San Antonio Spurs: What If the Kawhi Leonard Trade Never Happened?
By Rob Wolkenbrod
Feb 24, 2017; Los Angeles, CA, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) in action against the Los Angeles Clippers during the third quarter at Staples Center. The San Antonio Spurs won 105-97. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
If the trade for Kawhi Leonard never happened in the 2011 NBA Draft, what could have happened to the San Antonio Spurs?
During the 2011 NBA Draft, the San Antonio Spurs traded point guard George Hill to the Indiana Pacers for the No. 15 overall pick, the No. 42 overall pick and 2005 second-round pick Erazem Lorbek. The former two picks became Kawhi Leonard and Davis Bertans, respectively.
Hill went on to start for the Pacers for a handful of years, before moving to the Utah Jazz via trade. However, Leonard broke out into one of the top two-way players in the NBA and an MVP candidate, leading the Spurs into the post-Tim Duncan era. Bertans also joined the Spurs in 2016.
Recently, Gregg Popovich spoke about this deal in a recent interview with Bleacher Report, calling it the “toughest decision” he’s made as a head coach and Hill being one of his “favorite” players. So what if Popovich decided against doing this? What about the fallout?
May 7, 2017; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Wizards mascot G-Wiz celebrates after the game against the Boston Celtics in game four of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Verizon Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Kawhi Leonard Goes to the Wizards or Bucks
Without the trade, if Kawhi Leonard doesn’t go at No. 15 to the Indiana Pacers, he wouldn’t have slipped that much further. The Washington Wizards picked at No. 18 and the Milwaukee were up just one selection later, via trade.
The Wizards selected Chris Singleton out of Florida State with its pick. He was a fellow small forward, who gave the team depth at a position they were looking to get bigger at.
The Bucks would trade for Tobias Harris, who was picked by the Charlotte Bobcats. Harris had been one of the top small forwards in the 2011 NBA Draft, and a pick to help out this rebuilding franchise.
If either team rated Leonard higher, then he would have donned a Wizards or Bucks uniform for a handful of years. Does that mean Washington are never in position to take Bradley Beal in 2012? Would the Bucks even sniff Jabari Parker in the 2014 Draft, since he plays the same position as Leonard?
Leonard going to either team would have shaken up the back half of the 2011 NBA Draft’s first round. It likely goes beyond the Wizards and Bucks, affecting the strategies of just about everyone else, if they were in the running for a forward.
Next: Spurs Take Someone Else at No. 29
Apr 12, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Jimmy Butler (21) reacts during the first half against the Brooklyn Nets at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
Spurs Draft Jimmy Butler at No. 29
In the previously noted interview with Bleacher Report, Popovich talked about the Spurs wanting to get “bigger.” That turned out to be with Leonard at the wing spot, so what if they took another player at who fit that mold — Jimmy Butler.
With the No. 29 pick, the Spurs took point guard Cory Joseph, who filled minutes that George Hill had for the next four years. If Hill never got traded in 2011, though, that may mean San Antonio avoids a point guard here and takes someone to improve the size of the team.
Butler was picked by the Chicago Bulls at No. 30, so he would have been available here. Of course, Kawhi Leonard never being traded shakes everything up, but this Marquette player wasn’t highly regarded in what was considered a weak draft. So it’s possible his low placement in the Draft would have stuck.
If Butler becomes a Spur, he eventually works his way into the starting lineup with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili within two years. He essentially takes the spot Leonard would have had and develops into exactly what he became with the Bulls. The slight issue is Butler took until his fourth year to come into his own, so would his slow progression still mean the Spurs win the NBA championship in 2014?
Next: George Hill Still Leaves
Nov 4, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz guard George Hill (3) dribbles up the court during the first half against the San Antonio Spurs at Vivint Smart Home Arena. San Antonio won 100-86. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
George Hill Still Leaves San Antonio — as a Free Agent
When the San Antonio Spurs traded George Hill, he only had one year left on his contract. Given that he showed the ability to start and produce in this role, it increased his value and led to this trade with the Pacers, looking like its point guard of the future.
However, if this deal never happens, then Hill enters a contract year with the Spurs. With age 29 Tony Parker in place, it’s likely the Spurs let the IUPUI product leave after the 2011-12 NBA season as a free agent. He received starter money from Indiana — five years, $40 million — so it can only be assumed he would have signed for this on the open market.
Would the Pacers still have acquired Hill? With the Leonard trade, they re-signed him after being under contract for a season. So would the team have the room? What about having filled in the point guard need in the 2011 NBA Draft or free agency?
Either way, Hill leaving the Spurs after the 2011-12 season seems like a decent bet. It’s a lot of money for the Spurs to give to someone who didn’t start in 2010-11, something that Popovich may have replicated for the following year. The franchise had a commitment to Parker in the starting lineup, so free agency seemed like the best option to replace Hill.
Next: Who Replaces Hill?
Jan 10, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard Ramon Sessions (7) handles the ball against the Houston Rockets during the third quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports
Spurs Sign Ramon Sessions
In 2012 free agency, the San Antonio Spurs could have targeted a low-cost point guard, someone who’s not going to overwhelm on the stat sheet, but fill in when necessary. Ramon Sessions fit this profile.
Since entering the league in 2007, Sessions has been a journeyman point guard that can start and play a backup role, or whatever asked. He’s proven to be a good-enough ball distributor and has an average shot from the perimeter. These aren’t traits that will jump out, but they’re fine for a backup to Tony Parker.
After playing parts of the 2011-12 season with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers, Sessions left for Charlotte, on a two-year, $10 million deal. The Spurs giving him that doesn’t sound crazy, and with the way the team has handed out contracts, he may have taken less. How about a one-year deal, too?
Sessions is one of many backup guards the Spurs could have looked at in 2012. It’s an easily replaceable position, so other options likely existed.
Next: Spurs Draft a PG in 2013
Jan 27, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz guard Erick Green (18) passes the ball during the second half against the Charlotte Hornets at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The Jazz won 102-73. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Spurs Draft Erick Green in 2013 NBA Draft
Erick Green is a name that won’t stick out to almost anyone who follows basketball. He got drafted by the Utah Jazz in the 2013 NBA Draft, played for the Denver Nuggets, had a second stint with the Jazz and appeared in a total of 52 games, not playing in the NBA since 2015-16.
However, in 2013, Green was rumored to be a Spur.
In a report from NBADraft.net, San Antonio reportedly had a “promise” to Green to be selected at No. 28. This never happened, as they took Livio Jean-Charles out of France with the pick.
Sources have indicated Spurs may have a promise with Erick Green at 28. #draftrumor
— NBADraft.net (@nbadraftnet) June 26, 2013
Green could have been the young point guard the Spurs they wanted in 2011. The organization’s 2012 first-round pick was traded in a separate deal, so they wouldn’t have picked up someone to back up Tony Parker and potentially groom into a chip.
Of course, Green never stood out in his limited time in the NBA, so the Spurs made the right choice here. However, if the George Hill-Kawhi Leonard trade never went down, might Green have been in San Antonio for a few years under a first-round pick contract?
Next: Ranking Every Spurs NBA Championship Team
If this 2011 trade never happened, how would the Spurs look in the immediate aftermath? Could Hill have remained with the team for the long-term?