One of the central tenets of Buddhism is impermanence, the notion that nothing – not personality traits, not physical conditions, not material items, nothing – can resist the inexorable force of change.
Tony Parker is obviously not an adherent of this concept.
“Still the same,” is how Parker describes long-time backcourt partner at 35, on the verge of his 11th season.
This, of course, is impossible. But while Ginobili’s athleticism and hairline aren’t what they used to be, just about everything else has aged nicely.
Indeed, from the standpoint of pure skill, Ginobili has never been better. It’s just a matter of whether his body, at an age where many of his historic peers had already called it quits, will cooperate.
Before we fiddle around with those details, it’s worthwhile examining just how much Ginobili has already changed over the years, most of which has been for the good.
While not quite in the same class as Vince Carter or Kobe Bryant as an athlete, Ginobili wasn’t far behind when he entered the NBA in 2002. But even then, when he could regularly dunk like , what stood out most were his instincts and basketball IQ, qualities that have only improved with experience.
An average shooter as a rookie in 2002-03, Ginobili shot a career-best 41.3 percent from 3-point range last season while finishing third in the league in true shooting percentage at 66.8. (To put the latter figure into perspective, it would have been the third-best TS% for a guard in NBA history if he’d played enough games.)
Perhaps more impressive is his development as a ball-handler and playmaker.
Ginobili registered a minus 5.59 pure point rating in his second-to-last season with Virtus Bologna, which basically means he was a turnover waiting to happen. Ten years later he finished at 4.50, placing him first among NBA shooting guards and second among all non-point guards in 2011-12.
That brings us to today, where the Spurs will be keeping their fingers crossed that Ginobili can bring all those skills to bear following a season in which he missed 32 games and under performed in the postseason.
ESPN’s John Hollinger projects another quality campaign (21.8 PER, with 21 points, 5.8 assists and 7.0 rebounds per 40 minutes).
Although no clear trend is discernable, it’s also interesting to look at how other elite shooting guards fared at 35:
George Gervin, Allen Iverson, Paul Westphal, Sidney Moncrief, Bill Sharman and Dave Bing were all retired, while Michael Redd is on the verge.
Vince Carter (10.1 ppg, 51.9 TS%, 13.6 PER) had the worst season of his career. Mitch Richmond had the second-worst (16.2 ppg, 52.1 TS%, 14.9 PER).
Jerry West produced at an All-Star level (20.3 ppg, 22.4 PER) but appeared in just 31 games.
Ray Allen did make the All-Star team, averaging 16.5 points with a total shooting percentage of 61.5.
Reggie Miller, Jeff Hornacek, Fred Brown and Sam Jones had quality campaigns, recording PERs between 17.1 and 17.8 while playing varying roles. Miller was particularly good, averaging 18.9 points on 57.4 TS% while playing more than 39 minutes per game.
Then there was Clyde Drexler, who performed almost identically at 35 (18.7 ppg, 53.1 TS%, 19.8 PER) as he did at 23 (19.4 ppg, 53.0 TS%, 19.4 PER).
(Michael Jordan likely would have been an MVP candidate at 35 – he won the award at 34 in his final season with the Bulls – but retired before returning for those two Twilight Zone seasons with the Washington Wizards.)
Where Ginobili will fall on that continuum is impossible to tell at this point, especially given a history of injuries that has forced him to miss roughly one out of every five games in the NBA.
He’s at least been handled delicately, never averaging more than 32.3 minutes during that span and another two seasons in Italy. As a result he’s played considerably fewer minutes than many of the aforementioned players at similar stages in their career, including roughly 17,000 less than Jordan.
That extra time on the bench could be a blessing in disguise now that Ginobili is in the twilight of his career, trying to squeeze out a few more seasons in which to utilize the skill set he’s polished to such a fine sheen.