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Basketball Is Better With Manu Ginobili

The Spurs wing is starting down 40. He also just delivered a brilliant postseason performance against Golden State. Let's hope this isn't the end.

David Roth

Photo by Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

When the San Antonio Spurs finally succeeded in bringing Manu Ginobili to the NBA in 2002, four years after they made him the 57th player picked in the 1999 NBA Draft, he was 25 years old and had already won two Italian League MVP Awards and a EuroLeague Finals MVP. "He's gone from an unknown player to maybe the best player outside the NBA," Spurs GM R.C. Buford said. He'd just signed Ginobili to a two-year deal worth a little under $3 million in total. "Now we're thrilled to death he's coming to San Antonio." When the Spurs won the NBA Championship the next year, Ginobili was a key contributor off the bench.

It would be easy, and not entirely wrong, to say that it more or less went on like that for 13 more seasons and three additional NBA Championships. In only three of those seasons was Ginobili a starter more often than he wasn't; those seasons happened to correspond with his two NBA All-Star Game appearances, although he was not really appreciably better or different in those years than the ones in which he started just a few dozen games, or started none at all. His minutes varied from one year to the next, but how strangely and selflessly and well Ginobili filled them out did not.

It's unfair and broadly insufficient when writing about a player as distinctive and idiosyncratic as Ginobili, but there is a sense in which that immutability is the most essential thing about Ginobili—he has aged without ever really changing, and the ways in which Ginobili has improved as a player during his long NBA career all seem to have more to do with refinement than anything else. Ginobili was already utterly unlike any NBA player when he arrived in the league; not more fluid or more creative or more intuitive, necessarily, but differently so. If Monday's game, in which Ginobili and his Spurs were swept out of the Western Conference Finals by the Golden State Warriors, winds up being his last NBA game, he will leave having remained roughly that unique. That, more than anything else, is reason to hope that he'll be back for another season. He's dwindled without really dimming; there is less of Ginobili on display than in years past, but basketball still needs what's left.

As he showed in San Antonio's almost instantly hopeless effort against the Warriors, there is still a decent amount of Ginobili-grade basketball left in Manu Ginobili. The series was all but decided at the moment Kawhi Leonard's ankle turned for a second time, and took on an inconsequential and tension-free last-day-of-school vibe; that it wound up being about Ginobili's last ride owes a lot to the fact that it had to be about something, or something other than killing time until the Warriors and Cavaliers get around to their inexorable rematch. Something about the way that the series slackened brought out a vintage of Ginobili's game that hasn't been seen in a while—the socceresque hopscotching compound drives, the mercurial wriggling from one pool of space on the floor to another, the odd just-for-yuks nutmegging. It was awesome, in all the ways that Ginobili has regularly been awesome.

That there was suddenly so much more of it served mostly as a reminder of how glaring its absence will be, whenever that moment comes; Ginobili isn't yet saying anything one way or another. Ginobili played his best basketball of the playoffs against the best team in the sport because his own shorthanded team needed him to, and it was beautiful to watch because he has always been beautiful to watch, but it also felt bracing for another reason. Throwing himself at the stainless bulletproof housing of the Warriors basketball machine, Ginobili was not just his old brilliant self but a living counterpoint, and an example of a stranger and more stubborn style of basketball.

The Warriors, in their full Durant-enhanced splendor, are both dazzling and dull—seamless and brilliant and inevitable in a way that's easier to appreciate in the abstract than it is over the course of a whole game. The singularity of system and personnel is perfect enough that each possession is beautiful and terrifying to behold, which means that it is also perfect enough that each possession starts to seem more or less like every other. It's not that there isn't any suspense in watching this machine work, although that doesn't help. It's that it works so well that it can't be mistaken for anything but a machine. This is team basketball at what might be its highest point of realization, a harmony of individual and collective virtuosity, truth and beauty in synchronicity, and honestly blah blah bleugh. It's almost too beautiful to enjoy.

Against this, Ginobili's improvisations stood out even more than usual. It took everything he had, every bit of skill but also every trick, just to keep things as tenuously respectable as they were. The Spurs ran out of luck and then ran out of room, but Ginobili didn't seem nearly out of ideas, or energy. In the last few years, Gregg Popovich and his staff have spent most of every long season managing minutes against rest in hopes of keeping Ginobili as fresh as possible for moments like this; it was thrilling, even as everything else fell away, to see just how fresh Ginobili still was.

Ginobili has always seemed like a player who could do what he does, in progressively smaller and more carefully managed increments, for more or less as long as he wants to do it. If this is the end of the road for him, it will be because he chooses it. "I do feel like I can still play," Ginobili told ESPN's Michael C. Wright after the game. "But that's not what is going to make me retire or not. It's about how I feel—if I want to go through all that again. It felt like they wanted me to retire, like they were giving me sort of a celebration night. And of course, I'm getting closer and closer. There is no secret, for sure. It's getting harder and harder."

He says that he'll think on it, talk it over with his family, weigh the work of preparing for another season against spending the rest of his life doing any of the nearly infinite number of things less grueling than that. If he decides it's time to stop, we'll be in his debt; if he stays on for another season of closer-and-closer and harder-and-harder, even more so. At a moment when the league seems to be in a period of closing and convergence, Ginobili's work—weird and slippery and insistent, crafty and creative and impossibly fucking annoying in ways that seem somehow only to further express his mastery—has never seemed stranger, or more necessary, or more valuable.