Look up the players who have posted at least a 15 PER at age 39 or older and you’ll find a short but illustrious list: Jordan, Duncan, Abdul-Jabbar, Stockton, Malone, Parish, Miller, Wilkins, Willis—-and Manu Ginobili.
That’s no small feat, especially for a wing in a league that seems to get more athletic and perimeter-oriented each and every year. And yet, Ginobili is showing few signs of slowing down at either end, consistently making hustle plays on defense and bringing his trademark wizardry on offense.
Before the season began, Manu wrote that he thought he could still make an impact on the team:
“As for me, I'm really at ease with what's coming, because I feel like I can still contribute. The team needs what I can give it, even if I can't provide as much of it or as often anymore. I still feel like I have a big role. I don't feel like I'm just a coach or a mentor. I can help the team... I can't just give up because I'm the third oldest player in the league. Mentally, I'm calmer, but on a day-to-day basis I still want to produce, help out, earn my minutes on the court, like I always did.”
A third of the way into the year, he’s proving himself right. When Ginobili’s on the floor, the Spurs are 13 points better than their opponent per 100 possessions. Even with his minutes per game (19.3) and counting stats continuing their gradual downward trend, his per-36 numbers remain solid: 15 points, five rebounds and five assists. Squint a little and you might think you’re watching the Manu of old.
Manu with huge back-to-back plays in the 4th quarter of the Spurs 1 point win over the Bucks. pic.twitter.com/0IIzTOuNqi— J.R. Wilco (@jollyrogerwilco) December 6, 2016
Yes, the signs of age are there, but he and Pop are managing them well. On 3+ days’ rest, Manu’s minutes go up to 21.2 per game, while on SEGABABAs he’s averaged less than 15. His ability to score in traffic has fallen off (he’s shooting under 37% on twos), but he’s made up for it by taking more threes, with over half his FG attempts coming from long range. More importantly, he’s hitting them at a great rate (over 40%).
Meanwhile, his passing and heady decision-making have been needed more than ever through the offense’s early growing pains. When playing alongside Patty Mills and David Lee, the Spurs bench gives opponents fits with their spacing and movement, and the lineup of Ginobili-Mills-Lee-Dedmon-Simmons continues to blow opposing second units away.
It helps having the right guys around him, but Manu is such an important component of how that group plays. The spirit of the Beautiful Game will endure, as long as he’s on the floor.
Ginobili’s contributions also come on the fringes of the game: through anticipation, hustle and sheer grit. Few players operate better with 35 seconds on the game clock and the chance to get a two-for-one. He has the highest rebound rate of any Spurs backcourt player. His 3.5% steal rate is the second-highest of his career as he plays a bit more aggressively (equally perhaps to make up for being a lesser on-ball defender). His block rate is the highest it’s ever been, and he’s third on the team in deflections per game.
He’s also the Spurs’ preeminent inbounds defender, an uncommon yet valuable skill we’ve seen multiple times already this year.
Father Time is undefeated, as we were coldly reminded on December 18th when Tim Duncan’s jersey was retired. Yet like Big Fun, Manu is making Him work for this W, twisting and Eurostepping his way around it (at least) one more time.
We don’t know how soon Ginobili’s jersey will be joining Duncan’s in the rafters of the AT&T Center, but for now it doesn’t really matter. His joyful, one-of-a-kind variety of basketball is still on display, ageing gracefully before our eyes, and that’s one more reason to appreciate this season of Spurs basketball.