I was following the 2011 NBA Draft on ESPN radio while emailing live updates to a few friends. When the 15th pick rolled around and the Pacers selected Kawhi Leonard, I had no idea whether to be excited or now, even though I immediately alerted my friends that he could very well be the next Rookie of the Year.
All I knew was that on the positive side, Leonard is supposedly an athletic freak, a 6'9" small forward with gigantic hands. A guy that was supposed to go in the top 10, and maybe as high as number 7 based on a few mock drafts. On the negative side, this was a weak draft and he was the 15th pick, and he happened to play the same position as Danny Granger and Paul George.
I barely had time to digest the pick when it was suddenly announced that the Pacers had traded the rights for Leonard to the San Antonio Spurs for George Hill. Now that guy I knew very well. The guy many expected to take over the reigns from Tony Parker to run the future Spurs offense. So much so that it was rumored that the ageing Parker was being shopped around.
Well there you go. When the smoke cleared, a few things were clear. One, this was a good trade. And two, the Pacers are, bit by bit, getting better.
This was a good trade
First of all, the Pacers did exceptionally well here. At the end of the day, they were a 37-win team last season, and any good players are welcome. In George Hill, they have gotten a proven rotation player for a perennial Western Conference contender, a hard worker expected to be the future at the point guard position. But George is more than just a point guard. At 25, he is young but has several years of experience with a classy organization under his belt. He is only 6'2", but has the range to also play SG. He is also a terrific defender, a player Darren Collison can certainly learn from. He is an Indiana native and will put bums on seats at Conseco Fieldhouse. He is apparently a 'locker room' guy, and the Pacers could certainly use him to improve team chemistry.
George averaged 11.6 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists for the Spurs last season in 28.3 minutes per game. Not eye-popping numbers but very solid. He can be used in a variety of ways. He can start ahead of Collison at PG or ahead of Paul George at SG or be the first man off the bench at either guard position. Pairing Hill with George will form a super defensive unit. Pairing Hill with Collison will break ankles all over the floor. Hill can also play with Rush and Jones (provided they aren't traded), Stephenson (provided he isn't kicked out) and Dunleavy (provided he is re-signed). There's nothing to dislike about this guy joining the team.
But what about what they gave up for him? That's the question Pacers fans have been asking, with many thinking they gave up too much. But what did they actually give up here? Apart from the 15th pick Leonard, the Pacers also gave up the 42nd pick (which turned out to be Davis Bertans, a big man from Latvia) and the rights to 2005 second round pick Erazem Lorbek, who is still playing in Europe.
Is this really giving up too much? Sure, Leonard has some unpredictable upside, but how many 15th picks in recent years have turned into star players, or even decent players for that matter? This is considered one of the weakest drafts in years, which makes it even less likely that Leonard will turn into something the Pacers will regret trading. In any case, Leonard is not the type of player that can be a big help to the Pacers right away. His time is at least 2 seasons away and the Pacers need to get better right now. Playing behind Granger and George isn't exactly the best place for a rookie either. And who else could the Pacers have gotten at 15 that would have been better?
As for the other two, there is a good reason why players fall to the second round, and why second round players rarely crack the rotation on NBA teams. Bertans is 6'10" but only 210 lbs, and probably a steal at the 42nd pick, but how many second round picks in recent years have done anything for the Pacers apart from AJ Price? At the end of the day, Bertans is fairly low risk trade commodity and will most probably have a much brighter future with the Spurs than the with the Pacers. Lorbek? Why do you think he's still playing in Europe after being drafted 6 years ago?
In reality, this was not trading three pieces for one. This was trading one unknown piece with a relatively low probability of success and two useless pieces for a proven piece, even though that proven piece is by no means a superstar and probably never will be. Still, it's a good trade.
The Pacers are getting better
There's a lot of reason for optimism next season (in the even there is a next season). By all accounts, interim head coach Frank Vogel will be back as the official head coach. Hopefully, he will continue to make the team play hard every night, but also work hard on overcoming his shortcomings, such as being too lax with the team and coping better in crunch time.
Also just about locked in is that former Lakers player and assistant Brian Shaw will be Vogel's assistant. Shaw is a multiple champion and a "players' coach" Shaq called his favorite. The locker room and practices can only improve with Shaw in the mix.
Lastly, let's look at the players locked in for next season:
LIKELY STARTERS AT THIS POINT:
PG Darren Collison
SG Paul George
SF Danny Granger
PF Tyler Hansbrough
C Roy Hibbert
G AJ Price
G George Hill
G Lance Stephenson
G/F Dahntay Jones
G/F Brandon Rush
F James Posey
The guys coming off the books are:
Jamaal Tinsley (yes, him!)
Of the players that are currently on the roster, it's no secret that the Pacers are more than willing to trade Dahntay Jones and are just about willing to give away Brandon Rush and James Posey. We should assume that one of those three is gone before next season starts (and hopefully two). Furthermore, I would think that with Hill in the team, AJ Price is now also quite expendable, but otherwise I would have no problem with him being the third point guard. Oh, and Lance Stephenson. He's either going to wake up and become a great player (about a 3% possibility), remain on the bench all year (about a 7% possibility), be sent to the D-League (about a 35% possibility), be traded for spare change (about a 10% possibility) or be kept as far away from the team as possible (45% possibility).
Of the players that are off contract, the Pacers would definitely be open to re-signing McRoberts, but given that they almost traded him for OJ Mayo before the trade deadline last season, they wouldn't be too upset to see him sign elsewhere for more than he's worth. As for the rest, I would say the Pacers are open to re-signing Dunleavy at a huge discount and possibly Jeff Foster to reward his loyalty and hoping that he remains healthy to give them some much needed size, hustle and defense. Goodbye to Ford and Solo.
What it means, looking at the situation now, is that the Pacers still have plenty to do this summer. They need to get rid of the the logjam at the wing spots and sign a few veteran bigs that can help immediately. They'll have the cap room (whatever it is, after the new bargaining agreement is reached) to play around a bit. I'm confident they'll make the right moves going forward.