Four years have passed since the draft-day trade that sent Kawhi Leonard, a second-round pick, and something called Erazem Lorbek to the San Antonio Spurs for George Hill. But that doesn't mean the swap is no longer a trigger for debate.
Dan McCarney—beat writer for the San Antonio Express-News—tweeted out this thought-provoking question on Wednesday:
Better deal, buying George Gervin for equivalent of $1 million in 2015 dollars or trading George Hill for Kawhi Leonard?— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneySAEN) August 5, 2015
When I first saw it, I balked.
Since when is swapping a perfectly serviceable point guard (Hill) for a top-10ish NBA player (Leonard) on the same playing field as landing a future Hall-of-Famer who was primarily responsible for merging the ABA-Spurs with the NBA (Gervin)?
I further objected with the usual Five-Point-Paranoia Defense of Hill and the Pacers:
- "Hill helped lead the Pacers to two Eastern-Conference Finals appearances." A Nowitzki-for-Tractor Traylor trade this was not.
- "Hill evolved into a top-10 point guard last season."
- "Hill's on one of the best high-value contracts in the NBA. And it will only look better as the cap continues to swell."
- "At the time of the trade, wing-players Paul George and Danny Granger were already cemented on the roster."
- "The Pacers drafted Leonard for the Spurs. How do we know they really would've drafted him had they kept the pick?"
And on ... and on ... and on.
After my little hissyfit, I gave myself some time to think. To really think.
For both players, I decided to shove aside all accolades and self-serving justifications. No more Eastern-Conference Finals hoopla. No more parading over Hill's one-season revelation. No more if-thens and needed-this-and-thats. NBA Finals' MVP for Leonard? Meh. Defensive Player of the Year at 23? Shrug.
It came down to one simple question: who would you rather have yesterday, today, and tomorrow?
And the answer was easy: Leonard—in a Ronald Regan landslide.
Please don't mistake my current thought process for previous brain malfunction. The answer to that question has been Leonard pretty much since his rookie season. I know it, you know it. But amid all the "Hill's not that bad" musings, and State-of-the-Pacers-in-2011 somersaults, I guess I thought the gap would be smaller.
It's not. And you know what? That's okay. It really is. The Pacers made a good bet: trade for established player flourishing in NBA's Royalty Program > bank on unknown entity in the mid-first round.
That method works far more times than not. Unfortunately, they were betting against the dynastyism of the Spurs, and an elite talent on The Slip.
Despite all that, I still view Mr. McCarney's tweet as slightly hyperbolic. The Spurs were championship contenders with George Hill on the roster, and they would've remained so had he stayed. Those are the spoils of having Gregg Popovich and the ageless trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili on your side. Championships are always just a sniff away. Unlike the acquisition of Gervin, the Leonard trade wasn't so much a franchise-changer as a franchise-reinforcer.
But the point still stands and does so strongly: Give any reasonable NBA junkie a choice between Kawhi Leonard or George Hill, and the pick will be Leonard 1,000,000 times out of 1,000,000. And rightly so.
Anyone who denies it, well, maybe it's time for a confessional of your own.