The Spurs are not a team known for trading for great talent. When you don't have large, overpriced contracts, matching salaries is kind of hard. In the Robinson-Duncan era, the Spurs have mostly used the draft to get stars and free agency to round out the roster. Getting back Sean Elliot after trading him for Rodman in a trade that didn't really pan out was great, but it wasn't a coup. Before that, I guess we can mention getting a still incredibly productive Artis Gilmore for Corzine and Olberding. But as a relatively young and new Spurs fan, there is a trade that stands out to me and could be the key to the Spurs' future: George Hill for Kawhi Leonard.
After being bounced off the playoffs by the Memphis Grizzlies, the Spurs were at a crossroads. Manu Ginobili played with a broken arm in the playoffs, but the reality was the Spurs were only the fourth 1st seeded team to lose in the first round of the playoffs. The Richard Jefferson trade backfired, Ginobili and Duncan were not getting any younger, and Tony Parker was arguably outplayed by Mike Conley. The young guys, Blair and Anderson, had some potential, but neither was "the future". It was the type of situation where a team might just decide to make drastic changes.
And it looked like that was going to be the case. Right before the draft, reports about the Spurs shopping Parker for a high pick started to surface. The reason most teams weren't that excited about the prospect of getting an in-his-prime All-Star PG? You had to take Jefferson, too. Still, the Kings were reportedly interested and if it happened, it seemed George Hill was going to take over at PG.
Hill is famously Pop's favorite player; a humble but confident guard that came out of nowhere to play an important role for the Spurs his rookie season, filling in for an injured Manu. He came out of IUPUI as a scorer but steadily improved his point guard instinct to become a serviceable combo guard. His defense earned him the appreciation of the coach and the minutes that come with it, and since the Spurs didn't have a capable back up small forward, it wasn't rare to see Parker, Hill and Ginobili sharing the court. Having him begin his 4th year in the league as the starting point guard didn't seem ideal, but the Spurs needed some length on the wing and to dispose of RJ and if it took getting rid of Parker to get it done, the Spurs seemed ready to. But this is PATFO we are talking about.
When the "Parker to the Kings for the 7th and Casspi" talk cooled off, we really didn't know what could happen. The draft started as expected with few surprises at the top. The Kings, Bobcats and Bucks did an inexplicable trade, and the possibility for the Spurs to get themselves in the lottery seemed gone. There were some rumors that Hill might be getting shopped now instead of Parker, but the pick was going to be lower, where finding a quality contributor is as likely as to select someone who is out of the league after his rookie contract is up. If a deal did in fact happen, the popular choice on PtR was Chris Singleton, with very few mentions of Kawhi Leonard.
It isn't hard to figure out why. Leonard was pegged as a top ten pick by multiple mock drafts but concerns about how his game was going to translate plagued him. His shooting in particular was a huge question mark; in the modern NBA a wing needs to be able to shoot the 3, and Leonard was a bad 3-point shooter in college. The Spurs rely on spacing to execute on offense, and George Hill had mastered the corner 3. Trading him for a guy that shot 25% from behind the arc in college didn't seem like a possibility, even if that wing had impressively large hands.
But it happened. Hill to the Pacers for Leonard, tweets claimed and then confirmed. The Spurs found a backup wing and even if most of us weren't initially sure how to feel, hope set in as the default emotion like any other draft. Then of course the lockout happened.
The Rookie? The Rookie!
At the start of the season, Leonard was exactly the player everyone thought he would be; a better than average defender for a rookie and a prolific rebounder.. He scored off cuts and offensive rebounds but couldn't shoot. Fortunately, Richard Jefferson started the season on fire from deep, which prompted Pop to play them together when, you guessed it, Manu got hurt. Up until that point, the trade seemed like a wash. The Pacers got the guard depth they needed, and the Spurs the wing depth they lacked before. Neither player projected as more than quality starter. But then, out of nowhere, Leonard started making corner 3s. Lots of them.
Suddenly, the Spurs had a two-way small forward that fit their offensive schemes and could provide some energy on both ends of the floor. There was no need for Richard Jefferson anymore, which prompted another trade that would prove highly beneficial for the Spurs. Out was RJ, the 30 minutes a game starter that was blocking Leonard; in was Stephen Jackson, the 20 minutes a game backup with a shorter contract and ice-cold veins.
The Spurs, who were one of the best teams in the league despite Manu's injury, got better and started to dominate.They caught up to the Thunder in the West and would go on to finish tied with the best record in the league after picking up Boris Diaw and wining the last 10 games of the season. In the playoffs Leonard shined, improving his regular season numbers in points, rebounds and 3-point shooting percentage. Even when things started to go wrong against OKC, Leonard responded with that strange, calm sense of urgency people expect from veterans.
Every Spurs fan will tell you that they liked Hill, but that they love the trade that got us Kawhi. It's rare for a rookie to really make a good impression on a veteran team, since youthful exuberance often leads to mistakes on and off the court, but Leonard managed just that. Maybe something as silly as the fact that his complete lack of expression on the court reminds me of Duncan or that the Jefferson era scarred me, but I am more excited about Leonard than I've been over any young Spur since Manu Ginobili. His Summer League showing, even with the pounds of salt that those merit, was good enough to get me all giddy about the prospect of Kawhi with more responsibility on offense. Perhaps he plateaus or Hill improves and this trade becomes a wash again, but for now (and despite my undying affection for Georgie) all I can think about when I watch Leonard getting a steal, hitting a corner 3, grabbing an offensive rebound or nonchalantly dunking on the NBA's premier shot-blocker is the Best.Trade.Ever.