The Manu Ginobili we all know and love is gone. Well, maybe not gone, but he is different. The young, athletic, fearless guard has transformed over his 11 years in the NBA. Now, at age 35, he is a crafty veteran. He relies on cunning and guile more now, rather than a youthful exuberance that gave him the confidence to make amazing plays while causing his coach to lose more that just a few nights sleep.
Ancient by NBA standards, Ginobili's game is not at the same level it used to be. For the past few years he has had the same role coming off the bench for the San Antonio Spurs: Be the second ball-handler on the perimeter, slash to the rim, hit open threes, and distribute when Tony Parker is getting a breather on the bench.
Ginobili's game is based off of his ability to penetrate the lane and either score for himself or create for others. Although he has struggled to finish around the rim as of late, his ability to get into the paint is still elite. As you can see in the below video, Ginobili does an excellent job of reading his defender and knowing what angle to attack.
The last clip in particular, even though it's against maybe the worst defense in the league, really illustrates Ginobili's brilliance. The play is in semi-transition so the defense is already scrambling. Where a younger version of Ginobili may have taken a wide open three at the top of the arc, he opts for the much smarter play. He makes an exaggerated shot fake, which the defense has to respect since Manu is a career .372 percent shooter from three. The defender closes out terribly, and Ginobili attacks the heart of the defense quickly. Now, because of the Spurs team spacing, the only man between Ginobili and the rim is Sacramento Kings center, Demarcus Cousins. Tiago Splitter, who is Cousins' responsibility on the play, then makes a smart cut to get better position to receive a pass and score quickly.
Because of his great vision, Manu is able to see all this in a split second, and make the right play. He knew where Splitter was gong to be even before he made the pump fake to start the process. His intelligence and passing ability are second to none, making him a huge threat in a variety of different situations. The next video shows him in pick-and-roll settings, where he is just as dangerous to the opposition.
Those same abilities discussed earlier, attacking at the correct angle and forcing the defenses to play help on him, are also what makes Ginobili one of the NBA's best pick-and-roll ball-handlers. He often makes a subtle hesitation move, much like a point guard would, to string the play out just a little bit longer, and give the roll man a crucial half-second longer to get open for a score. On all of these plays, he shows so much patience, and lets the action come to him instead of forcing it. He's able to take whatever type of opening the defense gives him, and punish them for it. It doesn't matter if they force him to the baseline on a side pick-and-roll (Or as most NBA players would call it, "Ice") and he throws a dart for an assist, or if they go under the screen while freeing him to jack up a three. Either way you slice it, Ginobili will find an advantage to exploit in the pick-and-roll.
Furthermore, as the last play in the video shows, even when the first option of a quick pick and roll is defended well, Ginobili can still make the defense pay. His vision is good enough that he's able to hit another player out on the perimeter who can either take a three pointer before the defense closes, or drive in for a layup if the closeout is too aggressive. Even though he may not always receive credit on the score card for an assist, all of the action is possible because of the defense's fear of Ginobili.
In an offensive system like San Antonio's, where a bulk of the plays are pick-and-rolls, a player like Ginobili becomes invaluable. And though Ginobili hasn't been great scoring-wise lately (in February and March he shot just .391 percent from the field), he still makes major contributions to the team by getting the ball to other players in their spots. He has some of the best chemistry with the big men on the team, and has helped guys like Splitter and DeJuan Blair become very good pick-and roll players themselves, giving them space and time to get a good lane right to the basket.
Before Wednesday night, Ginobili had been out with a right hamstring injury, and his absence had a very visible effect on the offense. Without him, the Spurs simply didn't have enough creators on offense. Gary Neal was probably the best one available, and while he's a pretty good scorer off of pick-and-rolls, he's not as versatile when passing. Kawhi Leonard was a decent option, but he's not yet a great initiator on offense, and is more effective when the defense is already scrambling. Nando De Colo is a nice player that has drawn comparisons to Manu for his playing style, but he's a rookie and is still learning the schemes and simply isn't consistent enough.
As a result of Manu's injury, and in the absence of anyone who could adequately replace him, the Spurs offense stagnated. Over the month of April, at the beginning of which both Parker and Ginobili were both out, the Spurs had been the league's 24th best scoring offense, scoring a measly 95.1 points per game. In the few games since Parker's return, the Spurs had gotten back to being a middle of the pack offense, with 100 points per game. That much improvement goes to show how much impact Parker has on this team, however, it's still not at the level they'll need to be at to compete for a championship.
In his return on Wednesday against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Ginobili played only 12 minutes, but the results were encouraging. He handed out 2 assists, and had a few other nice setups that had assists negated due to a missed shot or a foul. With the playoffs set to start on Sunday, it's important for Ginobili to get back to full strength (or as full as he's going to get) quickly. The Western Conference is deep with talent this year, and the Spurs will need every bit of an advantage as they can get. With Manu's passing prowess back in the fold, San Antonio will be looking to reap some major rewards.
(All stats in this piece were taken from NBA.com's stats department, basketball-reference.com, and Synergy Sports.)