Photo Credit: USA Today
Ever since the San Antonio Spurs and Kawhi Leonard won the 2014 NBA finals, Pacers fans have played the “what-if” game. “What if we had kept Kawhi Leonard and paired him will Paul George? Maybe we would have won a few NBA Championships.” Well, Pacers fans, this year you will finally get your wish, but with the Los Angeles Clippers instead of the Indiana Pacers. While this pairing in 2019 is destined to be the core of one of the best and deepest teams in the NBA, playing the “what-if” game is irrational for us fans. Let me explain.
The draft day trade that sent George Hill to the Pacers and the rights to the 15thpick to the Spurs has been the root of the Kawhi-PG “what-if” game for going on nine years. Two things must be considered to know why the trade was made and why Kawhi was pictured in a Pacers hat on draft night. First of all, the NBA has a somewhat confusing set of rules involving trades of draft picks on draft night. In the NBA, trades involving picks made after 2 PM on draft day can only be for a player’s rights. When the Pacers selected Kawhi with the 15thpick in the 2011 draft, they were doing so on behalf of the Spurs who had agreed to a trade that would send future starting point guard George Hill to Indianapolis. Second of all, the Pacers had no need for a player that played Kawhi’s position of small forward. The Pacers already had veteran Danny Granger on the roster and expected further development of Paul George that season and into the future. The real position of need was point guard with the soon to expire contract of Darren Collison and the departure of TJ Ford. Bringing in George Hill, a player Spurs coach Gregg Popovich valued as an important piece to the Spurs future, filled the point guard slot and hopefully gave the Pacers a piece to build upon going forward.
Just as important to how NBA draft day trade rules work is the fact that Kawhi Leonard had the opportunity to play for the best coach in the NBA, Gregg Popovich, and alongside three future Hall of Famers in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. While Paul George turned out to be an excellent player learning from teammates like David West and Danny Granger and being coached by a coach who I believe is very underrated in Frank Vogel, Kawhi greatly benefitted from having such elite talent around him for the first few years of his career. Though Kawhi may have developed just fine in the same situation as Paul George, having both players who play the same position fighting for the same minutes would have led to a likely stagnation to both their developments.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are two of the best players in the NBA and will form one of the best duos in the league this season. Though both were drafted by the Pacers in 2010 and 2011 respectively, it’s irrational for Pacers fans to play the “what-if” game around having both players on the roster all those years ago. NBA trade rules and the Pacers roster composition mean it was practically impossible the Pacers would have actually drafted Kawhi Leonard with their pick. As a fan, I would rather look forward to next year and wonder what we can do to compete in a wide-open Eastern Conference.