The Difference Between Being the Third Option and Being the First OptionThe San Antonio-Golden State series has been very entertaining and has provided some great drama, including two overtime games. Each team has won once at home and once on the road, resulting in a 2-2 tie and a best of three denouement with the Spurs regaining homecourt advantage. Many storylines have emerged: Stephen Curry has played at an All-NBA level, Tim Duncan seems to have turned back the hands of time and Andrew Bogut (who only played in 32 of 82 regular season games) has played in all 10 of Golden State's playoff games, grabbing at least 11 rebounds in each of the Warriors' last five contests.
Perhaps the most intriguing storyline, though, concerns Manu Ginobili. Ginobili only participated in 60 regular season games this season and he is, at best, the Spurs' third offensive option. When Manu Ginobili scores 14 points in a half--as he did during the San Antonio's 97-87 overtime loss to Golden State on Sunday--he is a hero and a spark plug; when he is not making his shots the Spurs look elsewhere for scoring punch. As an injury prone third option, Ginobili is not expected to put up big scoring totals on a nightly basis; he can be the hero--like when he hit the game-winning shot in the series opener--but, no matter how poorly he plays, he will not be the goat unless he makes a serious mental error during a crucial possession down the stretch: in contrast, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are expected to be highly productive every game and a team's first option (Parker and Duncan are options 1A and 1B for the Spurs) cannot have an off half, much less an off game. The first option is the focal point of his team's offense and the main concern for the opposing team's defense.
During his prime, Ginobili could have been the first option scorer for many teams--but not for a legit championship contender; the Spurs prefer to split the scoring load almost equally among their top three players but even when Ginobili led the team in scoring average (barely) in 2007-08 he attempted fewer shots and had a much lower field goal percentage than both Duncan and Parker. Ginobili could have left the Spurs to chase after more money, a full-time starting position, more field goal attempts and a higher scoring average but he chose to stay with the Spurs.
James Harden made a different choice last offseason, opting for more money and--he presumes--more glory; he refused to accept less than a max deal from the Oklahoma City Thunder, thus forcing the Thunder to trade him to Houston, where Harden discovered--especially in the playoffs--that there is a big difference between scoring 15-16 points against reserve players and/or tired starters and scoring well over 20 points game after game when the opposing team's defense is designed to stop you. Harden's scoring average soared in Houston but his efficiency plummeted, his arrival in Houston had little effect in the standings and he laid enough bricks in Houston's first round loss to build a new arena.
Ginobili has won three NBA championships so far and he has earned two All-Star selections, two All-NBA selections and the 2008 Sixth Man Award; combined with his stellar FIBA career, those honors and accomplishments may be enough for Ginobili to be inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Harden won the Sixth Man Award in 2012 and if he had stayed in Oklahoma City he likely would have earned at least one All-Star nod. Even if he and the Thunder would not have beaten Miami this season or next season, time would have been on their side; the young Thunder would have peaked just as the Heat's core players entered their 30s and started to decline.
Is getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs every year as "The Man" better than being the third option on a perennial championship contender? Ginobili has no reason to regret his answer to that question; five years from now it will be interesting to reevaluate Harden's answer.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:48 AM