What If The Spurs Didn’t Trade For Kawhi Leonard?

On one fateful night in late June, two franchises were changed dramatically. Once dubbed as a “win-win” trade, that seems to be far from the case.

This is the story of Kawhi Leonard and George Hill. And what could have been if nobody pulled the trigger.

George Hill was one of the quieter prospects entering the 2008 NBA Draft. Coming from the itty-bitty Summit League, Hill wasn’t even projected as being drafted up until late in the process. With a year of eligibility left at IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University and Indianapolis), Hill never fully committed to the draft, seeing as if he didn’t get drafted he could return to a team he truly loved.

“The hard part was putting my name in knowing I have great teammates and great coaches and if it came down to me leaving, I wouldn’t be able to play for the team or the coaches again.” (via Indianapolis Star)

Eventually, Hill was selected way before his projection to the San Antonio Spurs at number 26 overall. Knowing the Spurs successful draft history, even some experts weren’t too keen on the selection.

However, in Spurs’ fashion, Hill earned a prominent role as a 1/2 combo guard, coming off the bench and starting in his three seasons in San Antonio. His defense was his calling card, productively guarding point guards and shooting guards.

Hill was also a very respectable three-point shooter (career high .399), but with his less than impressive passing skills, there was just something missing in the Spurs’ system.

Kawhi Leonard, opposite of George Hill, was regarded by most as a top ten overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. With his absurd wingspan and hand size, and the ability to translate those assets into defensive prowess, Leonard’s ceiling was astronomical. With a seemingly Bruce Bowen mold, plus more athleticism, Leonard was the piece the Spurs had been missing since Bowen’s departure and subsequent retirement. The problem was, the Spurs were drafting 29th overall. Enter the Indiana Pacers.

The Indiana Pacers were very fond of their own hometown kid. On top of that, point guard was a weakness for the Pacers. Darren Collison was respectable in his starting point guard role, but the speedster didn’t seem to mesh in Indiana’s slow-paced, methodical offense. T.J. Ford was on the tail end of his career (his next and final season would be in a Spurs uniform) and A.J. Price’s career shooting percentages were never anything to write home about.

The season before, the Pacers were intrigued at the idea of sending their number ten overall pick for Hill. However, Indiana immediately dismissed their 10th pick bait idea when their top target, Fresno State’s Paul George, was still available. With Paul George, a budding star (and now All-Star), and Danny Granger in the wings, with Lance Stephenson looking promising as a prospect, Kawhi Leonard was no longer a need in the 2011 NBA Draft. With Hill’s play matching up with the Pacer’s defensive game plan, it seemed like the right time to pull the trigger.

George Hill

Hill’s intensity and defense led him to become Popovich’s favorite player.

This wasn’t to say that both teams didn’t long to keep their players. Gregg Popovich had dubbed Hill his “favorite player” early in his career. Shipping him to Indiana was extremely difficult for the longest-tenured coach in pro sports. The Pacers happened to be smitten by Leonard, ranking him in their top five or six prospects.

With needs written all over for both teams (the Spurs current small forward situation was an aging and struggling Richard Jefferson), the time to deal was now.

As time has progressed since June 2011, the trade that was a “win-win” has tipped its scales is one direction. San Antonio’s.

Hill has not played poorly for the Pacers by any means. His second season in Indiana saw him average career highs in points and assists. He fits Indiana’s style of play and the Pacer’s have made two straight Eastern Conference Final’s with Hill running the show. However, he is already 28 years of age, and has seemed to reach his peak.

This is just about how good Leonard is, and will be.

Taking over the starting small forward spot halfway through his rookie season, Leonard has steadily improved over his three NBA seasons. Almost as quickly as he introduced himself, pundits were already calling him the future of the Spurs.

“I think he’s going to be a star,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “And as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs, I think. At both ends of the court, he is really a special player.”

Now a Finals MVP, Leonard is fulfilling his destiny set by Pop in the years before. This is all coming to fruition still on his rookie contract, earning around $11 million less than the man he got traded for over the last two seasons. His lucrative, likely max, contract is on the way soon, one he has unquestionably deserved due to his postseason play.

What if Indiana, enthralled by a potential defensive wall on the wing with Paul George and Leonard, didn’t want to give up that pick? What if Coach Pop was too infatuated with his favorite player and refused to part ways with him?

There were a lot of moving parts in this deal. One could argue that if in fact the Pacers had dealt for Hill the year before, Paul George in a Spurs jersey would still have been good enough to seize number five. Although, in my opinion, it would have been a lot closer.

danny-green

Danny Green may have never broke the three point Finals record if he struggled to break the rotation.

Solely from a current roster standpoint, the Spurs possessed a crowded backcourt in Hill, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Gary Neal (and James Anderson and Patty Mills for that matter). In fact, Mills would probably never have been signed due to the big numbers in the backcourt. Danny Green would have struggled to find his rotational minutes. His breakout game came against the Golden State Warriors on January 4th, 2012. With the roster struggling after Ginobili’s injury the game before, Green was inserted into the game in search of a spark. He provided that spark and his minutes steadily increased from there. Instead of Anderson starting, Hill would have slid into the two guard spot. Still looking for his potential, Anderson would have received the bench minutes in the backcourt along with Ford and Neal. Leonard was still receiving spot minutes behind Jefferson, who was leading the team in minutes on a frequent basis.

Maybe Ford wouldn’t have been signed in pursuit of a backup small forward, which would have been a huge need without Leonard around. They could have brought back a 34-year old Ime Udoka. The Spurs could have rolled with Steve Novak, whom they released days before the season began. Other than those guys, most other options were aging, declining swingmen, similar to the guys the Spurs have been signing for years, which led to the downturn of luck in the playoffs.

When the free agents don’t look appealing, it’s time to run to the draft. Cory Joseph most likely would not be a Spur. With the 29th pick, small forwards like Jimmy Butler, Chandler Parsons, and Bojan Bogdanovic were available. Bogdanovic just came over to the NBA this season, so that would have not been a realistic option for an immediate need. Both of the other players would have been nice, but no Kawhi Leonard. Butler would have been a great fit, and he was interviewed and worked out by the Spurs before the draft.

In all honesty, Jefferson may have never been traded either. Even if he had, Stephen Jackson would have been the only small forward on the roster when he got booted from the team a year later. Granted, he wouldn’t have been complaining about the guys getting time he thought he was better than (Green, Leonard), but Jackson was is in no way the long-term option. Had the trade not occurred, the Spurs would have still owned their 30th overall pick in 2012, whom the best option (knowing what we know now) would have been Draymond Green, who is more of a stretch four than a small forward.

Hill would have been owed a big contract extension. Say he signed the same offer that the Pacers proposed to him, the Spurs are in the luxury tax, a place that they have fought year after year to avoid.

It’s funny to look back and realize just how different rosters could be if one of the teams just walked away from the deal. Lucky for Spurs fans, crafty masterminds R.C. Buford and Popovich walked away from one of the most talked about trades in recent years with a new franchise cornerstone.

And who knows, we could look at this trade yet again in a few years if Davis Bertans pans out as well.

Trades don’t just impact the players involved. It impacts both teams, and more, for years and years to come.

Andrew Ball

About Andrew Ball

Andrew is a Texas A&M graduate and has written for ProjectSpurs since April 2014.

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