Apr 3, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) drives to the basket against Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) during the third quarterat Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Remember, even earlier this season, when everyone agreed that the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers swap of George Hill and Kawhi Leonard was an equal trade for both teams?
That was a good one.
Leonard not only continues to improve both his defensive and offensive skills, but he also has earned the trust of head coach Gregg Popovich; which is something that doesn’t happen all to often for the 65-year-old coach.
This brings us back to the starting point guard for the Pacers: Pop’s former favorite player, George Hill.
He used to rave about the 6-2, 27 year old out of IUPUI but later trade him away after just three years.
Why would he trade his favorite player for a virtually unknown draft pick out of San Diego State most known for his large hands?
Apr 3, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) attempts to steal the ball from Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) during the third quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Because Pop knew who was about to reign the Western Conference.
Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
And, damn it, was he right.
Leonard was known, yes, for those massive hands, an extremely helpful asset on on-ball defense; but his combination of length and quickness, especially laterally, had heavy potential that general manager R.C. Buford could foresee stopping the budding superstar.
And, damn it, he, too, was right.
Now, Leonard not only defends Durant, but also LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, James Harden, you name it.
Do you think Pop still misses Hill?
Is Kawhi Leonard the Future of the Spurs?
Mar 22, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks with forward Kawhi Leonard (2) and forward Boris Diaw (33) during a break in the action against the Golden State Warriors in the fourth quarter at Oracle Arena. The Spurs defeated the Warriors 99-90. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Look at the Spurs roster.
If they held onto Hill, who would lead their perimeter defense or get timely rebounds or defend big men with outside range?
Manu Ginobili? Boris ‘Cake Eater’ Diaw?
Would they have even gotten to the NBA Finals?
Not if they saw the Thunder; because, as much as we love him here at Air Alamo, Diaw cannot eat food and guard Durant at the same time.
Enter Kawhi Leonard.
Though the team lost, we saw his tremendous defense on James and the Miami Heat in the Finals, and San Antonio will need it again if they climb back to the final stage.
The Pacers, on the other hand, are struggling.
And unless they spontaneously catch on fire, their recent play doesn’t reflect well on their championship aspirations.
Was Pop faking?
Jan 19, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks to Kawhi Leonard (2) during the first half against the Milwaukee Bucks at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Was the Spurs coach trying to oversell Hill? If he’s Pop’s favorite player he must be supremely talented, right?
Certainly not as talented as Kawhi Leonard.
In Indiana’s defense, though, they were stockpiled at the small forward position; with Paul George budding as a superstar, they even recently shipped off Danny Granger for the smaller Evan Turner.
And they’re not going to win that trade either.
As a fan, it was hard for me to get over Leonard missing those crucial free throws in the Finals because had he made both, San Antonio would have been crowned, for the fifth time in 14 years, champions of the basketball world.
But he’s young.
And those hands.
However, the Spurs are in win-now mode, so Leonard must grow up quicker; and, hopefully, he learned from his playoff mistakes from last year.
Based on his recent play, I believe it; and I believe the San Antonio Spurs will go as far in these playoffs as Kawhi Leonard takes them. Tony Parker may be the leader on offense, but defense is most important above all else in the playoffs.
If Leonard can lock down players like Durant and James come playoff time and help lead his team to the ultimate victory, Coach Pop will have long forgot about his former favorite player when he’s wearing his 2014 championship ring.