Manu Ginobili wrote a column for the Argentine newspaper La Nacion which J. Gomez translated for us. In the story, Ginobili explained his current frame of mind regarding his future and whether he's going to retire or not, and the short version is, "Dunno, depends on Duncan, ask me in a month."
The idea of Ginobili leaving his career in the hands of Tim Duncan (and Gregg Popovich, for that matter) is not surprising. I've always gotten the impression he wouldn't think of playing a season without them. To me, Duncan and Ginobili were something of a combo package who would walk out the door in lockstep, and the only reason I or anyone else would've had to deviate from that vision was a performance-related one. Simply put, Duncan played at a much higher level than we had any right to expect this past season, while by the end of the season Ginobili looked like someone who should hang 'em up.
Once the Spurs were eliminated, the prevailing wisdom seemed to be that Duncan would come back and Ginobili would retire. For what it's worth, my sources indicated as much, saying he'd already made up his mind. Until this story came out, everything I've read, seen and heard pointed in that direction.
That Ginobili might be having a change of heart is kind of throwing me for a loop. Obviously I'd love for him to come back (all I need are moments after all), but I'm surprised that Popovich expressed a similar sentiment. Pop sure didn't use him like someone he wanted back during the closing stretch of the season and the playoffs, when he often kept Ginobili on the bench in end-of-game situations.
In fact, Popovich seemed to contradict himself a couple of times during his end-of-season media session, which he held after conducting exit interviews with the team.
Here, he talks about his core group in the past tense:
"I think our guys gave it a great shot and considering the run they've been on, both long-term for decades and the last three years with Conference Finals, Finals, Finals that takes a toll. It's hard to do and then followed by a pretty difficult year this year I don't think we were as sharp, mentally and certainly physically, as we have been in the past. Given that I was really proud of them, especially in Game 7, the way they came back and dug down deep. It's a great group and the run has been wonderful."
Here he is, declaring that next year's team will look a lot different:
"We've got a pretty good number of free agents so with R.C. and the coaches and the group we've talked about what we want to do going forward with the makeup of the team but the team will probably look considerably different than it looks this year because we have so many free agents and we want to re-tool a little bit.
We want to try to start — not exactly over again — but these last four seasons have been a grind and we put the team together with that in mind, that this year we'd have all the free agents so we can decide what we want to do moving forward, as far as the makeup of the team. So we'll spend a lot of time on that but as far as if guys are retiring or not we haven't touched that."
This answer seems to indicate that it would be unwise to sacrifice long-term plans for the sake of one more year of Duncan and Ginobili:
"If money needs to be spent, it's spent. But it's never done unwisely. We've never put the organization in a situation where they're paying a ridiculous amount of money for no value. My complete faith and trust in R.C. is never going to change, because of the track record he has, thinking not just for the next year and the next two years, but the next three years, the next seven years, that type of thing."
(More on this, in a bit)
However, later on, here is expressing optimism that Duncan and Ginobili will both return:
"As time goes on, one certainly does. Over the past couple of years, I've thought about it a lot how much I'll miss it when they're all gone. It's like your family. Sure. I reflect on it quite often, and think about when they're not there. I just have this strange feeling when they're not here, I probably won't be either."
These are the relevant paragraphs in Manu's column:
Pop said he wanted both me and Tim back for next season. Those words make things harder for me. Had the franchise told me they didn't want me back, that it was time to rebuild and get younger as a team, that would have made my decision much easier. I might have been hurt by that because even if you are standing on a ledge you want to jump on your own and not be pushed down. So it would have been hurtful but it would have made things easier for me. Instead, the opposite happened. Those words really helped me emotionally, gave me a confidence boost. But I'm not at a place in my life where I need the job. It's not about feeling that if they want me back, I'll return, but about figuring out if I really want to keep going, with everything that entails.
I had a couple of great chats with Pop and Tim on our team meeting. We all are in a similar situation, although Pop has made it clear what he's thinking of doing. So Tim and I talked and it feels like we agree that we want to wait a little.
What's intriguing is not only did Pop tell Ginobili he wants him back, but he informed both him and Duncan of a plan. Now that could mean, literally anything, from a quota on games and minutes, to disclosing actual personnel planning information ("Psst, we're gonna sign LaMarcus Aldridge, but don't tell anybody").
The interesting question for me isn't whether Duncan and Ginobili should want to return -- it's that PATFO wants them to. If it legitimately hurts their chances, because of salary cap issues, of signing a premiere long-term free agent, then how is that wise long-term thinking? Wouldn't five years of Aldridge or someone similar be better than one more year of the Big Three? By all indications, it'd be nearly impossible to have our cake and eat it too in this regard, which I'll explain fully in my next column.
Why would Pop want Ginobili back when he only played him 18 minutes a game and sat him down the stretch of the most important games? Why would he want him when it could specifically impair the chances of signing a free agent? Was it simply a case of sentimentally taking over, or was it a practical decision, based on circumstances, something like Duncan making it known that he'll retire if Ginobili does?
It should be noted that despite what your lying eyes told you, Ginobili wasn't half bad last year. He was eighth among all shooting guards in Real Adjusted Plus-Minus, well ahead of people like Dwyane Wade, J.J. Redick, Tyreke Evans, Bradley Beal and Monta Ellis. (Danny Green was third, by the way.) Ginobili was still the Spurs fourth-most important player according to VORP, though it was a distant fourth behind Duncan, Green and Kawhi Leonard. He managed an above-average 16.2 PER and bettered that in the playoffs. Finally, and this might surprise some of you, he shot better after the All-Star break (.451) than before it (.418). [All stats via basketball-reference.com] From a pure value and statistical standpoint, there aren't many guys available who can replace Ginobili's production for a similar cost, and at least with him, they can go over the cap, via his Bird rights.
Obviously Manu is nothing like a star anymore. He's strictly a role player now, and if he's fine with that, we should be too. It's possible he's the rare Hall-of-Famer without an ego and that he's content closing out his career as spot player. Who are we to tell him otherwise?
It's also possible that PATFO believes, as I do, that injury circumstances to Leonard and Tony Parker forced the Spurs to rely on Ginobili too heavily in December, burning him out for the rest of the season. It's an educated guess that if they do bring him back, it will be with a better plan to keep fuel in his tank for a postseason run. In a way the worst thing for Ginobili was that he didn't suffer any month-long injury last year. He missed games here and there, but wound up playing 70 of 82 and logged more minutes last season than the past three. If he plays next year, they have to play him fewer games and fewer minutes, rhythm be damned.
No matter what he decides to do, I agree with Ginobili that there won't be a wrong decision here. I sure would have loved to be a fly on the wall for that conversation between him, Tim and Pop though.