Winners Prosper: The Case For Manu

Photo via Macchese on Flickr

The shocking exclusion of Reggie Miller from the forthcoming 2011 Hall of Fame ballot left us with a flurry of questions – not the least of which being, in what twisted narrative is Mark Jackson placed on the ballot over Miller? But like so many perplexing turns of plot I was left contemplating the fates of players whose final chapters are still being written.

We know Kobe Bryant will be forever immortalized in Springfield one day, it’s simply a matter of how large his legacy will loom over the game. Should the Lakers win another championship this summer, Bryant’s sixth, some will at least entertain the idea of placing the Black Mamba among the five greatest to ever play the game. Whether or not you agree with that sentiment, the argument at least has legs, due in no small part to the sheer amount of titles he has accumulated in his illustrious career. That’s the thing about the NBA , save for quarterbacks, no other team-sport athletes are subjected to the kind of personal scrutiny related to winning that basketball players are. A surplus of championships can elevate an individual beyond his numbers, while a lack thereof can severely diminish his place in history.

Perhaps then, no player stands to gain more in the remaining months of this season than Manu Ginobili.

In his purest form Ginobili is one of the best all-around players in the league at his position, possibly the biggest steal in draft history and among the craftiest players of his generation. But beyond that basic façade stands one of the more underrated NBA personalities in the last 20 years. While even now he deserves to be mentioned in the pantheon of big game guards who never quite earned their due ala Sam Jones, Dennis Johnson and Joe Dumars, Ginobili has been granted an opportunity many greats never receive: the chance to be the leader of a team. Jones and Johnson were role players on stellar Celtics teams and Dumars was a sidekick to the Isaiah Thomas glory years. After years of filling every role from sixth man, to defensive stalwart and crunch time closer, the Spurs now belong to Ginobili.

Is the torrid start to San Antonio’s season purely the fruit of the 33-year-old’s labor? Of course not, but in a year where the storyline could just as easily be the slow decline of Tim Duncan, it has been on the resurgence of a franchise thought to be too old to compete at this level anymore. The Spurs are on pace for 67 wins, they’re a legitimate contender and Ginobili is their best player. If San Antonio wins it all this year – certainly a major if – how can he not be viewed in the scope of the hall of famer discussion?

He’s been a vital component to three championship teams, arguably the x-factor in two of them. He’s been a tremendous big game player, continuously rising to the occasion when the lights are the brightest. But most importantly, he’s been a winner, whether in a supporting role or the lead character. Much like Scottie Pippen wasn’t fully appreciated until he carried the Bulls in 1994, Ginobili’s true greatness is fully manifesting itself now that he has assumed the alpha dog role for San Antonio.

Naysayers will point to his accomplishments within the context of the elite players in the NBA. No, he’s never been one of the five best guards in the NBA. At most you can possibly argue he’s been a top ten player once (2007-08) and last weekend was just his second appearance in an All-Star game. The basic statistics he’s ever been among the elite in has been steals and free throw shooting percentage.  Even when factoring in his championships, this hardly seems the profile of a player deserving of being in the hall of fame picture. To gain a full understanding of his place in history one needs to go beyond the basics though.

Ginobili ranks in the top 35 all time in player efficiency rating and his reputation as an elite defender is further reinforced by the 28th best defensive rating in NBA history. For those who favor even more advanced statistics, consider that the Spurs guard is 10th all time in win shares per 48 minutes. Of the nine players ahead of him on this list, all are already in the hall of fame save for teammate Tim Duncan and Lebron James, both virtual locks to be enshrined one day. His career regular season and playoff numbers compare favorably to the aforementioned greats like Johnson, Dumars and Jones – so maybe much as was the case with these three, he won’t fully be appreciated in historical context until long after his career has ended.

So what would happen if San Antonio went all the way this year? It would concurrently be the most surprising team development the NBA has seen in years and completely reshape the public perception of Ginobili’s legacy. Do I think he is a hall of famer right now? No, in the discussion absolutely, but ultimately he is on the outside looking in. But we’ve seen how quickly and drastically a championship can alter and reshape a player’s lasting footprint. Kobe’s first title sans Shaq got the monkey off his back. A second suddenly vaulted him into top ten consideration. Another title for Ginobili means he was the first, second or third best player on four championship teams, leaves him as one of the elite winners of his generation and firmly puts him into the hall of fame discussion.

That is, unless the committee opts to put Bruce Bowen on the ballot instead.

Seth Carstens