Looking back at the trade

by

“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, [George] 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.”

-How Gregg Popovich could trade his favorite player, 48MoH

The Indiana Pacers will be in town this weekend, reuniting George Hill with the organization that drafted and nurtured his game through the first three years of his NBA career.

Back in the summer, when the trade was made, a home game against the Indiana Pacers would have been billed as “George Hill’s much anticipated return,” however, the “much anticipated” part becomes more muted with each sign of progress from Spurs rookie Kawhi Leonard.

Instead, Hill returns an ex-flame whom we recall fondly; though admittedly one that rarely crosses our mind at all these days.

That’s not so much a slight at Hill as it is a testament to how perfect a marriage the San Antonio Spurs and Kawhi Leonard have been.

It was only two years ago that national pundit and local fans were pushing the San Antonio Spurs to trade Tony Parker in favor of the cheaper, younger, and up and coming George Hill. But moving Parker then, even for a promising defensive big man, would have opened up a whole new set of problems the Spurs would have had to address.

And with another season with almost no statistical growth relative to his career numbers, coming off the end of his rookie season, the cheaper and up and coming labels for George Hill will have diminished some.

His time with the Spurs was always going to be limited so long as they employed Parker and Manu Ginobili. Hill was the Spurs fourth best player playing the same position as two of its best three players, and while he was a nice luxury, his skill set overlapped with theirs and ultimately provided nothing unique to the Spurs, just varying degrees of better and worse.

The Same, But Better

To accommodate Hill, the Spurs resorted to three guard sets, which hurt them against opponents with larger wings, as we saw in Memphis. The further Hill moved away from defending his natural point guard position, the less valuable his defensive prowess was. And again, defensive point guards are a nice luxury but can be a tad overrated in terms of impact.

It’s for these reasons I wrote if Kawhi Leonard simply turned out to be a role player of the same quality as Hill, the Spurs would have massively upgraded simply for having diversified their skill sets and upgrading a position of weakness at small forward.

To date, he has fulfilled that prediction, as the numbers show:

Player

PPG

RPG

Blk/Stl

APG

FG%

3FG%

MPG

PER

George Hill

2010-11

11.6

2.8

1.2

2.5

45.3

37.7

28.3

14.64

Kawhi Leonard

2011-12

8.3

5.4

1.8

0.9

49.7

38.3

24.8

17.08

Kawhi Leonard

(Starting SF)

13.8

7.8

2.3

1.2

55.7

42.3

33.2

 

The nine games Leonard has spent as the team’s starting small forward are a small sample size, but the numbers should be sustainable even if the three-point shooting regresses some, and long-term there stands room for improvement. And though I realize focusing in on Hill’s starting numbers would have granted him a statistical boost, for the purposes of this analysis I left them off because Leonard is a full-time starter now, whereas Hill only served as an emergency stand-in during injuries.

Dime-a-Dozen Shooting Guards

“What George Hill has been capable of doing in his brief NBA career is provide quality defense–more versatile than lock down, but quickly reaching that status–while providing better than average competency in your standard dime a dozen shooting guard skill set on offense.”

-The other shoe has finally dropped; now does it fit for Hill? 48MoH

Hill mostly retained his value because the low costs of his rookie contract. In the grand scheme of the NBA, the “Three-and-D” role player is important to the Spurs system, but one that is easily replaceable—even if Hill shows better proficiency at it than most.

If Kawhi Leonard alone justifies this trade, and he does, the development of Danny Green as a rotation player puts this move decidedly in the Spurs favor.

Player

PPG

RPG

Blk/Stl

APG

FG%

3FG%

MPG

PER

Danny Green

2011-12

8.4

3.7

1.6

1.4

41.5

38.2

23.7

13.82

While Green represents a downgrade (even with slightly improved numbers post All-Star break) from Hill, that he has been able to fit the same role around the league average closes much of the gap from what the Spurs surrendered in the trade, while also finding more time for Gary Neal.

Defensively, Green proved to be just as versatile a defender, having spent time on everyone from Chris Paul to Kevin Durant, and from my observations appears to excel in fighting over screens; remaining attached to the ball handlers hip without fouling.

Solving for Pattern

But perhaps the most important part of the trade is that the Spurs appear to have, in the words of Timothy Varner, solved for pattern.

“Richard Jefferson is a problem. He’s overpaid. He under-performs. His contract threatens to cripple the Spurs under a more restrictive, cap-tight CBA. Jefferson is a mediocre defender but the Spurs need a wing stopper and the only thing RJ’s defense has put a stop to is Gregg Popovich’s long suffering, patient, and tender disposition.

RJ is, in hindsight, a bad solution. He didn’t improve the thing he was meant to fix wing production; Bruce Bowen was 10x the basketball player RJ is, box scores be damned! And his presence has created new problems that didn’t exist prior to his arrival. He’s an organ that is polluting the organism.”

-On the Spurs, the 2011 NBA Draft, and solving for pattern, 48MoH

The depth and versatility that so enriches the Spurs this season has been made possible solely by the better than expected production of Kawhi Leonard.

Without Leonard proving ready to take over the starting small forward position, do the Spurs take on a risk like Stephen Jackson? Without his rebounding presence from the small forward position, could the Spurs maximize the strengths of its frontline?

For all its versatility, there isn’t a dominant rebounder on the front line beyond a fully engaged Tim Duncan. Leonard’s unique skill set and length, not to mention the addition of Stephen Jackson, allows Popovich to deploy a number of different combinations that somehow make perfect sense.

In short, even if Leonard did not prove to be the better player—and all indications are that he will—he already has proven to be the better fit.

  • Spffafar

    And you haven’t yet quantified the possible additions of Erazem Lorbek and David Bertans to the Spurs’ squad (the former more likely and possible as early as a few months from now) in the future. They were the picks that the Spurs got in return from the Pacers in exchange for Hill.

  • SAJKinBigD

    Well said and a well-written love letter! KL has been a great addition to this team, it’s like he’s always been a Spur! Can’t wait to see where he goes next year after a full off-season of working with the team!

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  • ziijordan

    Great piece, but I think it’s unfair to trash Jefferson like that.

    The guy tried to fit in a system that was not made for him, and didn’t suit his style.

    He had to adjust his game later in his career to try and do what Pop asked of him and it didn’t work. What Kawhi brings in athleticism, and his freakishly long arms and big hands, at a much younger age cannot be taught. We made a good trade in bringing him in, and we should be thankful for that without having to insult a former player who gave his all to an organization and an environment which just wasn’t meant to be. We are classier than that. Thank you RJ, and wish you all the best.

    If you wanna trash other teams’ players then I’m fully on board with that.

    I fully love Leonard’s game and its development, and I hope that sky’s the limit for that kid.

  • lvmainman

    My last picture of George Hill is of him getting posted up by Shane Battier and watching Battier make the easiest jump hook over him as if George Hill was his not yet fully grown son. Not to mention, that Sam Young constantly got offensive rebounds with Hill guarding him. Hopefully, Pop won’t be forced like last year to play Hill and Neal at the 3 because Jefferson was so passive. I’m hoping that Leonard’s play and the addition of Jackson stop glaring mismatches from being exploited like they were in the playoffs vs. the Grizzlies.

  • Daniel T

    What Indiana received in the trade is George Hill. The Spurs not only received Kawhi, but the rights to Erazem Lorbek and a 2nd round draft choice that they used on Davis Bertans. The Spurs may have gotten the better of the deal if all they received was Kawhi, but they might wind up with three rotation players out of the trade in years to come.

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  • Bob

    I like the way KL fits in. A much better fit than Jefferson. The Spurs only need 3 and D from the SF position and he fits the bill. Plus he’s a better rebounder and slasher than Bowen. Plus the additional benefit of getting Danny Green playing time was good. Basically the FO had to trade Parker or George Hill.

  • yogaginobili

    i agree with jordan, thrashing a ex member who tried his best and acted as a professional player within the organization is uncalled. as much as Jefferson is a misfit, i appreciated the amount of effort he puts in and tries his best to adjust to Pop. one of the reasons why establised NBA players dont come to spurs gotta be the way pop coaches.
    that said, even now,looking back at the trade,i am disappointed we lost hill for KL. at least we are winning, just wished we traded other players for KL. :(

  • neverthehero

    Maybe if the other Spurs would have involved RJ later in the season like they did in the beginning last year, perhaps he would have sustained his progress. Saw too many times they willing did not get RJ involved late in the season.

  • DorieStreet

    @ ziijordan – I think if the Spurs would have gotten RJ a few seasons earlier (from the Nets, instead of after his stint with the Bucks, Pop would have altered the Spurs system somewhat to accomodate his athleticism and game.
    And I’m with you 100% on how to view his time as a Spur. Despite things not working out, RJ never caused waves with comments or actions. He remained a professional to the league team employing him, even though his personal game/success regressed.

    @ Jesse Blanchard – so if George Hill would have broken through in his rookie year ala Kawhi Leonard —- Tony would have been dealt for frontcourt talent?

  • SeanE

    No national pundit advocated to trade TP to leave George with more responsibilities, only some Spurs fans did.

  • MSteele_in_Eire

    Great article, I think Kawhi has surprised everyone. Puts the whole “takes a year to adjust to the system” issue to bed. It’s not that the system is so complicated, you just have to be willing to learn and know your role. Obviously having a skill set like he does makes it that much easier, but he was still ready and willing to put it on the line.
      I think what made Hill such a fan favourite in San Antonio, was that he was so engaging with fans and he genuinely gave his all when he went on the floor. The trade just made perfect sense for both teams.
      One thing that isn’t really mentioned about Danny Green, is that he has a presence about him. A certain swagger to his game, which isn’t arrogant, but just knows what to do with (and without) the ball and does it confidently. Even when he isn’t scoring, your pretty confident he’s gonna make winning plays.

  • Deeds130

    How’s this for spot-on Draft Day analysis from Mike DeCourcy of the The Sporting  News:  

    “Spurs have always been an organization that values team-first players, and they’ll love having Leonard on their team. 
    He is a low-ego guy. He will battle on the glass, perhaps fighting DeJuan Blair and Tim Duncan for rebounds. He will be an ideal part of a team that is fighting to remain at championship level, though he’ll need to improve his skill level to become more than a part.”

  • Robert

    Always felt George Hill was more a natural two. That was his position at IUPUI.

  • theghostofjh

    Agree.

  • Hobson13

    Many of us (including myself) thought it was a good trade on draft night and now months later, Leonard seems to be a draft steal.  Leonard was originally projected to be drafted around the 6-8 pick but instead fell to 15 (for some unkown reason).  If you look at David Thorpe’s 2012 rookie rankings, you will see that he has Leonard as the 5th best rookie behind guys like Irving and Rubio.  In fact, it’s just my personal opinion, but I think Leonard’s abilities are very similar to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist of Kentucky who is projected to be a top 5 pick in this year’s draft.  I don’t think KL will ever be a huge offensive weapon, but he can play great defense and is an elite rebounder at the SF position.  All in all, a great pickup by the Spurs.

  • Tim in Surrey

    Sorry, but I have to contradict you on a couple of things. First, I’m not surprised by Kawhi and I think a number of other fans expected this. It’s not a giant surprise if you watched him at SDSU. The surprise is that he fell all the way to 15th. But then again there are a lot of knuckleheads managing NBA front offices right now. Second, I don’t think his play “puts the whole ‘takes a year to adjust to the system’ issue to bed”, as you put it. Just because Kawhi is performing very well doesn’t mean he isn’t struggling to adjust to the system. He’s really just that good. I think you’ll see him improve substantially next year.

  • theghostofjh

    “I don’t think KL will ever be a huge offensive weapon, but he can play great defense and is an elite rebounder at the SF position.  All in all, a great pickup by the Spurs.

    No, not Kevin Durant type offensive weapon. But I think he is extremely underrated offensively, and has significant upside. Potentially, he could get Shawn Marion type numbers, perhaps even exceeding them, before all is said and done.

  • theghostofjh

     Agree.