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Navigating Life Without Manu, once again

The Spurs find themselves in the unfortunately familiar situation of having Manu Ginobili out with injury. Can they find a suitable replacement on their bench and stay on top in the West?


We have the prognosis on Manu Ginobili and it's what most of us dreaded but expected. He's out three to four weeks with a strained hamstring. From what I understand this is a painful injury and a tricky one to heal from. If you try to come back too early you can re-aggravate it. At this point, expecting Ginobili's 35-year-old beaten-down body to heal quickly is probably too much to ask but we have to understand that sometimes teams give out a worst case scenario recovery time to avoid putting pressure on the player. The most recent example of this is Tony Parker and his ankle. The Spurs said four weeks but Tony returned in three weeks apparently fully healed.

That being said, we have to assume he's surely out for the rest of the regular season. If Ginobili is out three weeks, that would coincide with the start of the playoffs on April 20th. If he's out the full four weeks he would probably miss the first two or three games of the first round. Unless something catastrophic happens, Manu should be available for the second round, probably even one or two first round games. But before that the Spurs need to complete the regular season and it will be tougher without Ginobili.

Can the Spurs keep the first seed?

There's a big enough gap between the Spurs and the third seed to make it near impossible for the good guys to fall that far but finishing second looks pretty likely right now. The lead is just one game and the Spurs will play OKC on a SEGABABA while the Thunder come into it well rested. I doubt Pop rests guys on the Orlando FIGABABA, since that's definitely the more winnable of the two and that's been his MO. So we have to assume the Spurs will either be undermanned or tired and thus likely to lose the game and the lead. Both teams will have tough games ahead of them against playoff teams. The Thunder schedule includes some tough games against the Knicks and the Pacers, plus teams that will be jockeying for playoff positioning in the Jazz and the Warriors. Nothing is written in stone but I could see OKC taking the first seed and dropping the Spurs to number two and a likely first round date with the Rockets.

Now, the Spurs have beaten the Thunder before, even missing Parker, so they can do it again. But they will need someone that can take over the Ginobili role to have a chance to keep the first seed.

This is where someone might mention Kawhi Leonard. Leonard excels at the role he has now, with his scoring coming mostly by attacking smartly off the ball. He has not initiated offense in his young pro career and I don't think he should start now. By all means try to get him more touches but let him keep finishing plays while others initiate them.

Who can fill in for Manu?

Assuming Gary Neal is one of the backup guards (and there's no reason to believe otherwise), the Spurs need to find someone who can complement him. Someone that can get Neal and the rest of the bench players shots, take most of the ball handling duties, get the team into its sets and run pick and rolls. So what are the options?

Cory Joseph is not the most creative playmaker out there, which makes him an awkward fit on a second unit that depends on creativity to mask its many flaws. But Pop could sub him in early for Parker, run the starter's offense through Duncan and use screens to get shooters open, which Joseph showed he can do. Then Parker would check in with the second unit. It's intriguing but it doesn't sound like something Pop would do.

Then we have Patty Mills, who seems to have fallen out of favor lately, earning a string of DNPs. Neal and Mills have not shared the court as much as De Colo and Neal have but the numbers suggest they work well. Now, that back court would be a little too unpredictable for my liking but it probably won't lack fire power. Considering Mills is not getting minutes, I only see this as a change of pace option but not a bad one to have.

De Colo is probably the best fit in terms of skill set. Nando can't really create for himself much but he can work a pick and roll and walk the ball up court. Paired with Neal, they could take turns running P&Rs, with Neal taking on the scoring load while Nando sets teammates up. De Colo has not had a lot of freedom this season, partly because of his turnover issues. Giving him a longer leash could backfire or turn him into Manu-lite. This would be my preferred plan of action, although I have obvious concerns about perimeter defense.

The Stephen Jackson factor

Jack had a much bigger offensive role in the bad teams he was a part of and he proved that he could handle it. He was never the most efficient of players and he's older now, but Jack could score off the dribble and play some point forward in the past. Having a couple of shooters at guard, Diaw spacing the floor and a diving threat off the pick and roll, Jackson would probably have enough room and options to work with. Considering he's not really working out so far as a spot up shooter, shaking things up and trying him out as a scorer/creator could work. Or it could backfire spectacularly, with Jackson taking bad shots and turning it over at a rate that would make even the most jaded of us pine for even Bad Manu. It's risky but it might be worth a shot to find out what Jack has left in the tank.

From the look of things, Pop prefers to go with De Colo and Neal, which makes perfect sense in terms of maintaining a familiar substitution and play calling pattern while they wait for Ginobili to return. But it's definitely encouraging to see that the Spurs have options. If the pairing works, great. If not, the team would probably be wise to explore a bit more, changing the rotations and giving Jackson and even Boris Diaw more leeway with the ball. It's not like the bench has been playing well, anyway. The worst that could happen is the Spurs fall to second in the West, which seems pretty likely regardless. And who knows? Maybe Pop discovers an unlikely contributor by shifting the roles a bit.

That being said, having a healthy Ginobili in the playoffs is a must. I think the Spurs can survive the first round without Manu but after that the margin is too slim and not having Ginobili makes the Spurs too predictable and dependant on Parker and Duncan too be a real threat. Hopefully everything goes as planned and Ginobili returns for the first round fully healed. But for now, Life Without Manu has started again and the team has to find a way to weather it. They've done it before.