I know what you're thinking, "Man, enough about Jeff Ayres, Patty Mills and Matt Bonner, when is Stampler ever gonna write about Manu?"
Well, you're in luck, because it's finally time to discuss one Emanuel David Ginobili and what, at the ripe old age of 36, he still means to the San Antonio Spurs. And in recognition of the Argentine legend's playing time we've come to expect on most nights, I'm going to keep this short and sweet.
I think the team's recent release of Sam Young, who's made his living in the league as a small forward -- whatever the heck that means in today's position-less amoeba-like NBA -- had more to do with Ginobili's very strong preseason debut against CSKA Moscow, where he scored 14 points on 4-of-4 shooting (3-of-3 from downtown) and had five rebounds and four steals in just under 20 minutes, than it did with Young's 0-for-6 brick-fest.
Obviously the Spurs brass was optimistic, perhaps irrationally so, about Ginobili's prospects given his age, his extensive injury history, his well-documented stamina issues*, and his mostly disappointing playoff run, which came on the heels of his worst regular season since his rookie campaign. Still, because of all he had done for the franchise, for the loyalty he had showed in previous contract negotiations and, it has to be mentioned, his tremendous popularity with the fan base, Ginobili still held most of the leverage and used to it procure a two-year, $14.6 million deal that looked to be a few mil more than he would've gotten elsewhere.
Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express News, perhaps the only non-Argentine who is more of a Manu-homer than I am, detailed in a recent column (with an assist from Ginobili's former coach Ettore Messina), how the team, in light of their significant commitment, took an unusual step to ensure that Ginobili has a puncher's chance of living up to the deal:
The same Ginobili who struggled at times during the playoffs struggled when the Finals returned to Miami. How do you make sense of that?
"Do you have a couple of hours, two or three, to analyze me?" Ginobili asked Wednesday.
Messina didn't need hours. He coached Ginobili with Bologna of the Italian League from 2000-2002, and he impacted his career. Messina was the first who demanded Ginobili play defense.
They went through a lot together while winning championships. Ginobili remembers those times as "powerful," and they remain close. They talk, as they did Wednesday night, when they're not exchanging emails.
So Messina knows his former player, and he knows what he saw last season:
"He was not himself physically. He looked skinny, he looked empty, he looked tired."
Does empty sound about right?
"Not sure how to describe it," Ginobili said.
The Spurs saw what Messina did, that all those years with the Argentine national team had likely caught up with Ginobili. So last summer, they sent two from their training staff to Argentina for a week to work with Ginobili and personalize his workout regimen.
They addressed his base, or core. According to the staff, Ginobili dedicated himself to it.
Wednesday night gave an initial view of it. Ginobili never missed a shot, and he never missed a chance to dive on the floor.
"I felt good," he said, with posture that indicated he meant it.
Though it's nothing but speculation on my part, I've never gotten the sense that Ginobili, for all his on-court dedication, was someone who was borderline psychopathic a la Kobe Bryant when it came to off-season conditioning, preferring to spend the time with his friends and loved ones instead. Sure, more often than not there was international competition with Argentina to keep him occupied, but I'm referring more to just non-basketball training aimed at boosting his strength and stamina in preparation for the coming year. I may be wildly off, but I've never been under the impression that Ginobili is big on that stuff unless he's specifically in a basketball training camp.
It makes all the sense in the world for the team to emphasize the need for Ginobili to be stronger and sturdier, because by now quickness and explosiveness just aren't clubs he has in his bag. For him to thrive on the court, he'll need his brain most of all, but after that he'll need to be strong and fit.
And this is where poor, unemployed Sam Young comes into play. No, I don't think he was ever seriously in the team's plans. What his signing represented was an insurance policy, just in case something looked "off" about Ginobili. Unfortunately for him, Manu has passed every test thus far, not just in the exhibition game but all the drills and practices the ten days leading up to it, with flying colors. So yes, PATFO is optimistic indeed when it comes to our guy.
Irrational fan-boy optimism and new training regimens aside, is there anything we can hang our collective hats on for Ginobili being better in 2013-14? I say there is, and his name is Marco Belinelli. Maybe I'm grasping at straws here, but Manu's peak years for the Spurs coincided with Brent Barry being on the team. Sure, I realize that probably the answer to that is self-contained, in that "Manu's peak years came because he was at his physical peak," but I refuse to dismiss the fact that from 2005-2008 Ginobili had somebody on the second unit who could see the floor, pass, and set him up for shots now and then.
With Brent on the floor, he didn't always have to create his own offense. Since Barry retired, Manu's played the majority of his minutes with four guys basically looking to catch and shoot. (And people wonder why he has high-turnover stretches ... it's because you're asking somebody with the athleticism of a 35-year-old shooting guard to play the point.) If Belinelli could ease some of that playmaking burden and set up Ginobili to finish now and then, his shot attempts and shooting percentages should increase while his turnover rate goes down.
The bottom line is that if you're still on the Ginobili bandwagon, Wednesday was an encouraging first step. The coaches thought enough of Manu's performance to cut Young, meaning that for all intents and purposes, Ginobili will be playing some small forward this season, at least on the defensive end, and something like a point-forward on offense. If after Wednesday's game Pop told his assistants, "Boy, I really think we need to give Young a long look here in preseason," then it would've been time to panic.
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*Let's be honest, the Spurs invested in fancy $100,000 Sports VU cameras well before the league installed them in every arena this off-season and also in fatigue monitors primarily because of their concerns about Ginobili.