How Gregg Popovich could trade his favorite player
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.