Victors are determined decisively on the court, but one great joy of fandom outside the lines has no clear winner. We love to weigh the merits of our favorite players against each other, and yet a taproom full of basketball fans can never unanimously agree on the GOAT. In this series, we attempt to settle scores of NBA undercard debates — or at least give you fodder for your next “Who is better?” argument.
THE MATCHUP: Pau Gasol vs. Manu Ginobili
Having played three seasons of top-level European basketball upon entering the NBA at age 21, Gasol was as seasoned a rookie as we have seen this century. His production fluctuated little from his debut season for the Memphis Grizzlies through the second of consecutive All-Star seasons for the Chicago Bulls, so we’ll call that 17-year stretch his prime, even though his apex was probably closer to 2005-11.
From 2001-16, Gasol averaged 18.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.7 blocks in 35.3 minutes per game, making six All-Star and 10 playoff appearances in that span. He was the best player on a Grizzlies team that was swept out of the first round three straight times and the second-best player behind Kobe Bryant on a Los Angeles Lakers team that won back-to-back titles during three straight Finals trips.
Ginobili played seven seasons in the Argentine and Italian basketball leagues before making his San Antonio Spurs debut. It was another two years before he entered his prime — a breakout 2004-05 campaign at the age of 27 years old that followed his country’s Olympic gold medal campaign and preceded his second Spurs title.
From 2004-11, between his first and second All-Star appearances, Ginobili averaged 16.8 points, 4.2 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 29 minutes per game. In that span, he finished top-11 in MVP voting three times. The Spurs made the playoffs every year of his career, which largely coincided with future Hall of Fame teammates Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. That group won four titles together, the last of which also featured Kawhi Leonard as San Antonio’s Finals MVP.
In his first full season with the Lakers — following a midseason trade and 2008 Finals run — a 28-year-old Gasol was at the peak of his polished powers. He played all but one game, averaging 18.9 points on a career-best 56.7 field-goal percentage, with 9.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists and a block in 37 minutes a night.
His usage rate was the lowest of his prime, yet his production remained consistent. According to Basketball Reference, Gasol scored 125.6 points per 100 possessions used that season, better than anyone else in the league. A model of efficiency, he ranked in the league’s top five across the board in all-encompassing metrics — win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player — serving as the anchor of a 65-win team that finished third in offensive rating and sixth in defensive rating.
Gasol was as good or better in the 2009 playoffs, averaging 18.3 points (58 FG percentage), along with 10.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists and two blocks in 40.5 minutes per game. Those numbers remained steady in the Finals, when he upped his field-goal rate to 60 percent. Gasol joined Carmelo Anthony as a Third Team All-NBA forward, trailing only Finals MVPs LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and Paul Pierce.
It is hard to reach a greater basketball apex than Ginobili did from August 2004 to June 2005. After leading Argentina to its first gold medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics, he submitted his first All-Star season, averaging 16 points (on 47/38/80 shooting splits), 4.4 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.6 steals in less than 30 minutes per game. The campaign culminated with his second NBA championship in three years.
In the playoffs, Ginobili averaged a career-high 20.8 points per game (on 51/44/80 splits), 5.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.2 steals in only 33.6 minutes a night. If not for Duncan — the greatest power forward in history — he would have won Finals MVP honors in 2005, posting similar numbers before capping his season with 23 points on 13 shots in a Game 7 victory that his Spurs won by an 81-74 margin.
Ginobili had more productive seasons — like 2008, when he averaged 19.5 points on 46/40/86 splits in a career-high 31.1 minutes per game, made his first All-NBA team and finished top-10 in MVP voting — but he was never so vital to a Spurs title run and never more relevant on the global basketball stage than in 2005.
For our purposes, though, ruling out the gold-medal run, the argument for whose NBA apex was higher between Gasol and Ginobili is closer. We never got to see how Ginobili would have performed in a less egalitarian system. His production may have soared with a higher minutes load, but his efficiency might also have waned. We know what Gasol was with a greater burden — a guy who transformed the Lakers from first-round fodder in 2006 and 2007 to Finals stalwart from 2008-10.
Gasol’s playoff record without Bryant is 0-16 — three first-round sweeps in Memphis and another with L.A. in 2013, following Kobe’s Achilles injury. Gasol was the ideal secondary star for Bryant, though, as the two reached the Finals in their first three seasons together, winning twice, before a pair of Western Conference semifinals exits led to fence-swinging moves for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.
Ginobili did not play a postseason game without Duncan until 2017, when he was a few months shy of his 40th birthday, and even then he had Leonard — and Gasol. They reached the Western Conference finals, before Leonard suffered a season-ending ankle injury, and the Spurs were then swept by the Golden State Warriors.
Ginobili was also a model complementary star. In total, the Spurs made 16 playoff appearances in Ginobili’s 16 NBA seasons, appearing in five Finals (four wins), eight conference finals and 12 conference semifinals. Ginobili’s 218 career playoff games rank eighth all time, and he was San Antonio’s second-best player in a lot of them.
Their career playoff averages ...
• Gasol (136 games): 15.4 points (50.8 FG%, 29.7 3P%, 74.1 FT%), 9.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.2 combined blocks/steals in 35.5 minutes per game
• Ginobili (218 games): 14.0 points (43.3 FG%, 35.8 3P%, 81.7 FT%), four assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.6 combined blocks/steals in 27.9 minutes per game
Their career Finals averages ...
• Gasol (19 games): 16.4 points (52.8 FG%, 71.3 FT%), 9.9 rebounds, three assists and 2.3 combined blocks/steals in 38.9 minutes per game
• Ginobili (29 games): 14 points (43.8 FG%, 35 3P%, 83.1 FT%), 4.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 combined blocks/steals in 30.5 minutes per game
Their career head-to-head playoff averages (13 games) ...
• Gasol: 15.1 points (49.4 FG%, 76.2 FT%), 8.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.2 combined blocks/steals in 35.6 minutes per game
• Ginobili: 11.5 points (38.9 FG%, 35.3 3P%, 86.3 FT%), 3.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.5 combined blocks/steals in 26.5 minutes per game
Gasol played a single Game 7 in the Finals, amassing 19 points, 18 rebounds, four assists and two blocks in an 83-79 win over the Boston Celtics in 2010. In a series that saw Bryant shoot 40.5 percent and 6-of-24 in the deciding game, Gasol averaged 18.6 points (47.8 FG%), 11.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 3.3 combined blocks/steals in 41.9 minutes per game, and probably should have won Finals MVP.
Ginobili played a pair of Game 7s in the Finals. In 2005, he totaled 23 points, five rebounds, four assists and a steal in an 81-74 win over the Detroit Pistons. In 2013, he posted 18 points, five assists and three rebounds in a 95-88 loss to the Miami Heat. The closest he ever came to a Finals MVP was 2005, when his numbers — 18.7 points (49.4 FG%), 5.9 rebounds, four assists and 1.4 combined blocks/steals in 36 minutes per game — were overshadowed by Duncan’s brilliance.
• Gasol: Two-time champion; six-time All-Star; four-time All-NBA selection (2x Second Team, 2x Third Team); 2002 Rookie of the Year; two-time FIBA Europe Player of the Year; two-time FIBA EuroBasket MVP; two-time Spanish League champion; three-time Olympic medalist (2008 and 2012 silver, 2016 bronze)
• Ginobili: Four-time champion; two-time All-Star; two-time Third Team All-NBA selection; 2008 Sixth Man of the Year; 2001 EuroLeague champion (Finals MVP); two-time Italian League MVP; two-time Olympic medalist (2004 gold, 2008 bronze)
Their EuroLeague accomplishments are remarkable, although we set them aside for this discussion. Ginobili has the edge in the most meaningful hardware — four Larry O’Brien trophies to Gasol’s two and a gold medal where Gasol does not have one.
So, how much do we weigh the fact that Gasol made three times as many All-Star games and twice as many All-NBA rosters, including two Second Team selections?
Gasol was quite clearly the second-best player on back-to-back champs. Ginobili was San Antonio’s second-best player on the 2005 title run, third-best in 2007 and further down the pecking order in 2003 and 2014. Still, I think you would trade a few more All-Star selections and All-NBA bids for a couple more rings. Ginobili certainly did, willingly accepting a sixth-man role and less minutes to get there.
For the culture
How will we remember Gasol? Most likely as the man who helped deliver Bryant’s fourth and fifth championships — his only ones without Shaquille O’Neal. Gasol is one of the greatest international players in history, a pillar of a Spanish national team that ranked as Team USA’s most difficult challenge in three straight Olympics, and one half of the Gasol brothers — probably the best sibling duo ever to play in the NBA.
Had Gasol not played basketball, he would have been a doctor. That is how I will remember him — a brilliant basketball mind who brought a surgeon’s deftness to the court in a 7-footer’s body. You never need to tell Gasol where to be. He is already there, putting in the work to ensure everything operates as it should.
Ginobili was more of a cult hero, the prototype for players like James Harden, whose footwork helped him force more defensive breakdowns than it looked like he ever should. If he did not import the Euro step to the NBA, he at least perfected it.
He was a member of Argentina’s Golden Generation, architects of a historic Olympic upset, and a founding father of a culture that shaped the Spurs into a sustainable dynasty. He was a uniter and a winner. And let us not forget Bat-Manu.
THE DAGGER: Pau Gasol is better.
If you have an idea for a matchup you would like to see in this series, let us know.
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