By Fran Blinebury, for NBA.com
Posted Oct 16 2009 1:54PM
Tim Duncan, of course, is the tent pole in the middle, holding up everything on his broad shoulders so that the act may go on under the Spurs' big top.
Tony Parker plays the role of the dapper ringmaster, part organizer, part leader, often in the spotlight, making sure the circus runs on time.
But truth be told, it's Manu Ginobili who can transform the Spurs from an entertaining and competent traveling basketball carnival into the Greatest Show on Earth.
"Just watching Manu in practice makes us remember how much we missed last year and even the year before when he was at half-speed in the playoffs," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
It is understandable that there has been so much fuss over all of the new faces on the San Antonio roster. Two-fifths of last year's starting lineup --- Bruce Bowen and Fabricio Oberto --- were traded away for high-flying Richard Jefferson to inject energy and athleticism into the offense. The rookie draft pick DeJuan Blair has already impressed many of the Spurs with his aggressiveness on the backboards and around the hoop. Additions Antonio McDyess and Theo Ratliff bring the wizened know-how of veterans who are seeking one more chance at glory.
But get beyond the newcomers' buzz and maybe the biggest reason the Spurs can consider themselves back in the thick of the Western Conference mix and once more contenders for a championship is the return of Ginobili to good health and his old tricks.
Part bold lion tamer, flamboyant trapeze artist and nerveless high wire walker, Ginobili is the one who elevates the Spurs from playoff team to, "Uh-oh! How do you stop that?"
As the Frenchman Parker might say, he gives the Spurs their je ne sais quoi.
"He is an incredible player and we were offensively challenged without him," Popovich said. "We didn't realize how much we were challenged until we got to see him play again. He adds so much now that he's healthy."
A season ago, when he played only 44 games due to surgery on his left ankle and the eventual development of a stress fracture in his right ankle, Ginobili was nothing like the no-limits, Jackson Pollock-type creator that he was when he won the Sixth Man Award and was named to the All-NBA third team. He not only scored, he defended. He not only defended, he lit the fuse. He didn't just ignite the Spurs, he helped them explode to their championships in 2003, 2005 and 2007.
He gets to the rim for layups and dunks and draw fouls. He draws double-teams away from Duncan and now can open things up more and allow Jefferson to go 1-on-1.
"I wanted to be that player last year and I think I did things that were a help to my team," Ginobili said. "But it wasn't ever the same. Not at the beginning of the season when I had the surgery and not at the end when the stress fracture came. I always want to work to do what I can for my team, but this was really working --- do you know what I mean? --- trying to be myself. It was disappointing. It was annoying. It was frustrating."
It was also alarming to the Spurs. They knew he would be entering training camp as a 32-year-old with plenty of miles on his odometer. He played five seasons in Argentina and Italy prior to his seven with the Spurs. Toss in another 100 playoff games in San Antonio and, with his contract expiring this season, there were some concerns that injuries, if not career-threatening, could be signs that his live-wire playing days were behind him.
That is, until he arrived in training camp and began to do all of those things again after an offseason of forced rest, at the strict orders of the Spurs organization.
"I wasn't happy, but these were my instructions," Ginobili said. "I had no permission to touch a basketball in July and August. But it was before that, too, and it was toughest for me in April, May and June, when I was watching my teammates and my opponents in the playoffs. My adrenaline was going and all I could do was sit there and watch. I don't like this at all."
He had no choice. In addition to all of the previous NBA seasons he'd spent throwing his body madly around the floor, there were all of those offseasons when he played for the Argentine national team in international competitions. He injured the left ankle in the Beijing Olympics.
"All I know about the difference is that, unlike a lot of summers, all Manu was able to do this summer was sit on his ass," Popovich said. "He didn't do anything and now he's 100 percent healthy. We got him out of game shape on purpose to let his body rest and to heal, so he could do the things he's done for us in the past."
The wild things, the crazy things, the special things.
"I don't even want to count or think about last season," Ginobili said. "Just 44 games, all the things I could not do.
"Now I have watched over the summer and I've seen changes. Probably to be as good as the Lakers, Cleveland and Boston, we needed some new faces."
And some healthy, rehabilitated older ones.
"TD is healthy and Tony is in good shape," Ginobili said. "I feel like I can be myself again," Ginobili said. "I feel like we have a shot again."
1. MANU, MANU, MANU
The Spurs need their fire-starter Manu Ginobili to be back in the lineup with his old spark at both ends.
2. JEFFERSONIAN DEMOCRACY
Richard Jefferson has to spread the floor, attack the basket and ease the offensive burden on Duncan, Parker and Ginobili.
3. BIG FUNDAMENTALLY SOUND
The minutes of Tim Duncan must be limited to keep his knees fresh and ready for the long drive into June.
-- Fran Blinebury
LAST YEAR: 54-28, first in Southwest
FINISH: Lost in first round
2008-09 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2008-09 Stats|
TONY PARKER, GUARD
22.0 PPG | 6.9 APG | .506 FG%
The callow teenager who entered the NBA has grown into one of the premier point guards in the game and big-time scorer.
MANU GINOBILI, GUARD
15.5 PPG | 4.5 RPG | 1.5 SPG
He drives, finishes, gets to the line, hits the 3-pointer and creates havoc on defense. The straw that stirs the drink.
RICHARD JEFFERSON, FORWARD
19.6 PPG | 4.6 RPG | .397 3P%
His speed, athleticism and ability to break defenses down going to the hoop are the talents the Spurs lacked in the past two seasons.
TIM DUNCAN, FORWARD
19.3 PPG | 10.7 RPG | 1.7 BPG
You can say heís getting older and has a lot of miles on him. But you still must say heís the best PF in the game.
THEO RATLIFF, CENTER
1.9 PPG | 2.8 RPG 1.0 BPG
Not a scoring threat at all in the middle. But the Spurs only need the veteran to rebound and protect the rim.
|A. McDyess||6-9||245||F||The Dice-man can still cometh.|
|DeJuan Blair||6-7||265||F||Big body, big rebounder, big steal.|
|R. Mason Jr.||6-5||212||G||Willing and capable on big shots.|
ADDED: DeJuan Blair, Nando De Colo, Marcus Haislip, Richard Jefferson, Jack McClinton, Antonio McDyess, Theo Ratliff, Keith Bogans
LOST: Bruce Bowen, Drew Gooden, Fabricio Oberto, Kurt Thomas
MANU GINOBILI, GUARD
After seven hellbent-for-leather NBA seasons and five more in Europe and Argentina, the question is whether Ginobiliís 32-year-old body can continue to withstand the abuse he inflicts upon it on a nightly basis. The Spurs need him to come back strong and healthy to contend and he needs it to get a new contract.
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