It’s the weekend and all of the draft reporting can make you a little disoriented — KCP IS SO VALUABLE AT 9!!! SHABAZZ IS THE BIGGEST BUST EVER!!! — but the reality is, players have skills that can be more useful in some situations than others. Zach Lowe has an outstanding recap (future salary implications and all) of one of the more lauded win-win trades in recent history: George Hill for Kawhi Leonard.
Dennis Lindsey and David Morway were texting furiously. It was still the early stages of the 2011 NBA draft, but the upper-level executives with the Spurs and Pacers, respectively, were plotting something. Sometime around the no. 11 pick, they decided it was time to just get on the phone. The Spurs had already agreed to send George Hill to the Pacers for Indiana’s no. 15 pick, but only if a particular player or players were still on the board. Both teams were worried the deal would not happen by the time Utah was on the clock at no. 12. The Pacers didn’t even know which player the Spurs wanted, Morway says.
The Pacers had expressed interest in Hill almost from the moment San Antonio drafted him out of
Indianapolis-based IUPUI in 2008, according to executives with both teams. The Pacers had nearly traded for Hill during the 2010 draft, with their no. 10 pick as bait, but backed out when their preferred draft target — Paul George — was still on the board. But a year after that near deal, Indiana thought Hill would be the perfect caretaker point guard for Frank Vogel’s new inside-out offense, especially since it was confident it would sign a true starting power forward once the oncoming lockout lifted.
But Morway was dubious as the 2011 draft unfolded. The Spurs had potential Hill-centric deals in place with teams above Indiana in the draft order, but couldn’t complete any, because each of those teams found someone they liked still available, says R.C. Buford, San Antonio’s GM. That meant the Spurs’ pool of draftees was nearly empty by the time Morway and Lindsey started chatting.
Other teams that had talked with San Antonio about Hill were nervous the Spurs would back out at the last minute, anyway; several called top San Antonio executives during the draft just to make sure the Spurs were actually serious — that they’d go through with it. “We were worried and concerned right up until the last minute they might pull out,” Morway says. The Spurs loved Hill, and had developed him from a guy who struggled terribly in his first summer league into an above-average two-way combo guard. Hill would be due an extension after the 2011-12 season, still a year away, and the Spurs anticipated it would take between $7 million and $9 million per year to retain him. They knew it would be hard to pay Hill at that level without going far into the luxury tax.
There were other ways to save money, and the Spurs explored them in hopes of keeping Gregg Popovich’s favorite player, Buford says. They reportedly tried to peddle Richard Jefferson’s awful contract, but couldn’t find a taker. The post-lockout collective bargaining agreement, which wouldn’t be signed until that December, might offer the relief of an amnesty clause, but that was far from certain, and such a clause would require the Spurs to pay out the amnesty victim’s salary.
And then there was Tony Parker, on the books for $12.5 million annually through 2014-15. The Spurs reportedly engaged teams much higher in the draft about Parker, attaching Jefferson’s contract as the poison price of obtaining one of the league’s very best point guards. They didn’t shop Parker, but they at least entertained the idea of going forward with Hill as the team’s starting point guard. “We didn’t make calls on Tony,” Buford says. “We accepted calls from teams who had interest in Tony.”
No such deal happened, leaving Morway and Lindsey to sweat things out. When the Jazz took Alec Burks with the no. 12 pick, Lindsey told Morway simply, “We’re still alive.” He repeated that again after the Suns and Rockets took the Morris twins with the next two picks. The teams were in business, but some last-minute details remained. The Spurs were torn about dealing Hill, and they wanted two assets in addition to the no. 15 pick — the rights to Erazem Lorbek, a rangy big man in Europe, and the no. 42 pick. The Pacers knew San Antonio coveted both, especially Lorbek, but they figured one would be enough to seal things. Nope. The Spurs requested both. “That night was the first time Larry [Bird] and I entertained with our owner the idea of sending out both assets,” Morway says. Buford recalls, “We just told them, ‘This is what it’s going to take for us to give up George Hill.’ He was such a big part of our fiber and our culture. It took a significant opportunity for us to move him.”
The Pacers swallowed hard and agreed. There was still one problem left: Indiana loved Kawhi Leonard. The Pacers had him about no. 5 or no. 6 on their draft board, and they thought very hard about scrapping the Hill deal and just taking a guy they never expected to be alive at no. 15. “When Kawhi ended up being there, we had to think about taking him,” Morway says. “But we already had Danny Granger and Paul George. That’s what made it a little easier for us.”
And so, with the clock ticking down on Indiana’s pick, the teams agreed to the final deal. The Pacers picked Leonard, who dutifully stood up, showed the world his prom suit, crammed a Pacers hat onto his head, and shook the commissioner’s hand. He had no clue he was about to be traded, though he remembered the Spurs interviewing him at the draft combine, even though they did not have a pick in or near the lottery. He was striding to his first round of media interviews when a league official shouted at him to stop — he might have already been traded. “It was a total shock to me,” he says.
It was a shock to everyone, this weird deal that has since (allegedly) become the elusive win-win trade, featuring two players in crucial roles with teams that have a chance to meet in the Finals just two years later. San Antonio players were caught off guard when they heard the news, says Matt Bonner. “I was so surprised,” he says. “I mean, George is a great player, someone the Spurs had drafted and developed.”
Sometime near the moment Leonard stepped onto the draft lottery stage, Popovich, sitting in the Spurs draft room near Buford and Lindsey, picked up the phone. He wanted to tell Hill, whom he still calls “Georgie,” about the trade himself. It might have been the most vulnerable Buford had ever seen Popovich, Buford says. “It was so emotional. I was there. I saw it. He was incredibly emotional.” Buford wouldn’t get into the details, as is the Spurs way. “I wouldn’t do that,” he says. “But it was very difficult.”
Both teams are thrilled with the outcome, part of the reason the Hill-Leonard trade has improbably emerged as one of the league’s most interesting and talked-about deals of the last half-decade or so. But the smart money is on the deal emerging over the next couple seasons as much closer to a true San Antonio “win.”