- Darren Abate/AP
The San Antonio Spurs changed the trajectory of their franchise with a draft-day trade in 2011.
After the 2010-11 season, the Spurs had been knocked out of the first or second round of the playoffs for three straight years. They needed a change-up and an infusion of youth.
They found that spark in June by trading then-reserve guard George Hill to the Indiana Pacers for the 15th pick in the draft, which they used to draft Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard has since blossomed into one of the NBA’s brightest two-way stars, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Finals MVP, All-Star, and top-10 scorer. Of course, the Spurs couldn’t have known he would grow into the monster he’s become. In fact, to hear Gregg Popovich tell it to Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Abrams in a story about Leonard’s development, the decision to trade Hill in 2011 was a gut-wrenching one.
“The toughest [decision] in whatever, 20, whatever years I’ve been coaching here as a head coach. It’s not even close. We were scared to death sitting in the room. I think it was the 15th pick, if I remember, and when we got to 11, 12, 13. Danny Ferry, our CEO, and I were looking at each other saying, ‘Are we really going to do this?’
“[Hill] was one of my favorite players. He was important to us, but we needed to get bigger. … So in the end, we said we’re going to roll the bones and we’re going to do it, but I can’t tell that at that point we knew that Kawhi was going to be what he is today. That would be an exaggeration.”
Popovich once recalled the trade in more colorful terms to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins.
“We were all looking at each other like, Are we really going to do this?. We were scared s—less. We don’t know this kid. He’s not a shooter. He’s not a scorer. He’s not a perimeter player. He’s a big guy who can rebound.”
To hear Popovich describe Leonard as “a big guy who can rebound” further illustrates how grand Leonard’s rise has become.
Leonard’s transformation into a top-10 NBA talent has revitalized the Spurs. Though the big three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili were still the stars of the show during the Spurs back-to-back Finals runs in 2013 and 2014, it was Leonard’s versatility that helped them win the championship in 2014, leading to him winning the Finals MVP.
Furthermore, his youth has given them a building block upon which to add talent. Leonard’s promising future likely played a role in landing LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015, and in the coming years, even as the Spurs need to re-tool, they can lean on Leonard to give them a leg up on the competition. Such is life with a franchise star.
While Hill is a solid two-way point guard, a borderline All-Star who could command a max. contract this summer, by almost every measure, that tough decision was worth it for Popovich and the Spurs.