ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski set it up on Tuesday morning …
Manu Ginobili and the Spurs are finalizing details of his imminent return for a 16th NBA season, league sources tell ESPN.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 18, 2017
… and the man himself knocked it down early Wednesday:
— Manu Ginobili (@manuginobili) July 19, 2017
The details on the contract have yet to be hammered out, so we don’t know yet what sort of price tag Ginobili will carry into his sixteenth NBA season. A push last summer from the Philadelphia 76ers, led by head coach and former Spurs assistant Brett Brown, led to San Antonio offering Manu a one-year, $14 million contract to stay in a city he never wanted to leave, which seems like a pretty good deal. Whether the Spurs offer a similarly sweet one to a player who’s taken his fair share of pay cuts in the past to help keep the franchise humming remains to be seen.
The Argentine legend isn’t what he once was on the court, posting career-lows last season in points, rebounds and minutes per game while shooting just 39 percent from the field. But he proved during the 2017 playoffs that he could still be effective when the Spurs needed him most, coming up with big performances in pivotal games in San Antonio’s postseason matchups.
After missing his first 15 shots of the opening round as the Spurs battled the Memphis Grizzlies to a 2-2 draw, Ginobili brought “the grandpa juice” to Game 5, chipping in 10 points, three assists, three steals, two rebounds and a block in 18 hustle-packed minutes to help give San Antonio a 3-2 lead that set the Spurs up to finish Memphis off in six games. Ginobili cranked up the heroics in Game 5 of the next round, too, perfectly timing James Harden’s movements to swat the ball out of the Houston Rockets superstar’s hands on a potential game-winning shot to seal an overtime victory that, once again, set the Spurs up to close out their opponents in six.
“Manu, you know, reached back and gave us one of his Manu performances from past years,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after that game. “He was a stud. We actually went to him with Kawhi off the court, to generate some offense, to make some things happen, and he did a good job, whether it was distributing it or scoring. He was big for us.”
The Spurs would need him to be big again in the conference finals, especially after Kawhi Leonard’s ankle-sprain-heard-’round-the-world late in the first half of Game 1 all but left San Antonio drawing dead against the Golden State Warriors’ superior firepower. With MVP finalist Leonard and longtime lead guard Tony Parker both sidelined, Ginobili stepped back to the forefront, finishing with 17 points in Game 1, and 21 points on just nine field-goal attempts in Game 3.
In Game 4, Popovich handed Ginobili the keys from the game’s opening tip — the first start for the longtime sixth man in more than three years, one given to him “out of respect” — 15 points with seven assists in Game 4, doing his level best to give San Antonio’s attack some teeth in the face of the Warriors’ snarling two-way menace.
In the end, it wasn’t enough, as Golden State finished off its third straight sweep on its way to a second NBA championship in three years. But what Ginobili gave to the Spurs, that night and throughout the 15 years leading up to that night, was more than enough.
“Before the game, you think it may or may not be the last game he ever plays in,” Popovich said after the Spurs’ elimination. “And I did not want to miss the opportunity to honor him in front of our home fans for his selflessness over the years.
“I mean, this is a Hall of Fame player who allowed me to bring him off the bench for, I can’t even remember now, the last decade or something, because it would make us a better team overall. So, obviously, he’s a big reason for our success. And he deserved to have that night of respect so that he really feels that we appreciate everything he’s done over the years. If he decides he’s going to play again, that’s up to him. But I won’t try to convince him one way or the other. I don’t think he needs that.”
Ginobili, for his part, refused to make any rash decisions in the moments after an emotional defeat, and the wonderful outpouring of support from the fans in the stands at AT&T Center.
“I felt more energetic, more needed, more useful to the team,” Ginobili said after the game. “I do feel like I can still play […] It felt like they wanted me to retire, like they were giving me sort of a celebration night. Whatever I decide to do, I’ll be a happy camper. I have to choose between two wonderful options. One is to keep playing in this league at this age, enjoying every day and playing the sport I love. The other one is to stay at home, be a dad, travel more and enjoy my whole family.”
After taking the last two months to think about it, Ginobili — who will turn 40 years old on July 28 — has evidently chosen the former option. This is good news for the Spurs, who have mostly stood pat in free agency while watching their conference rivals reload and, barring a sudden in-season explosion from summer league scoring revelation Bryn Forbes, still figure to benefit greatly from Ginobili’s steady hand in a backcourt that will be without Parker for several months and will feature increased helpings of talented but green sophomore Dejounte Murray.
It’s good news for the rest of us, too.
Yes, Ginobili is nearing the end of the line, and nobody would begrudge him the choice to hang ’em up after having succeeded at a level few players could even dream about — four NBA championships, two All-Star berths, two All-NBA Third Team selections, an Olympic gold medal, a EuroLeague championship and Finals MVP trophy, and a pair of Italian League MVP awards, among other honors. But even now, in a form diminished by age and all the miles he’s put on in a decades-long journey from Bahia Blanca to central Italy to south Texas, there’s a creative spark in Manu Ginobili’s game that you just don’t see in other players — an irrepressible joy, a swashbuckling smirk of daring, a “wait, what?!” that captivates you and leaves you wanting more.
He is improvisational, stubbornly so, having long since won his war with the ever-regimented Popovich by proving that his flash has more than enough function. He sees possibilities few other players in history have and, even now, has the will to make them real. Ginobili’s 3-point shooting and playmaking can mark him as a valuable contributor off the Spurs’ bench, even in Year 16, but what makes him vital has nothing to do with efficiency and everything to do with the chance to believe in strange and powerful magic in a world too often reduced to cold math.
Back in May, after the Spurs bowed out, Vice Sports’ David Roth wrote of Manu, “There is less of Ginobili on display than in years past, but basketball still needs what’s left.” For one more year, at least, we’ll get it, and sometime next spring, those fans in San Antonio will get to let the cheers and chants and songs of praise ring out one more time.
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