Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Coaching Catch-22

Reports are beginning to surface suggesting a possible sooner-than-expected return of Manu Ginobili, indicating a date closer to the end of this month than mid-December.

As one who follows the Spurs closely, you'd expect that I'd be overjoyed. But I'm not.

Instead, of an abiding sense of relief, even giddy happiness, I'm arrested by a sense of fear. Is Manu rushing things to quench his insatiable spirit to compete? Does he hate watching his team lose so much that he'd rather play too soon than return after it's too late? How much has the 2-5 start and injury to Parker colored his evaluation of rehab?

As an organization, and Popovich in particular, the Spurs typically err on the side of caution. Just earlier this month, George Hill set an additional two games after being cleared to play by doctors following a thumb injury. Pop likes to play it safe. He cautiously manages the minutes of his healthy players and drags his heals to appease the pleas of those returning from injury. Firmly entrenched in his coaching philosophy is the belief that in order to win a championship a team needs to peak during the playoffs and its players, especially its best players, need to be healthy when doing so. This is not rocket science. But it means that Popovich would rather have those two things and an 8 seed than only one of two and a 4 seed.

But Manu is not a typical Spur in this regard--his competitive spirit is so great that Popovich sometimes has difficulty keeping him under wraps. On the court, Pop has learned to live with the tension of Ginobili's reckless genius. His fire to win endears him to the coaching staff and teammates. At points, they revel in it. Last season Pop was asked, during one of those dreadfully pointless after quarter interviews, why he had elected to start Manu in the second half despite an underwhelming, off-his-game first half performance? The coach, knowing more than the reporter, simply said, "Because he's Manu Ginobili."

Earlier this year Ginobili wrote about the strange sight, at least to him, of seeing other players content in defeat. Paraphrasing the Google translation, "...sometimes I see peers or rivals very relaxed, calm and smiling after defeats and I think: Why can't I be? With just a few games left in our 82 game season, why not relax? No. This is not the case. I am too upset to lose. It's in my genes." He wrote this as the Spurs struggled down the stretch during their 07-8 campaign. Now he watches as they struggle out of the gate during the current run. One can only imagine that his hatred of losing is eating at him as the Spurs sink to the bottom of the standings. One can only imagine that he's pissed.

So why not let the guy play?

Ginobili is on the sidelines, in part, because he couldn't bear the thought of sitting out the Olympics to nurse injury. He had a gimpy ankle, and the possibility of a midsummer surgery was on the table, but his tolerance for pain greatly outweighed his tolerance for not playing. The notion of cheering his countrymen on from the bench rather than leading them on court was too upsetting, so he played. His gamble did not help the Argentine team, and it's not helping the Spurs now. In short, is this a mistake he and the Spurs can afford to make twice?

It's a judgment call Popovich must be weary to make. Risk digging the deep hole of losing with a conservative return date, or trust Manu and the doctors and let him come back ahead of schedule? If it were up to Ginobili, he'd play against the Rockets tomorrow night. But it might be better for the Spurs to wait. Even if it means clawing back from .250 into the 7 or 8 seed.

If he's healthy, he should play. But if he's pushing, Pop should push back.

Whether Ginobili should return closer to Thanksgiving or Christmas will fall on Pop, but he will return soon. The teases over at spurs.com padded this recent clip with a suggestive postscript. If you're short on time, skip to final 30 seconds.