By Rob Mahoney
In basketball terms, the line between starters and reserves is of little consequence. After all, when a player plays matters far less than how much he plays and the teammates he runs alongside; basketball is a game of accumulated margin, and whether that margin is created in unglamorous second-quarter minutes or in crunch time is technically of little consequence in the final result.
But as Beckley Mason of HoopSpeak illustrated in his wonderful case study on the Thunder's James Harden, the starting distinction does matter more than hoops heads might care to admit. It's an assigned importance, mind you -- starting is only as significant as fans and players believe it to be -- but that doesn't prevent the starter-sub dichotomy from making a very real impact in the way that certain players are perceived. Mason argued that Harden's role as a sixth man may help to explain why he's often regarded as a second-class star, and given the discrepancy between Harden's reputation and performance, that would seem to be an unfortunately sound assessment.
All of which only makes it even more remarkable that a handful of the league's stars would submit to such a role in the first place. Yet year after year, players like Manu Ginobili -- the standard-bearer for super-subs -- sacrifice league-wide esteem and likely earning potential for the sake of their teams. What's even more impressive: Ginobili does so without blinking. A fluid role somewhere between valued starter and bench mainstay has come to be his, and per his latest comments to Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News, Ginobili owns that role willingly:
“I expect to come from the bench again, but who knows for how long?” he said. “Every year, it changes. But I don’t think we’re going to change much this time. We finished the last season great, 20 wins a row. Unfortunately, we lost the last four. It happens.
“But I think we found a good bench combination with Jack (Stephen Jackson), Tiago (Splitter), Gary (Neal), Matt (Bonner) and me. We had a great second unit that was very successful last year, so I don’t think that much is going to change.”
In a league of players who crave an impossible level of stability, Ginobili's acceptance is refreshing. His career and legacy (two inescapably important elements of professional sports) may not have been best served by going along with Gregg Popovich's master plan, but the Spurs have nonetheless been made all the better by Ginobili's compliance. Even within the singular issue of starting and not, it's that adaptable quality that sets Ginobili -- and a select few, including Harden -- a class apart. He's started, he's come off the bench, he's deferred and he's rotated between positions. He's been flexible in every way that Popovich has ever asked him to be, and given the greatest coach in the game the strategic resources necessary to shuffle his roster into high efficiency. There's an obvious trust there, and an all-time coach on the other side of these negotiations. But Ginobili and those like him somehow may not be getting enough credit for their concessions. The NBA is short on players willing to take leaps of faith, and shorter yet on those willing to surrender the illusion of a secure role. Yet Ginobili has done both and then some, and in the process given the Spurs an easily deployable star capable of filling the gaps in any possible lineup. Manu isn't merely a talented and overqualified reserve. He's a star player with incredible fire and a malleable ego, and in that, Ginobili effectively fits the profile of what coaches and fans the world over wish that every star could be.