finally proved in the eyes of many that he was one of the best guards in the league who simply happened to come off the bench for much of his career.
Following in Manu's footsteps
After Harden's coronation I started reading some of the articles about him. They mentioned that he was a shoo-in for the award -- which is undeniable considering Manu, while having similar numbers, played half the games Harden played. The weird part was that most also talked about James as being as important to the Thunder as Durant and Westbrook. They talked about how Harden could get a max contract offer. And how Harden was the kind of guy that can, has and maybe should wave off the Thunder's other young stars and take over in the clutch. Could that have happened in a world before Manu Ginobili?
Most SMOY winners of the last 20 years have been tweeners: players that don't fit traditional positions. You'd be hard pressed to find and top-20 NBA guys among them. Coming off the bench was reserved for guys that could fill it up but not defend well enough, or for guys that could do a little bit of everything without actually excelling anywhere. But Manu changed that. He stands out in that crowd not only because he put up probably the most impressive season of the bunch the year he won the award, but also for his overall achievements as a player. Because of Manu, no one questions that a player can be extremely successful, fundamentally sound, and supremely talented while still coming off the bench. Popovich, the Spurs and Manu have removed the stigma from not being a starter.
A breed apart
So this is the world James Harden inhabits: one where he will get the praise he deserves from the start of his career instead of going through years of hearing that something must be wrong with him; one where nobody thinks twice about the fact that a bench player can be as much of a star as any of the great players that are on the court for the tip-off; one that might be paid as much as any player on his team as a result.
It would have been great for Manu to experience the kind of good will Harden is receiving when he was younger and putting up similar numbers to what The Beard is today; to be called a future super star instead of being known as just a great bench player, or that Euro-guy who flops a lot. But like all who blaze trails, Manu struggled, so that future generations to reap the rewards.
That's why I'll always enjoy it when guys like James Harden receive the recognition and accolades they've earned, even if Manu also deserved them for so long before he got them. I'll simply remind myself that he was the one who made it possible.