How Gregg Popovich could trade his favorite player

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The decision was not an easy one. Few players elicited as much praise or admiration from San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich in pre and post game media sessions as his “favorite player,” George Hill. But understand, if there were a trade to be made, this is probably the right one.

For two consecutive years rumors swirled around the San Antonio Spurs trading their point guard near draft time. After a disappointing first round exit, with Tony Parker fresh off a scapegoat performance, it would have appeared his days in San Antonio were numbered.

But just as Popovich once said “these playoffs aren’t for George Hill,” this NBA Draft was not for Tony Parker. The value past the top five was too diminished to consider trading their star point guard, considering that the no. 1 overall pick, Kyrie Irving, might be a better all around player than Parker himself, but in no way is a safe projection to excel as Parker has.

Instead the Spurs traded George Hill to the Indiana Pacers for the draft rights to the 15th overall pick Kawhi Leonard and a couple of second round picks (projected first round sharpshooter Davis Bertrans, and last year’s no. 46 pick Erazem Lorbek).

The decision, again, was not any easy one, as Jeff McDonald of the Express-News reported.

Though the Spurs are intrigued by Leonard, who at 6-foot-7 gives the Spurs added size at a position where they were small, Buford made clear the night was bittersweet.

“This might have been one of the most difficult nights in Spurs history, as long as we’ve been here,” Buford said. “To lose a player like George Hill, who has meant so much to our team, to our culture, to our locker room, it’s one of the most difficult decisions we’ve had to make.”

But if the Spurs hoped to be immediately better it had to solve leaks, diversify its strengths, and as our own Tim Varner so eloquently put it, solve for pattern. And when a team is forced to build through trades, often times it means parting with important pieces of the rotation (despite recent history).

In this instance Hill was in some ways a redundant strength. Granted, he was the Spurs best perimeter defender for the past two seasons, but he did so from a position that featured the Spurs best two scorers and playmakers.

Crunch time lineups were always going to feature Parker and Ginobili. Hill, as the Spurs fourth best player, deserved to be on the floor as well. But in running three-guard lineups, Hill’s strengths on the defensive end were muted some, with Hill cross matched against bigger shooting guards and small forwards. The further away from his natural defensive position, the less an impact he had.

Of all the Spurs trade assets, Hill was the most desirable combination of youth, athleticism, skills, and contract the Spurs had to offer while still returning positive value.

What the Spurs lose is their best combination of shooting, defense, and competent (though not spectacular or dynamic) ball handling. But so far as skill sets go, Hill on offense was a dime a dozen shooting guard with some plus ball handling ability that fulfilled the role far better than most role players.

Defensively he was not Bruce Bowen, and likely never will be. This is not a criticism of his game, nor does it suggest that his presence will not be sorely missed. But to get better something had to give. And in Gary Neal, James Anderson, and some hopeful combination of Green or Butler, the Spurs can spell George Hill. What they cannot spell is a productive small forward who can hold his own in small lineups.

In Leonard the Spurs hope to have the true small forward they thought they were getting in Richard Jefferson. As Varner pointed out, the loss of Hill has as much to do with Jefferson’s inability to produce in his role relative to the cap figure of his contract. Should the new CBA allow teams one contract reprieve, Leonard may even step in as Jefferson’s immediate replacement.

If Leonard merely reaches the same levels of George Hill (albeit in a different way) the Spurs will have gained greater value simply by getting that production in a different position — one that has been a weakness of sorts. But should Leonard reach his potential the way Hill has maxed out his, the Spurs will have found something far more impactful.

For one, at some point Leonard develops into a starter — whereas Hill was a solid third guard on a championship team.

This is a gamble to be sure. But the Spurs needed an infusion of something. And while Hill may have been better than those who will replace him, the depth of his skill set is hardly irreplaceable. His presence in the locker room and among Spurs fans? That’s a different story for another day.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Please, Koufos made over 1 million last year and is a better player than Lorbek. Lorbek is soft. I guess you don’t see it. 

  • titletown99030507d

    When Nene got hurt they gave him crumbs and made the best of it just like Splitter did when they threw him a bone or two.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUZZJy3JFmE

  • SAJKinBigD

    Great point, Tim. Gotta remember this is a two-way street, not only the clearing off of books, but other teams picking up cheap assistance since they’re getting paid so much in the first place. It’d sure make it easier for Miami to pick up a few more pieces… I don’t want that.

  • titletown99030507d

    You know I keep hearing this sad story about we have no money to get a PF. This guy is 2 million tops and worth the money. He needs minutes. The only problem keep us from getting someone like him to be the 4th big on the rotation is a trade. Bonner makes too much and Blair makes too little to trade any of these two for him. I would like to have traded Bonner straight up for this guy. They can winter shoes.

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  • Tyler

    “I guess you don’t see it.”

    How do you know Lorbek is soft?!? Have you been watching him play? 
    You don’t play for some of the best teams in Europe (CSKA, Benneton Treviso, etc) and stick around by being soft. In fact, the Euroleague is more physical (and dirty) than the NBA, especially in the paint. 

  • Tyler

    The idea that SA “reached” for Joseph at #29 is nit picking a I think – every player at that point is a “reach” to make it in the NBA. Joseph is no different. He’s talented and has some upside, but also some serious questions marks surrounding his game. The Spurs could have easily sold their pick and not taken on more guaranteed salary, but they didn’t. 

    Personally, I like the pick. Out of HS, he was projected to be a top 15-20 pick the following year. And for much of his frosh year, he had to play out of position (SG) because UT also needed to get Balbay and Brown on the court. He’s a true PG (go back and watch some tape of him at Finley prep with Thompson and Avery Bradley if you don’t believe me).

    Also, Barnes is a great recruiter, but not a great coach/developer of young talent. I think even most TX fans would tell you that.

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  • TD BestEVER

    Sorry Rob….I didn’t complete my statement……..It should have read it’s really hard to develop Superstars or All-Stars…….. Role players have to be developed, otherwise they never really reach their potential….So yes Blair is being developed by POP and Co…… he has added the floating shot and s trying to add a jumper and a face up game……….  But TP, Indy G, TD, Manu weren’t developed at all…… they just became who they would have anyway…….Indy G was actually held back by POP playing him out of position as a PG……

    So yes Role players can be developed………but not so much with the top tier players…..And POP and Co really have not developed many players over the last 12 years…….. and that’s why we are in our situation now…….They are better at finding talent then they are at developing talent……….

  • Tyler

    LA Lakers – Walten or Arte….errr….Metta World Peace

  • Rob

    That’s some funny stuff right there I don’t care who you are.

  • Rob

    Great point.

  • Rob

    I’m with you on that one.  But lets at least try to get a “better” prospect via trade than Koufus.  To me, even if the Spurs might be interested…he’d be at the long end of a short list.

  • Rob

    Attack what?  Our sanity?  If you thought he was a bad post player…he’d be an even worse SF.  If this was a joke…haha…if not…seriously?

  • Rob
  • Nima K.

    I disagree. Marc Gasol was the 48th pick in 07. Do u know who we picked at 33? Marcus Williams. There are good players in the 2nd round. We just don’t look hard enough when we should.

  • Bry

    All the things you talked about Blair can improve, even at his height. The guy will be 22 next season. Literally ten years from now he could still be adding moves. The is absolutely nothing wrong with Blair at his salary, he just needs to be used strategically.

  • Colin Rigney

    “He is what he is?”

    Basically, Yes!  Unless Blair develops a jumper and a back to the basket game ON HIS OWN TIME, there is not much to improve.   

    1.  He can’t finish against bigger players with consistency.  Can’t develop that.

    2.  He rebounds with incredible creativity.  Can’t develop that, it comes instinctively.       

    3.  The team can’t run plays for him because he has no face up game or back to the basket game.  Only Blair can develop that, a coach develop it for him.

    4.  Is not a very good defender against face up power forwards a la Zach Randolph and Chris Bosh.  Can’t really develop that. 

    What would Blair have done that would have impacted the Memphis series?  He basically shriveled up when it counted most. 

  • http://khandorssportsblog.com/wordpress khandor

    Thus far, every comment I’ve read from a Spurs fan or team blog concerning the George Hill trade, in conjunction with this year’s NBA Draft Selections for San Antonio has placed the emphasis on the acquisition of the WRONG player for the Spurs, i.e. Kawhi Leonard/SF.

    Time will tell, but … 

    IMO, the really important players who the Spurs have added to their line-up this past week are, in order:

    i. Davis Bertans … who has the capacity to become a future “star” in the NBA;
    ii. Adam Hanga … who has the capacity to become a future “star” in the NBA;
    iii. Cory Joseph … who has the capacity to become a future “solid starting-but-not-star” PG in the NBA;
    iv. Nando de Colo [2nd Rd Pick last summer] … who has the capacity to become a future “star” in the NBA; and,
    v. Kawhi Leonard … who has the capacity to become a future “Bruce Bowen” in the NBA.

    By trading George Hill, the Spurs opened up a roster spot which is going to be easy for them to fill down-the-road with a player that is going to be a great deal more effective than their 3rd best guard, who they couldn’t play extended minutes at crunch-time in the same line-up with Parker & Ginobili, unless they were prepared to play small … which was no longer a good option for them, as Tim Duncan is no longer the DOMINATING BIG MAN that he once was, when patrolling the paint, more-or-less, on his own.

    San Antonio won 60+ games last season … and lost a tough 1st Rd playoff series, primarily, because Manu was injured.

    However, what the Spurs have done successfully over the last 2 seasons is totally re-furbished their team WHILE simultaneously remaining in the upper echelon of the Western Conference.

    For accomplishing this magical slight-of-hand, RC Buford, Gregg Popovich & Co. need to receive the highest commendations possible! 

    http://khandorssportsblog.com/wordpress/2011/06/28/one-specific-team-has-absolutely-owned-the-last-2-nba-drafts/

    San Antonio … under the leadership of Peter Holt has been the BEST organization in the NBA for the last decade+.

    Cheers

  • SAJKinBigD

    I think it’s an assumption based on his shooting %’s and the fact he’s a Euro. Having watched a lot of Euro stuff since Splitter’s drafting, they are SERIOUSLY physical in the middle. And I think the days of Euro = Soft are over. They’ve been closing the gap for the past decade and I think Dirk just washed his hands completely of the “SOFT” label.
    I’d love to see Lorbek come over here WITH Richards. Please?

  • DorieStreet

    Thanks Rob. Good post- every fan should read it–and also the ‘personal’ section in Thomas’ bio at NBA.com          http://www.nba.com/playerfile/etan_thomas/bio.html

    Read both sides’ proposals yesterday for the first time. I’m going to study each point of the proposals and form an opinion about them individually, and the proposals as a whole, then weigh in when the deadline expires Friday. (I’ve read the commissioner is not opposed to extending it if some progress is made in the talks.)

  • DorieStreet

    Khandor—
    Nando de Colo was the drafted in 2009: 23rd pick in 2nd round, 53rd overall. And technically, de Colo is not on the roster;  the Spurs have his draft rights, along with Ryan Richards (you forgot about him?) and Erazem Lorbek (he rights were acquired in the deal with the Pacers last Thursday).

    Yes, you are excited about what happened last week, but temper it with the first three words you typed after your first paragraph:       = “Time will tell, ” =

    If no new CBA  is reached by midnight Thursday, the lockout  starts, and 2011-12 is in limbo.
    This scenario renders your Spurs player roster highly unlikely, even if things get settled enough for the NBA  to put on a shortened season as they did in 1998-99.

  • Nima K.

    Of the players you mentioned, only Kawhi will get to play for the Spurs. The other 3 (Hanga, Bertans, Lorbeck) will never cross the Atlantic, and Joseph will probably end up with the toros. De Colo just signed with a team in Turkey. So he’s gone too.

    The Spurs did have a successful team and franchise in the past decade. Not anymore. The Tim Duncan era is about to end, and we are about to be downgraded from title contender to early playoff exiter, for the next 4-5 years.

    Happy dreaming.

    I’m at least happy to have witnessed and lived here in 07, when we beat LeBron to the title. Good memories.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Wow.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Yes I’ve seen enough. A good shooter but will not translate in to a shot blocking defending kind of player in this league. Koufos is here in the association already and has faced the competition here. Scroll up and take a look for yourself. These are NBA players Koufos is going up against. And say if Lorbek does make it in this league how long are we going to have to wait for that transformation. You have some in Koufos is tried and ready and needs more minutes to shape his game not years. If your looking for a quick addition to help out in the front court as a 3rd man in the rotation then I  think he’s the one to go after. Nene is old and costs too much this guy is 22 years old and could be very useful for years to come. I’ve heard from some posters that Denver would’nt let him go anyway even with the gazillion bigs they have. Somebody’s not going to play next season and sooner or later one of those is going. They surely aren’t letting Mozgov go. Just sayin he’s a possibilitiy that might be on his way out. And if he is I’d gladly take him on our Spurs team. With enough minutes and time on the court I can see a Koufos/Splitter tandem working. Some of you will laugh and probably the ones laughing think Ryan Richards can go ahead of Koufos on the rotation. I like Richards but let’s take baby steps first.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Really more physical and dirty than NBA bigs? Ok so then why didn’t Splitter get his name called through out most of his healthy season? So if Lorbek deserves to get that kind of cred without playing one NBA game then what kind of cred does Splitter deserve coming from an MVP Euro accomplishment? The next thing your going to say he’s better than Splitter who already has an NBA season under his belt and hasn’t even scratch the surface of what he’s capable of doing. We’ll never know because he ain’t coming anyway. 

  • Titletown99030507d

    Yeah I’d like Richards over here too asap. But in regards to Lorbek or Euros who you think are more physical than NBA bigs, it takes some one who can translate that physicality to the NBA level with out committing those personal fouls. I see a lot of Euro games where the refs allow them to play with out hardly calling any fouls. Different in the NBA were some refs won’t even let the bigs even fart on each other. That is an expected skill If you can defend in the NBA without fouling out. Hey I’m all for it if he comes in and becomes a dominant player and can last the 48 minutes without fouling out sure why not. And by the way Dirk got a lot fouls called his way in his career. Not to mention the butt loads of traveling calls that weren’t called. 

  • Titletown99030507d

    1 player Splitter who turned out decent. Where is De Colo and the others?

  • Colin Rigney

    I didn’t say he couldn’t improve.  My point is that teams “developing” players in the NBA is a misnomer.  Blair is one example of a player needing to “develop” himself.  That’s not the coach’s job.  Blair knows what he needs to improve, most players are smarter than most coaches when it comes to this.    

  • Tyler

    Valid point. There is definitely a learning curve any Euro has to overcome. 

    But in regards to Lorbek, I don’t think he’s a guy who’s going to get dominated physically. From what I remember of him his freshman season at Michigan St., he was pretty rugged. Also, playing a year in the US (although it was just college) should make the transition a little smoother.

    Athletically though, he’s going to be at a disadvantage no doubt, and I’d worry about that more than anything.

    It might be moot. Who knows if we’ll ever see him.

  • Tyler

    Valid point. There is definitely a learning curve any Euro has to overcome. 

    But in regards to Lorbek, I don’t think he’s a guy who’s going to get dominated physically. From what I remember of him his freshman season at Michigan St., he was pretty rugged. Also, playing a year in the US (although it was just college) should make the transition a little smoother.

    Athletically though, he’s going to be at a disadvantage no doubt, and I’d worry about that more than anything.

    It might be moot. Who knows if we’ll ever see him.

  • Tyler

    Not at all, he’s not better than Splitter. 

    And if you’ve been reading this blog or tuned in for any of Pop’s interviews, you’d know that the reason Splitter didn’t play was because of his familiarity with the Spurs’ system, not because he wasn’t physical enough. It had nothing to do with his toughness.

    And yes, the refs in Europe (and most other foreign leagues) let you play much more. There aren’t nearly as many whistles. And that can lead to some pretty nasty exchanges.

  • Tyler

    I don’t think anyone thought Marc Gasol would lose 100 lbs and become the player he is today; not the Lakers who traded him, not even Memphis.

    One player doesn’t disprove the strategy. And even though Gasol is the better player (and will most likely always be), Splitter is going to be be pretty good.

  • Tyler

    In the second round, I think the Spurs look to hit home runs (a la Manu) rather than base hits. You can always find role players to plug in (NBA journeymen, guys overseas like Neal). If you find a guy like Manu 1 out of every 10 or 15 times, you come out waaaaaaay ahead of the competition. And that’s what it’s about – finding impact players, difference makers, not your 10, 11, 12 guys on the bench because in the long run, role players aren’t going to make the difference that a Manu-type (meaning All-Star) will.

    2nd round picks are basically risk free. I think the Spurs believe it’s at that point that they’ll take those risks. I think they’re right.

    And btw, Splitter was late 1st only because of his buyout situation. If it hadn’t been for that, he would’ve been a lottery pick.

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  • Khandor

     It is certainly interesting to see how my opinion stands up 7 months after-the-fact.

  • http://khandorsportsblog.com/wordpress Khandor

     The Spurs currently have the 2nd best W-L Record in the Western Conference, 7 months after trading George Hill. Time will tell … how right I actually was when I made this comment.

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  • Derm

    Article sucks you write like shit.

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