Michael Erler recently wrote that the Spurs should be happy to have Manu back if he decides to return, and I completely agree. While my undying devotion to Manu surely plays a part, I like to think I can be objective when it's required. And going over Ginobili's stats, it's obvious he's still a good enough player to contribute to a good team. The problem is he's good in such a weird, unique way that it's simply difficult to process.
That's why some fans are wondering if the Spurs could get him back for the minimum to use him as an efficient spot up shooter who defers to a creator who's less mistake-prone, and others are just looking for a replacement. Unfortunately nothing is easy when it comes to Manu.
Manu doesn't have an old man's game
Aging perimeter players usually transition into three-point shooters who don't make mistakes and use positional defense to make up for their waning athleticism. Jason Kidd is perhaps the best example of this natural evolution. As he aged, his three-point rate blossomed while his free throw rate plummeted. His assist percentage dipped along with his usage as he went from being a ball dominant playmaker to more of a spot up shooter who acted as a secondary creator.
That's not the way Manu Ginobili's game is going. His three-point rate has increased, but his free-throw rate hasn't dipped significantly and his assists percentage is going up while his usage percentage is near the same level it was when he was a star. Instead of changing the role he plays, Manu is largely being Manu but in fewer minutes. In the playoffs he actually led the team in both assists and free throws per minute and he was second in usage. Ginobili is not fading into a secondary role, like players his age are supposed to. Those guys are easy to replace but Manu's game is nothing like that.
Yet the weirdest thing about his past few years is Manu has essentially defied what's expected of positions.
Manu Ginobili, pure point guard
We can define point guards by their high usage percentage (they are not just finishers but creators) and assist percentage. I set the parameters on Basketball-Reference's season finder at a relatively modest 20 percent usage and 25 percent assist rate to yield a total of 36 players: 23 are starting point guards, four combo guards and two freaks like LeBron and Blake Griffin. The other five are back up point guards. And, of course, Ginobili.
Manu ranked near the bottom in field goal attempts among them but around the middle in assists per 36 minutes during the regular season. Things got even weirder in the playoffs, when only 20 players fit those criteria: 16 point guards, DeMar DeRozan, LeBron James, Blake Griffin and Manu, who ranked dead last among them in field goal attempts but second in assists per 36 behind only John Wall. He ranked third in points created by assists per 48 minutes. Where he used to be more of a scorer, he's evolving into a pure point guard in a wing's body.
Weird is hard to accommodate...
Manu is not a normal player and that's what makes it hard to complement him. After looking for the right nominal point guard, the Spurs Patty Mills who is the perfect backcourt mate because he's a shooter who can guard point guards.
For Manu to be valuable, he needs to be able to create for others, so a role as a spot up shooter only is probably out of the question. If Boris Diaw doesn't go into hibernation next season, he can take a bigger role as a scorer/creator and Ginobili can pick his spots. He needs a good defender next to him, as he's a better at disruption than containment at this point. So Marco Belinelli is out and signing someone like Gerald Henderson or Alan Anderson should work. If Mills goes back to shooting consistently, that's a very good bench.
If Manu comes back, expecting him to accept a complete role change doesn't seem realistic. It would be a huge shock, as his game has not been evolving in the direction Kidd's was. Manu is a really good catch-and-shoot three-point marksman but what separates him from a million guys who can spot up is his off-the-bounce creativity that results in assists, three-pointers and free throws ... and yes, sometimes turnovers. Bringing in a traditional point guard or a playmaking wing would marginalize Ginobili to a role many players can fill adequately for a fraction of what he'll likely cost.
...but harder to replace
If Manu decides to retire, however, the Spurs would need to completely rebuild their bench. Assuming they make a splashy signing, they wouldn't have a lot of resources.
Mills only makes sense next to a playmaking wing and those are hard to find. Lance Stephenson was that player in Indiana but he's crashed and burned in Charlotte. The only other non-star who comes close to being a primary creator as a wing is Evan Turner, but his shooting is significantly worse that Manu's. To fill the need of a primary bench creator, the Spurs would probably have to look for traditional point guards.
So the Spurs would need to trade Mills for a shooter, sign a lead guard and hope Kawhi Leonard can continue to grow as a secondary creator, because the starting unit might need one and Parker can't share the court with another point guard. Manu retiring would be the first domino to fall in a complete overhaul of the bench.
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Manu's unorthodox game is what's made him so great. Since the Spurs have shaped their identity to fit his strengths, replacing him would force them to seriously reshape the roster and look for entirely different skill sets from their perimeter players.
That doesn't mean the Spurs can't built a successful bench or make upgrades from Manu. It just means that if he retires, the next iteration of the team will be significantly different. Fear of uncertainty should not be what guides PATFO in the offseason but considering continuity is huge for Gregg Popovich, it's understandable if he prefers to stick with his unique bench linchpin than try to do the impossible: replace him.