As the life expectancy of an American male nears 76 years, an impressive number of San Antonio Spurs have managed to extend their careers into their genuine mid-life. Manu Ginobili, the hero of Game 5, is only the latest. The great benefit of that extension lies not in carrying the weight of a franchise but in passing it. Ginobili still plays because he wants to. The Spurs will still have him because of the wealth of good he can offer from a minimal role, all without interfering with San Antonio’s crucial, transitional structure. Kawhi Leonard drives the Spurs. But in certain moments, Ginobili—even at 39—can help steer them.
“There are too many nights like [Tuesday] where he carries us forward and teaches the next generation the importance of competitiveness, the importance of sacrifice—and loving the game,” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said, per The Vertical.
Basketball will forever be a balance of youthful energy and learned experience. There is no substitute for fresh, springy legs, nor for the hard lessons of ruined seasons. The Spurs know this as well as any franchise—a quicker, more athletic Thunder team rocked them out of the playoffs just a last year—and still they tend to err on the side of veterans. Before Ginobili, it was Tim Duncan. Alongside a young Duncan, an aging David Robinson. In between, San Antonio found use for Mario Elie, Antonio McDyess, and Bruce Bowen. Most every NBA franchise will claim to extend players’ careers. The Spurs may be the only one to have the receipts, given that 15 different players over the age of 35 have been important playoff elements over the course of Gregg Popovich’s tenure.
Steve Kerr, then 37, came off the bench to seal up the 2003 Western Conference with a flurry of three-pointers. Robert Horry, at 36, played 20 minutes a game for a championship team and delivered one of the most consequential fouls in playoff history. Pau Gasol, despite his clear limitations, stepped in as a starter during this Spurs-Rockets series to help take Game 3 on the road. Banking on players at these late stages of their careers can be highly variable in its own way; no player in his mid-30s will be massively productive in every game. The rewards, instead, come in flash points: a galvanizing dunk or a game-saving block.
“I don’t feel like I had a huge game,” Ginobili said after capping James Harden’s game-tying shot attempt from behind. “But I guess the standards are a little lower.”
Running a basketball team with a built-in AARP chapter has put the Spurs at perpetual risk. The bell could toll for Ginobili at any time, just as it did with Duncan. "Your mortality as a player is not known," Duncan told SI four years before his eventual retirement. "You don't see the end coming." San Antonio has done everything to stave off that which it cannot see. Graybeard after graybeard has suited up in silver and black. For decades they needed only to follow Duncan – the strict diet, the reshaping of his body, the changing of his game to fit his team’s needs. Tiny innovations are guarded as state secrets. There were the early investments in sports science and wearable technology, each informing a broad philosophy. The Spurs have made it an institutional priority to prolong a playing career’s twilight, whether for Duncan or Ginobili or Terry Porter.
They made it possible by finding every way possible to reduce a player’s in-season workload. The only way for a veteran to make the play when it matters is for him to be on the floor, spry and invested, when it matters. The great miracle of Popovich’s Spurs lies in the salesmanship required to get there. It has never been easier to convince NBA players to pace themselves over the grueling regular season than it is today. This is largely true because of one franchise and, if we trace the root to its specific origin, one superstar.
“As a competitor, I want to play more, but honestly, I can’t beat feeling as healthy as I do,” Duncan told the New York Times in 2012. “That’s why Pop regulates my time and being the bad guy at times when I want to be out there. In the long run, it helps me.”
Playing time is a powerful currency in the league. It is the means through which players achieve what they intend. It can also tax a player’s performance come April and May, when the weight of a season feels heaviest. Buried beneath the debate over the economics and relative value of players skipping games for rest is the wonder that the Spurs ever made this a regular feature of their culture in the first place. Popovich sold his players on sacrificing the part of the game that matters most—even more than role or touches. Competitors obsessed with playing and winning will take a back seat because, by now, this is just how the Spurs do things. Popovich could sell that because Duncan allowed it. Because Duncan allowed it, Ginobili and so many other veterans have played out the string to find one more bit of playoff glory.
Fittingly, Duncan still shows up at the Spurs’ practice facility, unannounced, to show Gasol or LaMarcus Aldridge the ways of his career. His legacy is now inextricable from the franchise’s foundation. San Antonio has effectively maintained a 20-year window of contention by always playing the long game. They managed it, oddly enough, by living summer to summer with the gradual decline of their aging contributors and the looming possibility of their retirement. At times, the mechanical nature of it all could make players seem like cogs. What brought it to life was a deep, revolutionary investment in the individual.
Ginobili has played the same amount of regular—season minutes over a 15-year career that others did in 10. He logged hundreds fewer minutes this season than Luol Deng (who was shut down after 56 games), Tim Frazier (who was removed from New Orleans’s rotation intermittently), and Jerami Grant (whose game is highly situational). His story is a Spurs story—one of sacrifice and moderation, informed by Duncan even after he played his final game.