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Manu Ginobili is again battling injuries this season after playing just 44 games in 2008-09.
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images

Spurs need old Ginobili, all they're getting is an old Manu

Posted Nov 20 2009 10:39AM

Bad news for potential next generation opponents of the Argentine national team and would-be 2030 defenders in the NBA -- Manu Ginobili's wife is expecting twins.

What could possibly be worse than trying to keep up with Mad Manu's wild length-of-the-court dashes, his slashing through traffic, his leaning one way and flipping the ball over his head in the other direction tricks, his why-not-try-it 3-pointers? Except, of course, chasing an identical pair of him?

At the moment, the Spurs would be happy just to get the original Ginobili completely healthy and back on the floor as they try to gain traction in another slow start to another season. He's already been slowed in the opening weeks by a strained hamstring. Now Ginobili is back on the shelf with a mild left groin strain that is expected to keep him out for seven to 10 days.

Everyone chuckled and Ginobili became an Internet sensation when he swatted down a bat buzzing the AT&T Center on Halloween night. But it wasn't quite so funny when Ginobili had to go through a series of painful rabies shots. And nobody's laughing along the Riverwalk at the agonizing questions that are looming.

"I'd be disingenuous if I said I wasn't disappointed that he's been hurt in different ways since he did rest this summer," said coach Gregg Popovich. "I'm surprised by it and didn't expect it. But we still have to deal with it."

Hanging in the air before the end of November is not only how far the Spurs can go next spring in the playoffs, but where they go in the future.

Without Ginobili in their lineup last spring, the Spurs were first-round playoff fodder -- five games and out -- for the Dallas Mavericks. This time around, even with the addition of Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess and a handful of other new faces, the Spurs are not going to be real threats to run down the defending champion L.A. Lakers over the long haul without Manu. Thursday night's 90-83 loss to Utah dropped their record to 4-6.

Ginobili is the Spurs' fire-starter, causing heat and havoc at both ends of the court. He is also 32 years old with a contract and a body that might be expiring simultaneously.

San Antonio would love nothing more than to re-up the old Ginobili to a new deal that would keep him playing with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Trouble is, after all the years he's played and battled for the Spurs and Argentina, all the nights that he's thrown that hell-bent body all over courts around the world, the fear among the Spurs has to be that they are watching the beginning of just an old Ginobili.

"I love it in San Antonio," he said. "This is the place where I would like to finish my career."

However, smart championship organizations like the Spurs don't stay smart and keep themselves in the championship hunt by paging through the history books and getting flushed with emotion. Yes, he's won them three championship rings. Yes, he's probably the most popular player in town. Yes, he's still in a tough spot, hurting and needing to be on the floor at the same time.

"I'm a little paranoid," Ginobili said. "I don't want to miss any more games."

Duncan is scheduled to make $18.7 million next season, Jefferson $15 million and Parker $13 million. Ginobili's current deal pays him $10.7 million this season and it only makes sense to make a similar commitment for another two or three years -- if he's able to cause more doubt in the minds of his opponents than his own locker room. Jefferson's arrival makes the economics of Ginobili's situation much tighter.

Nothing has changed about how the Spurs feel about Ginobili or how much they need him. But Ginobili may be changing some. He followed up a 36-point game 1 1/2 weeks ago against Toronto by shooting 0-for-8 and scoring just seven points five nights later in a loss to Oklahoma City.

"I am not in the most confident part of my career," Ginobili said. "I've been struggling and I need to feel better."

Just as the Spurs need to feel better about him. That is why they chose to wait on talking about a new deal.

Since getting hurt chasing down a loose ball at the Beijing Olympics in the summer of 2008, Ginobili has had surgery on his left ankle to repair tendons and developed a stress fracture in his right ankle that ended his season after just 44 games.

The Spurs were extremely cautious with him over the summer, keeping Ginobili away from the basketball court and almost any kind of physical activity until he arrived for training camp in September. Now, already, the hamstring and groin problems have cropped up and so have the concerns. Popovich doesn't have to admit that the alarm bells are going off inside his head. You can read it on his face.

You can also hear it from Ginobili. After having to leave Wednesday night's game in Dallas after just 7 1/2 minutes, Ginobili was later seen limping down a hallway outside the Spurs locker room. "I'm pissed," he said.

How many times were the Spurs a step slow or one inspired play away the past two nights in an overtime loss at Dallas and at home against Utah, where they trailed by only one with 1 minutes to play?

All that was missing was the old Ginobili and the old Ginobili, both a dilemma and a question that isn't going away.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here.

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