Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 25, 2017

The Consummate Role Player Hears Superstar Cheers

The National Basketball Association is a superstar-driven enterprise. Fans of every franchise know that in recent years the proven formula for winning a championship has been to build a team around a player (or better yet two or three) whose name recognition goes far beyond the confines of his (or their) home arena. As this is being written the Boston Celtics are trying to stave off elimination at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. But even the most passionate Celtics fans know that their team is outmatched by a roster featuring LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. After all, the Celtics partook of the trend with their own Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, who led the team to a title in 2008 and back to the Finals two years later.

The current Boston team has an All-Star in Isaiah Thomas; but while undersized players are often fan favorites, as Thomas certainly is at TD Garden, a point guard generously listed as 5’ 9” is never going to rise to superstar status in the NBA. It’s worth remembering that the sole game the Celtics have won in this series came after Thomas was lost to injury. The rest of Boston’s roster is known for its work ethic and team play, laudable attributes that produce championships in movies like “Hoosiers” but not, on their own, in the NBA.

When the Finals begin late next week it will be James and Company versus the Golden State Warriors for the third year in a row. Led by their own glamour pairing of “Splash Brothers” Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the Warriors won the 2015 title in six games, while James led Cleveland back from a three games to one deficit one year ago, bringing joy to the faithful in a city long seen as a perennial loser, no matter the sport. This season Golden State added Kevin Durant to a roster already loaded with talent; and while the Warriors didn’t go through the regular season undefeated as some wags suggested when Durant inked his contract last July, they easily led the league in wins and have raced through the first three rounds of the playoffs without dropping a single game, the first team ever to do so.

Yet if a superstar or three is a prerequisite to laying hands on the Larry O’Brien Trophy, fans were reminded this week that the players with multi-million dollar shoe endorsement contracts don’t win titles all by themselves. The quality of the supporting cast is also critical, which is why James is hoping to win his fourth championship next month rather than his fourteenth.

The poignant reminder of that fact came Monday night, when the Warriors finished their sweep of the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals with a 129-115 victory. The game was close for the first four and a half minutes. Then Golden State went on a 13-0 run to turn a lead of 8-7 into a comfortable margin. The Warriors ended the first half with that same 14-point lead, and the Spurs never got within double digits the rest of the way.

Like Boston in the East, San Antonio was simply overmatched thanks to a pair of critical injuries. Point guard Tony Parker was lost to a ruptured quadriceps tendon during the previous round, and forward Kawhi Leonard went out with a sprained ankle midway through the first game against the Warriors. The team with the second highest win total in the league during the regular season was reduced to a shadow of itself without those two stars.

Down three games to none and with no realistic hope of mounting a comeback, on Monday coach Gregg Popovich inserted Manu Ginobili into his starting lineup. Throughout his fifteen year NBA career Ginobili has been the consummate sixth man, coming off the bench time and again to ignite the Spurs offense and steady their defense. In only three seasons was Ginobili a full-time starter, and this year he had not been in the starting lineup even once, either during the regular season or in the playoffs.

But Ginobili turns 40 this summer, and he has been playing professionally for more than two decades. He started in his native Argentina and then played two years in Europe before joining the Spurs in 2002, three years after they drafted him in the second round with the 57th overall pick. Midway through his NBA career, an ESPN analyst would characterize Ginobili’s falling so far and still being available for San Antonio to draft him that late “one of the great draft heists of all time.”

San Antonio has been a consistently successful franchise throughout his time with the team, but the brightest lights have always shone on someone else. Ginobili’s first season was David Robinson’s last, and after that Tim Duncan became the face of the franchise. Ginobili isn’t even the best known international player wearing a San Antonio uniform. That distinction surely goes to Parker, who donned a Spurs uniform one year before Ginobili and who is a six-time All-Star and was named the MVP of the 2007 Finals. With Duncan now retired and Parker’s career winding down, Popovich and the Spurs will look to build around the 25-year old Leonard, the Finals MVP the last time San Antonio won a championship in 2014.

Yet if other Spurs have been more famous none have been as complete. Ginobili ranks 58th all-time in Player Efficiency Rating, a complex metric designed to combine all a player’s contributions on both ends of the floor into a single number. A simpler calculation is Net Rating, the difference between a player’s Offensive and Defensive Ratings, which measure the points produced or allowed per 100 possessions. Ginobili’s Net Rating is 10.3, meaning the Spurs could look to lead by more than 10 points whenever he was on the court for 100 offensive and defensive possessions. No one in NBA history can boast a higher number.

While Ginobili hasn’t yet decided whether he will retire, Popovich surely understood that Monday’s contest might well be his star reserve’s final game. He put Ginobili into the starting lineup, and the San Antonio fans roared when he was introduced. They cheered for all he had done over his career, but also for how he had stepped up as fellow players had gone down in this postseason. Ginobili delivered a game-saving block on James Harden in the second round, and scored 17 points in Game 1 and 21 points in Game 3 against the Warriors. Monday night he tallied the first points of the game, and finished with 15.

It wasn’t enough of course. Against Golden State, it was never going to be enough. But the fans roared again when Popovich pulled Ginobili late in the contest, and Stephen Curry joined in the applause. With little else to cheer for, the Spurs faithful contented themselves with chanting “Manu, Manu” as the clock wound down. If it was his last game, then Manu Ginobili reminded us one last time that while the NBA may revolve around superstars, championships are won by teams.


  1. Thanks for that – it was great!

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