April 16, 2008
The question, at this point, shouldn't be whether or not Manu Ginobili deserves the Sixth Man of the Year award. He does. He's had it in the bag since this season's second month. The guy is a beast, in 31 minutes a game.
The question that we should start to ponder has more to do with whether or not Manu Ginobili has had the finest season of any sixth man, ever.
We're not going to try and convince you that Ginobili is any better than John Havlicek, or Kevin McHale. There's no point in that, because we know the answer. But how does his 2007-08 turn stack up with the off-the-bench runs of some of this league's more celebrated bench performers.
To start, let's look at Manu's brilliant year: 19.6 points per game, 4.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and two combined blocks/steals in only 31.2 minutes per game. Good defense, and offense that often came in the face of a defense that wasn't even bothering to guard some of the less-potent wing players Ginobili was playing alongside.
As far as I can tell, readers can correct me in the comments section if I'm off, Havlicek came off the bench for the first five seasons of his career. In that time, his fifth campaign during the 1966-67 season was likely his finest, and he offered these stats:
21.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 44 percent shooting in 32 minutes. Great stuff. But here's the issue: games were so much faster back then, with teams taking shots far earlier in the shot clock and running at every opportunity.
So, as we discussed in a post about Oscar Robertson a few months back, it's almost as if you have to cut stats from that era by about ten percent in order to compare them to production from the modern game.
In fact, we have a stat that already does that: PER, which recognizes pace and takes into consideration per-minute numbers. It's a good thing, because comparing a Celtics team that averaged 119 points a game while giving up 111 per to a San Antonio team that averages about 25 and 20 fewer points (respectively) is pretty pointless.
Pun unintended, but passable. Just barely.
Anyway, Manu turned in a 24.1 PER this season, while Hondo managed a 19.2. Now, the full reality of Havlicek's production cannot fully be registered because the NBA didn't start counting steals, turnovers, and offensive rebounds until a few years later (any amount of steals would have been mitigated by the turnovers, and the offensive boards wouldn't be enough to make up a five-point differential in PER).
As it stands, anecdotal evidence and the ability to gauge just how slow the style of play is these days (especially in San Antonio) bears out this reality:
Manu is doing more, in fewer minutes, with fewer chances to pad stats. The Spurs average about 87 possessions per game, and it's a fair guess that the 1967 C's averaged 20-25 more possessions per game.
What about McHale? Though Kevin started an average of 23.6 games a season over his first five years, he was primarily Boston's sixth man as Cornbread Maxwell scored and talked and rebounded and talked some more. His best season, as you'd expect, was his fifth year when he averaged 19.8 points, nine rebounds, and a block and a half in 33.6 minutes.
That's pretty solid. That's nearly All-Star level play, off your bench (McHale started 31 games that year, but Manu also started 23 this season), and some fine defense to boot.
So why did McHale top out with a 20 PER that season? Why did Manu have the better year? Once again, McHale had more chances to put up those stats. The Celtics averaged about 101 possessions per game that season, and when you put that into the pipe along with the two extra minutes that McHale played (pretty complicated pipe), you can see why Ginobili has been better.
Manu shouldn't be punished because his coach declined to play him a few more minutes, or because Coach Pop wants to walk things up every chance he can. I'm not going to argue against the merits of those stylistic tendencies, but it's safe to say that they aren't exactly to Ginobili's preferences. The guy wants to stay on the court longer, and play faster.
But when he is out there, and given the time he has to work, and in this particular season as compared with the best off-the-bench seasons of the former Celtics' careers, Ginobili has been better. Not tons better than Hondo and this guy, but the difference is significant enough to make the call.
And Manu should be better - McHale and Havlicek were still a few years away from their primes in their last seasons as sixth men, whereas this is likely Ginobili's career year.
You can hem and haw all you want at the thought of me favorably comparing a player who didn't even make the All-Star team this year with two of the finest players in NBA history, but it might be time to re-think things. Ginobili has had a remarkable year, and the best season of any sixth man in the history of this league.