It is common perception, bordering on misconception, that Spurs management runs any important decision by the franchise’s most important player.
Yet when the Spurs made the most dramatic draft-day move in their history, swapping popular guard George Hill to Indiana for the rights to Kawhi Leonard in June 2011, Tim Duncan was just as surprised as anyone.
“I’ve found I try not to question the front office,” Duncan said this week. “They’ve made some pretty decent moves over the years.”
So far, it looks as if Spurs general manager R.C. Buford and coach/team president Gregg Popovich have another to add to the list.
The trade gets revisited today, when Indiana returns to the AT&T Center for the second time since sending Leonard to the Spurs. Though hardly a blockbuster, the deal proved monumental for both teams.
Hill, 26, will start at point guard for the Pacers, a team many believe to be the most credible threat to Miami’s stranglehold on the Eastern Conference.
Leonard, 21, will start at small forward for the Spurs, having already earned the Popovich seal of approval.
“Obviously, George is a guy we really loved,” Duncan said. “But (the front office) saw something in Kawhi, and we’re seeing it now.”
Still a developing contributor on offense, Leonard — 6-foot-7 with long arms and frying-pan hands — already has displayed the ability to be a force on defense.
Grabbing five steals apiece in each of the first two regular-season games of his second NBA campaign is one thing; sparring and muscling with Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, the league’s three-time scoring champion, is another.
“Offensively, he’s a role player like everybody else,” Popovich said. “As far as defense goes, he can pretty much lead the way for this team.”
There was a time Popovich spoke as favorably of Hill, bestowing him with the moniker “my favorite player.”
Then came June 23, 2011, when Popovich’s favorite player became an ex-Spur in a swiftly executed pre-arranged deal.
Leonard, fresh off his sophomore season at San Diego State, was on hand in Newark, N.J., that day. When commissioner David Stern called his name at the 15th pick, Leonard dutifully donned an Indiana cap and mounted the stage.
For five minutes, maybe 10, Leonard had no reason to believe he hadn’t just joined the Pacers.
“Then I walked off (the stage),” Leonard said, “and they told me I was being traded.”
The decision to deal Hill, who averaged 13.5 points for Indiana in the playoffs last season, did not come without angst.
After it was done, a weary Buford emerged from the team’s draft room and proclaimed it “one of the most difficult nights in Spurs history.”
The Spurs loved everything about Hill, except for the fact he wasn’t 6-7.
There was a financial component as well, and it played out last summer when Hill signed a deal with the Pacers for five years and a guaranteed $40 million.
Leonard might command similar dollars some day. Still on his standard rookie scale contract, he will earn $1.86 million this season and is due a combined $5.04 million the two seasons after that. “Kawhi Leonard will hopefully be a Spur for his entire career, if we can work it out,” Popovich said.
An All-Rookie first-team selection last season, Leonard has emerged as a defensive star in the making for a team in desperate search of one.
It has been years since the Spurs had a defender Popovich felt comfortable unleashing on an opponent’s best perimeter player each night. The last one — Bruce Bowen — has his jersey hanging in the AT&T Center rafters.
“Kawhi has the body to be one of the best defenders in the league for sure,” Manu Ginobili said. “But he’s 21. Bruce wasn’t a great defender at 21 for sure. He just needs to mature, and he’s going to be great.” In describing Leonard’s activity on defense, Ginobili settles on one of the many adjectives opponents once applied to Bowen. “He’s annoying,” Ginobili said.
Tonight, Hill will be back in his old home gym, and his former teammates won’t help but recall the startling night he became their former teammate.
Starting at small forward for the Spurs, however, will be a reminder of why the move was worth it.
Related link: Spurs Nation