First impulse, which NBA player do you think this describes?
Four-time NBA champion. Two-time NBA All-Star. Two-time All-NBA third team. Olympic Gold Medal winner.
It’s not Dwyane Wade, too many rings. It can’t be Pau Gasol; he never won Gold and only two titles. Dwight Howard? Nope, his fingers are completely bare. In fact, it’s none other than the atypical Argentine, Manu Ginóbili. I’ll pose the question again: Is Manu Ginóbili a Hall of Famer? My gut tells me you don’t have an instant answer. I didn’t either, which means this is at least a debate worth having.
Truth be told, there really is no set criteria for getting your name enshrined* in Springfield, Massachusetts, which is what allows us to have this debate in the first place. Getting into the Hall of Fame is essentially an arbitrary and subjective process that gets narrowed down by some combination of seven anonymous screening committees. The only cryptic criterion that the Naismith Memorial HOF has released is that “A person is eligible for Enshrinement as a contributor at any time for significant contributions to the game of basketball. What constitutes a “significant contribution” shall be determined by the BHOF, it’s Screening Committee(s) or Honors Committee(s).” Yes, I added the italics, but it’s pretty clear how vague of a description that is. I mean, freaking Mitch Richmond is now a Hall of Famer (for crying out loud). Bearing that in mind, let’s see if there’s room for Manu in the Hall of Fame.
In addition to the ambiguous “significant contribution” guideline, I decided to come up with my own Hall of Fame criteria since seemingly nobody else has. They are as follows:
- Individual Statistics
- Personal Accolades
- Championship Success
- Historical Significance/Greatness
- Contribution As Teammate
- Miscellaneous Greatness
There is obviously a lot of flexibility within this scale, but I think if a player can check off at least four of the above six, then they are most likely Hall of Fame worthy. Before we dive in, I know what a lot of you are thinking. “MANU GINÓBILI IS A BENCH PLAYER, ONLY STARTERS ARE HALL OF FAMERS!” Please stop yelling; there are several gaping holes in this argument. For one, Manu was (and still is at age 37) clearly an above-average starter in terms of pure skill. On any other team, Ginóbili would have started just about every game he played. Instead, he’s played his whole career for one of the three best coaches ever, so when Gregg Popovich decides you’re more impactful off the bench, then you damn well come off the bench. Manu played starters’ minutes for the majority of his career until age has slightly slowed him down to the tune of roughly 23 minutes a game since turning 34. He’s also always on the floor in the 4th quarter and crunch time, which is really what matters most.
It’s true, being a sixth man and making the Hall of Fame is relatively unprecedented. Only Kevin McHale and Bill Walton each won Sixth Man of the Year and are in the Hall, but both were also starters for good portions of their respective careers. As sports change, however, new precedents must be set. In baseball, no designated hitter as ever made the Hall of Fame, but most would agree that, steroid allegations aside, David Ortiz definitely has a spot in Cooperstown. If anything, the rarity of it should help Manu’s case considering that he has made his way into the discussion as a perennial bench player.
This category is a bit tough on Manu, not only as a bench player but also as a member of the trend-setting Spurs, who were the first team to start giving significant rest to their best players during the regular season. From his age 27-33 seasons, the years in which he averaged the most Minutes Per Game, he also averaged 16.6 Points Per Game, 4.1 Assists Per Game, 4.2 Rebounds Per Game, 1.5 Steals Per Game and 2.2 Turnovers Per Game on a 52.6 Effective Field Goal Percentage. Those are very good numbers across the board, but they’re not Hall of Fame worthy.
The picture becomes clearer when we look at his Per 36 Minutes numbers, even when we include his earlier and later years. For his career, Ginóbili would average 19.3 PPG, 5.4 APG, 5.1 RPG, 1.9 SPG and 2.8 TPG. Much better. He’s also a career 83% Free Throw shooter and 37% Three Point shooter. These aren’t quite Hall of Fame numbers, but they’re really good, especially when you consider he was competing with two other Hall of Famers to fill up the stat sheet. Manu’s career Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating are 114 and 100, respectively. Speaking of teammate Hall of Famers, Tim Duncan’s Ratings are 110 and 96, respectively. Yes, you read that correctly: Manu’s career Offensive Rating is four points better than Tim Duncan’s.
Digging deeper into advanced statistics, we see that Manu has an impressive career Player Efficiency Rating of 21.1 (44th all time!), which is actually somewhat discounted by his rookie year and his age-37 season. Manu also has a career .202 Win Shares Per 48 Minutes and a career Box Plus/Minus of 5.5. The league average for PER is 15 and the league average for Win Shares Per 48 Minutes is .100. In comparison, Kobe Bryant’s career PER is 23.2, his career Box Plus/Minus is 4.1, and his career Win Shares Per 48 Minutes is .178. This means that Manu is significantly closer to Kobe in PER than he is to the league average, while his numbers are better than Kobe’s when looking at WS/48 and BPM. Kobe is easily one of the ten greatest players to ever touch a basketball, and Manu’s advanced statistics are right on his level, if not better. He has also led the Spurs in regular season Win Shares twice despite coming off the bench and playing alongside two Hall of Famers. Further, he ranks 35th all-time in True Shooting%, 29th all-time in Steal%, 20th all-time in WS/48 and is 13th all-time in career BPM.
Verdict: No, but just barely. His surface level stats aren’t quite good enough to make up for his Hall of Fame worthy advanced stats, at least not in 2015. This category shouldn’t really count against him either though.
Here’s the other category that doesn’t suit Manu’s legacy very well as a bench player, though his personal achievements are nothing to scoff at. He’s a two-time NBA All-Star and a two-time member of the All-NBA third team. He won the Sixth Man of the Year award back in 2008 and he made the NBA All-Rookie second team back in 2003, even as the 57th pick in the 1999 draft (he played several more years in Europe before coming over to the States). It’s worth noting, however, that the only two seasons Manu was an every game starter (2005, 2011) were also the only times he made it to the All-Star game, which is not a coincidence. Bench players simply don’t get All-Star nods, so this is also harder to count against him.
Although this may seem like a stretch, it’s actually important that we also include Manu’s accolades as an international baller as well. One of the Hall of Fame committees is the International Screening Committee, and any player that has played internationally has their foreign accolades on their Hall of Fame résumé. This means Manu also gets to add: one time Euroleague Finals MVP, one time All-Euroleague first team, one time Italian Cup MVP, two time Italian League MVP and one time FIBA Americas Championship MVP, all before the age of 25. Include the fact that Argentina has awarded him two Olimpias de Oro and the Diamond Konex Award, both essentially cultural/sports recognitions of excellence, and his accolades are suddenly pretty impressive.
Verdict: I’m torn. I’ll vote no, but again, just by a nose. I don’t think that whoever reads this will be impressed enough with his international achievements to push him over the edge.
This one is pretty easy. He has won four championship rings with San Antonio (2003, 2005, 2007, 2014), which is more rings than Dirk, ‘Melo, LeBron and Kevin Durant have combined. The only active players with more rings than Manu? Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant, two of the all time greats to ever play the game. That’s it. Many forget that Ginóbili also won a Gold Medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics with Argentina, beating Duncan and the U.S. team in the semifinals.
Here’s where the fun really begins. In more ways than one, Manu has helped change the game of basketball and left his fingerprints all over its history – the true marks of a Hall of Famer. Although Manu didn’t invent the Euro-Step, he has revolutionized it. It’s a move that we now see the best scorers in the game use at their disposal often – especially on the fast break – guys like Dwayne Wade, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. But, don’t be mistaken, this is the move that this generation will associate with only one player, and that’s Manu. In my mind, no one does it better.
Earlier, I briefly discussed how new precedents must be set as sports change and shift our collective paradigm. Ask any avid fan about what defines this era of basketball, and the answer will be “pace and space” ten times out of ten. Teams that aren’t coached by Byron Scott are finally embracing that shots behind the arc are worth more points and are therefore more valuable. The Pace and Space Era revolves around having enough three point shooters on the floor to space out a team’s offensive sets. The pace part comes into play when teams employ efficient team basketball, whizzing passes around the court until the best shot is available. No team embodies this idea more than the San Antonio Spurs, and the microcosm within the system is none other than Manu Ginóbili. Manu is a heady passer who is very capable of running the offense, and he has always seemed to hit threes in clutch situations for the Spurs. What people will remember most about the 2014 NBA Finals (aside from Kawhi) is the beautiful fluidity with which the Spurs offense functioned. Every offensive possession was a mini-masterpiece, and even as the best turnover-forcing team in the league, the Heat had no answer for the Spurs ball movement and shooting. With teams like the Warriors and Hawks mimicking the Spurs pass-happy system and enjoying resounding success, it’s not a stretch to say Manu and the Spurs have changed the scope of the NBA for at least the foreseeable future.
The Spurs have the fourth most championships in NBA history behind the Celtics, Lakers and Michael Jordan, yet they didn’t get their first until 1999. If we focus on the years since Ginóbili joined the Spurs in 2002, only the New England Patriots have as many rings as the Spurs do in all of the major North American sports leagues. He was a part of the Spurs franchise record 19 game winning streak in 2014, the fifth longest in league history. He’s a key reason the Spurs have the HIGHEST ALL-TIME WINNING PERCENTAGE of .614. When the Spurs destroyed the Heatles in last year’s redemption Finals, they won by the largest Finals margin of victory ever (14.5), and shot the highest field goal percentage in Finals history (52.8%). They have made the playoffs in every season** that Manu has been a Spur. The Black and Silver hold the NBA record for most consecutive 50+ win seasons with 16*** and counting. Granted not all of these accolades occurred under Ginóbili’s tenure, but the vast majority did, and he has been an integral part every step of the way. I’m pretty sure there’s about 730 other records the Spurs have that I didn’t have the time or resources to find. This Spurs group should go down as one of the 15 best teams in the history of North American sports.
Finally, we can’t talk about Manu’s historical significance and not bring up the Spurs’ big three. Though many often discuss the Spurs’ obvious collective greatness, for some reason their big three doesn’t get nearly as much coverage as like many others that we’ve seen. Kawhi’s recent emergence is partially to blame for this, but I think it’s also an indication that we simply take for granted how good this trio is. Other recent threesomes like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in Boston or LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami have gotten much more hype, yet the Spurs triumvirate (with Coach Gregg Popovich as the czar) has had much more success and stuck together for much longer. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu have the most playoff wins of any threesome in NBA history. They’ve also won the second most regular season games as a group, only one game behind the Celtics’ legendary Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parrish trio.
Verdict: This one’s a slam dunk (sorry, I had to). YES!
Contribution As Teammate
One thing that always makes its way into the discourse of a basketball analyst is “making the other players on the court better.” It’s the innate ability a player has to set up his teammates for success in any way possible – whether it be offensively, defensively or off the court – ultimately allowing the game to come easier to them. Jordan did it, Magic did it, and LeBron currently does it every time he steps on the court.
Ginóbili does it too. Maybe not in the overt way that LeBron does, but he does so in his own unique Manu way all the same. He makes the jaw-dropping assist when everyone is seemingly covered. He is one of the best operators of the pick and roll that we’ve seen in the last 15 years. It feels like every pass he makes is a highlight, helping teammates like Danny Green and Tiago Splitter get easy looks in the process. Ginóbili isn’t an all-world defender, but he’s solid, and he’s been a big part of all of the top-five defenses the Spurs have enjoyed. His high steal percentage is one tangible example of his ability as a help defender, another contribution that also helps teammates look better.
The biggest part of Manu’s contribution as a teammate was chronicled in the section above, when I talked about the Spurs big three of Duncan, Parker and Manu. It’s pretty simple: Duncan isn’t as great without having Manu as his teammate. The same can be said about Parker and Popovich’s individual legacies as well. Duncan still would have been a Hall of Famer, but having Manu there to consistently feed him easy buckets augments his greatness significantly. Manu helped space the floor which allowed Parker to have more room to work with one-on-one, and he was also often the outlet for any Parker drive that went stale. His ability as a ball-handler and playmaker also helped take some of the pressure off Parker in important situations. The three also had wonderful off-court chemistry that clearly translated to their ability to work in tandem while on the court. Manu helped shape the careers of two Hall of Fame players and a Hall of Fame coach, which is as legitimate a teammate contribution as their is.
Verdict: Definitely. YES!
This category is incredibly subjective but necessary nonetheless. It’s essentially a measure of a player’s intangible greatness in a way that can’t be summed up in stats or rings. You can think of it as the “eye test” if that helps, though it can also be more than that depending on the player.
Manu absolutely passes the eye test. He has awesome YouTube compilations entitled Underrated, The Scientist, and Setting Up, among others. For those of you that don’t want to spend the next 45 minutes watching Manu highlights (shame on you), they’re basically an endless compilation of no-look behind the back passes, acrobatic layups, clutch threes, surprisingly athletic dunks, explosive scoring outbursts and other offensive moves that we don’t yet have the words to describe. He is truly one of the most diverse scoring threats we’ve seen since he’s come into the league, all the more impressive when you look at the increasingly stiff competition he’s up against. He’s posterized Yao Ming and blocked a Kevin Durant dunk, something I’m almost positive nobody else has ever done. He’s also nutmegged Norris Cole with a pass while Cole was moving laterally (underrated clip). He’s put the ball through a defender’s legs so many times (even Kobe’s) that there’s an entire five minute thirty second compilation of it in the internet.
But the miscellaneousness is just getting started. It certainly can’t be overlooked that he’s the greatest basketball player in Argentina’s history. That counts for something, even if it’s not a country known for churning out all of the NBA talent (although they have supplied great players). It’s no coincidence that, even though I’ve thought of writing this article for a while, it’s finally coming to fruition while I study in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Soccer is clearly the biggest sport down here and always will be, but basketball is slowly and steadily making it’s way into the conversation for national sport number two. When I tell Argentines that my favorite sport is basketball, the first thing they always ask is either, “Do you like Manu?” or, “Do you like the Spurs?” It’s clear that his presence his felt down here; we certainly haven’t had the same conversations about Luis Scola.
Maybe the most important part of this section is Manu’s unprecedented greatness as a bench player. He has far and away the highest WS/48 of any bench player in the modern era, and his PER is similarly out of everyone else’s league. Simply put, no bench player has ever affected the game like Manu has done for the last 13 years. It’s also noteworthy that Manu may be the most valuable draft pick of all time. From my research, there hasn’t yet been a Hall of Famer that wasn’t a first round draft pick. Not only was Manu not taken in the first round, he was taken as the fourth to last pick in the draft. It’s rare to get even a serviceable role player late in the second round, let alone a potential Hall of Famer.
Verdict: Absolutely. YES!
I wasn’t sure when I started writing this, but I’m confident now: Manu Ginóbili deserves to be in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He certainly doesn’t fit the norm of what we collectively think of as a Hall of Famer, but this is perhaps the most fitting part; in no way is Manu a typical baller. He comes off the bench, didn’t start his NBA career until 25, and most of his highlights are unlike any we’ve seen before. And yet, all of these rarities help build one of the weirdest Hall of Fame narratives we’ve ever witnessed, one that deconstructs a lot of our preconceived notions of “greatness.”
Manu is nowhere close to the double-digit All-Star appearances of Duncan or Kobe, and he’s never averaged 20 PPG in a season. And yet, his advanced numbers are on par or even exceed those of Duncan and Kobe. It’s simply not realistic to expect the same statistical output or All-Star appearances from a scrappy bench player who has consistently had his minutes monitored, although his career numbers in Steal%, Real Plus/Minus and WS/48 help to paint the picture of the impact he made while on the court. Manu has four rings and an Olympic Gold Medal to his name, something only a handful of people can say. He is an integral part of one of the greatest sports dynasties we’ve ever witnessed, one that has changed the path of basketball forever. He revolutionized the Euro step, helped shape the careers of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Gregg Popovich and might be the best bench player of all time. He put Argentina on the basketball map, passes the eye test with flying colors and is one third of essentially the most successful big three in the history of the game. He did technically meet my arbitrary Hall of Fame criteria, but the amazed feeling I had while watching highlights, reading his stats and unearthing the greatness that is Manu was more than enough to convince me.
Even though my hypothetical vote is now cast, we are still many years and at least several screening committees away from knowing Manu’s Hall of Fame fate. This uncertainty means that this year’s playoff run is as important as any the Spurs have had. There is the looming dark cloud of Tim and Manu’s imminent retirements, even though Duncan’s game seemingly hasn’t aged for the last six or so years. But the underlying story lines are also important. Does Manu need another ring to cement his legacy as a Hall of Famer? And what is the future of the Spurs without their big three?
The Spurs should be fine; they have Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills, Tiago Splitter, Kyle Anderson, a killer front office, the rights to several players overseas, cap space and the greatest coach in the game. Kawhi is absolutely re-signing and they might even replace Tim Duncan with LaMarcus Aldridge, which seems unfair and totally understandable at the same time. Something also tells me that Popovich will stick around after his big three leave to help unleash every ounce of Kawhi’s superstar potential, which I believe is better than Scottie Pippen (Yeah, I said it). And then there’s Manu. He hasn’t made a big splash so far in the playoffs, but he’s doing all of the little unnoticed Manu things extremely well. In Friday’s beat down of the Clippers, Manu only scored two points on 1-2 shooting in 17 minutes. But he also had six rebounds, six assists, two blocks and a +10 Real Plus/Minus, leading a Spurs bench unit that kept expanding the lead. He did exactly what the Spurs needed, which is simply what Manu does. Though the series has quickly lived up to it’s preceding hype, I think the Spurs will take it in six or seven. I only ask for one favor: please pay attention to Manu throughout this Spurs playoff run. Because I guarantee when you least expect it, or when things seem to be turning against the Spurs, Manu will be there with a clutch three, or a huge steal, or a momentum shifting turn back the clock dunk. That’s just what Manu does.
When I was watching countless videos of Manu’s greatness researching this article, I stumbled upon several random YouTube quotes that echoed similar feelings about Ginóbili’s skills. This was one of the best: “He is absolutely fearless and will do whatever it takes to put points on the board for San Antonio. You can’t deny the dude’s heart and determination. He is most certainly a future Hall of Famer.” A huge thanks to YouTube user Tim S for having my back and validating this article. I don’t think there is a more appropriate conclusion than to let Popovich sum it up for me:
* – The only requirement is that a player be at least five years removed from retirement
** – The one year that Manu was injured in the playoffs the Spurs were upset by the #8 seed Grizzlies in the first round
*** – The Spurs only won 37 games in the lockout shortened 1998/1999 season, good for a win percentage that would have exceeded 60 games in a normal 82 game regular season. Really the more impressive Spurs record is that they have had a .610 or better winning percentage in 18 straight seasons, better than any other professional North American sports team EVER.
Photo courtesy of Winslow Townson/Associated Press.