What do you see when you watch Manu Ginobili?
You see daring and cunning and brazen and foolhardy and more than a little craziness. He’s the lone Spur licensed to operate outside the normal confines of San Antonio’s offense. He’ll take the ill-advised, step-back three or heave a wild pass across the court not only because he’s earned the right to do so, but also because more often than not, those actions, directly or indirectly, benefit the Spurs. Here is the jazz flautist that somehow found his way into the orchestra and breaks away from the sheet music, yet instead of his solo ruining the piece, it complements it, makes it better than before.
Now, what do you not see? What is never reflected in his eyes or his body language? What is so completely absent that its nonexistence is as glaring as Ginobili’s bald spot?
In a word: Fear.
Often, fear, in the context of basketball, is born from mistakes. When something doesn’t work the first or second time, a player will usually cease to attempt that course of action — think of small players refusing to drive on Dwight Howard or Roy Hibbert for fear of rejection. That fear forces a player to take an action they’d rather avoid — pulling up from mid-range rather than driving to the rim. It’s not an adjustment, but a total change in tactic. Turnovers, by that same token, make a passer more hesitant.
Ginobili, however, remains undaunted by mistakes. He acknowledges their existence and inevitability, but he won’t be paralyzed by them. To him, it seems, mistakes are a learning opportunity, a chance to try something new.
The tao of Manu rests upon the pillars of “Why Not?” and “What If?” What If, instead of passing the ball around one of the two defenders, he passes it in between them? Danny Green’s open in the opposite corner, but the only way to get it to him is to skip it? Why Not try it? It could end in a turnover, but that’s forsaking the process in favor of the results.
Both his teammates and opposition acknowledge the lack of orthodoxy in Ginobili’s passing, as detailed in Matt Moore’s terrific feature:
“It’s really a bit of everything,” Diaw said at practice Friday. “You can’t define one quality in a passer like Manu. He’s definitely got the vision, because he knows what’s going to happen. It’s the skill, to be able to make the pass and deliver the ball wherever you see somebody’s free. Some guys have the [vision] but it’s harder to efficiently, quickly make the pass to the right place. And he’s got a little bit of craziness because he takes some risks sometimes by making passes others wouldn’t if they’re a little more conservative. “
“You don’t know where he’s going to pass it,” Bosh said. “A right hand pass, a left hand pass, a one-handed pass, between your legs, behind your back, he’ll make any pass. It’s the Finals, I’m thinking guys will be more fundamental, but he just does what he does. He’s in control of not only every pass, but the secondary passes that lead to an assist.”
That part about not playing more fundamental is key to Ginobili’s ethos. One might think that a player who so disappointed in last year’s finals would change his style during this return trip. Given a chance at redemption, maybe he’d play more conservative, toning down the wild passes and crazy drives. Yet doing so would betray what’s made Ginobili, and by proxy, the Spurs, so successful. It would mean Ginobili playing afraid.
Ginobili knows he’s going to make mistakes, and he’s not afraid of it. He knows that not every one of his insane passes will hit their mark. Tiago Splitter could bungle it, Danny Green might get caught unprepared, LeBron James or Dwyane Wade might steal it. Mistakes are a part of the game — the key is what you do after the mistake. Ginobili is a master of in-game adjustments, even from possession to possession. If a side bounce entry pass to Tim Duncan resulted in a Chris Bosh steal the previous possession, then, hell, maybe the best option is throw it over his defender to a place where only Duncan can reach it. It’s unorthodox, it’s likely not Pop’s ideal of an entry pass, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try. After all, if everyone’s expecting the expected, why not attempt the unexpected?
The best way to understand Manu Ginobili is to focus on what isn’t there. For all of his talent and flair, it’s his lack of fear that’s as important to his and the Spurs’ success as anything he contains.