For five years, the Spurs have called their trade of point guard George Hill to the Indiana Pacers for the draft rights to Kawhi Leonard one of those deals that benefits both teams.
Hill, Gregg Popovich often pointed out, became the starting point guard and a key player for the Pacers for four seasons before he was traded in July to the Utah Jazz.
That much is true, but Leonard has been MVP of the 2014 NBA Finals, earned him back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year Awards and first-team All-NBA designation. It has become harder and harder for anyone to make the case that the Spurs didn’t pull off one of the NBA’s great trade robberies of the 21st Century.
Nevertheless, on Tuesday night at AT&T Center, Hill made the trade look pretty even, dominating the fourth quarter and leading his new team to a 106-91 win over the Spurs. He scored 10 of his team-high 22 points in the fourth quarter, matching Leonard’s fourth-period output. He made an efficient 9-of-13 shots and had a game-high 7 assists.
“He played great,” Popovich said, “especially down the stretch. He was very controlled, ran the show, obviously made shots. He was great.”
Trading Hill wasn’t easy for Popovich, who often called him his favorite player. It hurt him when he heard the trade described as grossly one-sided in the Spurs’ favor and he continues to defend it as a fair trade for both teams.
The phone call he had to make to Hill to inform him of the trade was especially difficult.
“Yeah, that was tough,” Popovich recalled before tipoff. “I always made the joke with you (media) guys that he was my favorite player. Then I called my favorite player and told him he wasn’t here anymore. So, that was real tough. But those kinds of trades are the best because it worked out for both teams. It was what Indiana needed, and it was what we needed. And it worked out.
“A lot of trades, one team will say, ‘Oh, we killed them on that trade. We got the better end of that.’ That’s just childish. It was a good trade for both teams.”
Now Utah is benefiting from Hill’s veteran presence on a roster that includes some talented young players who need guidance. Utah Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsey had been Spurs GM R.C. Buford’s assistant when Hill was sent to Indiana. He made him the Jazz’ key piece to receive in a three-team deal this summer with Indiana and Atlanta, and Hill let him know he would not regret getting him.
“I told him, ‘This is your chance to redeem yourself,’” Hill said. “’You got rid of me and then brought me back.’ It’s all fun and games. Dennis is a great guy. I’ve known him since my rookie league. We have a great communication and a great relationship.”
Popovich couldn’t suppress a smile as he thought of Hill’s ongoing development, even after watching him make the key fourth-quarter plays that kept the Spurs at bay Wednesday.
“Georgie is a veteran, and a great guy, great competitor; another guy that just got better and better,” Popovich said. “I can remember in the summer league when we first drafted him. He couldn’t even run a pick and roll. He’s just gone through the roof, and his success has been fun to watch. He’s done a great job.”
Popovich wasn’t so happy about his team’s lapses of focus and aggression in suffering their first loss after four straight wins to begin the 2016-17 season.
The Spurs allowed 38 points in the first quarter, when they left Jazz shooters unguarded at the 3-point line. Utah made 7-of-8 shots from long range and led by as many as 12 points in the period.
“I thought we started out pretty unaggressive, for whatever reason,” Popovich said. “I think they shot several uncontested shots. I thought we followed them around, so to speak. We just reacted to their offense.”
Spurs players couldn’t dispute their coach’s criticism.
“For sure, they got a lot of uncontested shots,” said Leonard, who scored 30 points. “They made a lot of shots, as well, ran their offense pretty well and just bit us.”
The Spurs trailed by as many as 16 points in the second quarter, but rallied in the second and third periods and took a brief lead in the third. They trailed by only two points, 88-86, with 5:20 remaining in the game before Hill went on an 8-2 run of his own that quieted the crowd and calmed his teammates.
Hill reflected on his relationship with Popovich, his time as a Spur, and what he learned while he was in San Antonio.
“It’s more than just basketball,” he said. “That’s one thing Coach Pop brings to the table. It’s not about us coming out every night and playing in front of thousands of fans. It’s about being a better guy in the community, being respectful, being a genuine good guy. That’s what he tries to develop in his guys before we ever step on the court.”