As I watch Manu Ginobili in the admittedly misleading preseason, I'm aware of the heightened optimism among the Spurs fans regarding his potential impact, since I am not the only one noticing how much better he's looking. This is a much welcome sight for a Manu homer like me, and yet I can't help feeling that there's a misconception of what caused Manu's struggles in the first place.
Manu didn't play like an old guy
Last season Manu performed well in the areas in which aging players are supposed to struggle. He might lack the explosiveness of his younger days, which limits his signature ability to live in the lane, but Manu's scoring rate in the paint last season still came to 33.5% of his points, exactly the same as in 2011-2012. He got to the line 7.1 times per 48 minutes, which is fairly close to his career average and excellent for a player of any age. He had a fantastic year stealing the ball; his defensive rebounding was above the league average for a guard and slightly above his career average; and his blocks per 48 were close to his career average as well. His assist rate was very close to a career high, while his assist-to-turnover ratio was the lowest it's been in the last four years.
Those are not the numbers of an old player with a broken-down body. Of course, he's not the player he used to be in terms of athleticism, which was too painfully obvious last season, but in terms of production, he is not too far off from the numbers associated with a player in peak physical form.
What really brought Manu down last season was his struggle with outside shots and free throws, which are areas he dominated in the past and not usually affected by aging. Among last season's 15 active guards aged 34-plus, eight shot the three above 36.4%, the league average for guards, while Jason Kidd and Manu Ginobili came very close at around 35%. Those players that hit well below average (Stackhouse, Bryant, Hamilton, Tinsley, and A. Miller) were never great three-point shooters in the first place. Twelve of those guys hit over 80% of their free throws, while Manu and Mike James were just below that number. The drop was not exactly precipitous, but outside shots and free throws are such a significant part of Manu's game that being only average at them made a noticeable impact on his numbers.
On defense Manu's decline manifested mostly in his lateral quickness, which became all the more glaring when he had to defend point guards. At the same time, he seemed quick enough in matchups against shooting guards and small forwards and had no difficulty getting into passing lanes or stripping his man of the ball. Surprisingly, he struggled more playing solid position defense and maintaining focus and less in the areas in which quickness is needed.
Aging players usually attempt to stay relevant by being good shooters who play with a high basketball IQ on defense, and Manu's performance last season was the reverse of that.
Manu's problems might have started out as physical but became mental
Manu has always been a risk-taker. He used to attack the rim with no clear plan, attempt dangerous passes, and take crazy shots. At the same time, he was also an extremely smart player who understood the game like few others. Last season he was the opposite of that: an unsure player who made silly mistakes way too often.
As previously mentioned, Manu had trouble with position defense: he would randomly float off his man or lose him on the cut to the rim. It's not that he was constantly going for steals; he simply seemed to lose his focus and stare at the ball like a rookie. Sometimes he would inexplicably crowd bad shooters but play off snipers. That's completely uncharacteristic of him and baffling in an accomplished vet.
On offense, he made silly errors, such as miscalculating a player's position in a pick and making easy-to-read passes, which often got picked off by active and long defenses. While he was extremely hard to strip going to the rim in the past, he exposed his dribble and the rock much too often last season. These are all mental errors. But the best example yet might be his free-throw shooting.
Ginobili, after averaging 87% on free throws in the previous five seasons and hitting all of his 34 free throws in the Olympics, inexplicably shot 79% last year. Tired legs might explain it to some degree since he shot better - although still below his average - before the All-Star break. But then again, the relatively terrible 75% he shot on two days of rest contradicts that notion. In addition, he was usually clutch from the line in the past but missed several key free throws in 2012/13, including a couple that would have iced Game Six.
While Manu is no longer the athlete he used to be, the mental impact of his injuries has been more damning to his game than Father Time. Age-related injuries are something that all veteran players learn to manage if they wish to stay in the game, and Ginobili was able to do it until last season. The real problem was not the injuries themselves, but Manu's reaction to them and his inability to properly handle the physical setbacks at the mental level. To me, that was the scariest part of all.
Some encouraging signs
Manu didn't try to hide how huge a toll those injuries took on his mental state. In interviews he admitted to considering retirement because of his frustration with his health and confessed to how much he hates the recovery process. He also revealed that he was not having fun and needed to get away from it all to clear his head. However, all he needed to postpone his retirement was an assurance that the Spurs still wanted him. To me that shows commitment and self-awareness. Manu Ginobili knows what went wrong and he is determined to not let it happen again.
As I mentioned before, it's only preseason, and we need to take everything with a pound of salt. However, Ginobili is looking much better physically after a summer off and, more importantly, he seems sharper, more focused, and re-energized. With a bench unit that complements his strengths better and might compensate his weaknesses, Manu should, if nothing else, have a much steadier year. If history is any indication, injuries are unavoidable for Manu at this point, but I'm hopeful that he is in a better state of mind to deal with them.
While certainly a factor, Manu's age was not the only reason for his struggles. After the setbacks, he sometimes seemed well enough physically to be able to play at a high level but mentally unable to deal with the lack of rhythm provoked by the injuries and the poor performances that inevitably followed. The result was a tentative Manu, who made mistakes that cannot be blamed on simply not being in top physical shape.
After a summer off, he now appears to be healthy and in as good conditioning as his body allows. While that's great, the fact that he might be better prepared mentally to face the potential setbacks is my biggest reason for optimism.
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