By Rob Mahoney
It can be dangerous to read too much into early-season injuries, but there's something disheartening in Mike Monroe's latest report for the San Antonio Express-News. Per Monroe, Manu Ginobili -- who is no stranger to lingering injury -- will not be traveling with the Spurs to New Orleans for their season opener on Wednesday because of a back issue.
This news, in itself, is hardly disastrous. A single regular-season outing is relatively insignificant given what the Spurs hope to accomplish, and this could very well be a precautionary effort to make sure that Ginobili is ready for the rigors of an 82-game schedule. But that Ginobili has already battled two distinct ailments in the preseason (he missed time earlier with a foot injury) doesn't exactly bode well for one of the Spurs' most vital contributors, particularly when back injuries bear such a high risk for complication.
San Antonio is better equipped than most to deal with both this particular absence and any that may follow, but that doesn't make Ginobili anything less than essential to the Spurs' season. San Antonio's place as a contender is not only contingent on his availability but also on his optimal play. Anything less than a full-speed Manu puts the Spurs at an incredible disadvantage and dooms what hope they have of keeping pace with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Lakers. Danny Green, Stephen Jackson and Gary Neal are a commendable collective stopgap, but without Ginobili's elite all-around shot creation, the Spurs' patchwork roster of role players would look quite ordinary.
That's because there's a world of difference between a deep roster and a balanced one. San Antonio has capable players for days, but all of them are highly dependent on the Spurs' core three. Tony Parker's dribble penetration creates open looks in efficient zones and triggers off-ball movement. Tim Duncan's mere presence demands that opponents pay attention and generates opportunities for quality mid-range looks and at-the-rim finishes. Ginobili functionally reinforces all of the above, while working the passing and driving lanes of the Spurs' offense to incredible effect. He is a load-bearing pillar in a basketball institution, and one that can't be structurally replaced by stacking lesser pieces up to the ceiling. A few missed games here and there will do little harm. The replacement parts and coaching in San Antonio are impressive enough to sustain regular-season momentum and continue course without incident. But the Spurs can only hope that such minor, manageable losses are all that becomes of Ginobili's ailing back.