The Larry Bird What-If: Kawhi Leonard Not Traded

Larry Bird has had some significant, if not magical, moments in the front office of the Indiana Pacers and his retirement from the Pacers presidency is the end of an era. He built a contending team that went to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals, dramatic matchups with LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. He drafted Paul George, a Fresno State under the radar player who is the cornerstone of the franchise and who the Pacers are desperate to keep. He legitimized a defensive style of play until that was no longer en vogue and is now trying to switch identities.  But his biggest act of aggression that haunts the franchise and will forevermore be recited as a Larry Bird mistake is the 2011 NBA draft when an elite player was given away.

Kawhi Leonard’s superlatives need no introduction. They speak for themselves. He has won back to back Defensive Player of the Year Awards. Two years ago, he was the first wing player to win the award since Ron Artest won it as a member of the Pacers in 2003-04. Leonard joined Sidney Moncrief as the only wing player to win it in back to back seasons. Moncrief was the league’s best defender in 1983 and 1984. Coincidentally, that was the first year the award was given, so even with Leonard’s dominance, there are a lot of players who never had an opportunity to win it such as Bill Russell and Walt Frazier. Even so, what Leonard has done is phenomenal. In a perimeter scoring era, he takes the best wing defender out of his rhythm and impacts what the Spurs want to do on that end of the floor. He is the glue to Pop’s defense and why the Spurs had the best defense in the league in 2015-16. In 2016-17 they were second best.  A scary thought is that Kawhi Leonard is only 25 years old.

Add to that, Leonard’s offense. He brutalized the Grizzlies in Game 4 in an overtime loss. Last night his coach, Gregg Popovich, called him the  best player in the league. If LeBron James is 1, then Kawhi Leonard is 1A. To think the Pacers had Leonard and gave him up is sobering and a cautionary tale about what happens in sports, how decisions can come back, and like death by paper cuts, ruin you.


In the 2011 NBA Draft, Kawhi Leonard was chosen by the Indiana Pacers with the 11th pick. He was a wing player from Southern California with a sobering history. His father was murdered while at a car wash when Kawhi was 17 years old, the consequences of Compton, California life. Leonard was California’s Mr. Basketball. He and Bucks Tony Snell led Martin Luther King High to 30 wins and 3 losses. He was evaluated as the 48th best player in the country.

At San Diego State, in his sophomore year, Leonard had nice but not superlative averages: 15.5 points, 10.6 rebounds.  He made 44 percent of his shots but was an ineffective- okay awful- three point shooter, 29%. Similar to his senior year at Martin Luther King, the Aztecs won 34 games and lost 3. In the tournament, San Diego State made it to the Sweet Sixteen, losing to Connecticut who would win the title.

While Leonard was pondering his future in 2011, the Pacers were in desperate need of point guard help. The Central Division had a dynamic guard in Derrick Rose and to be able to do anything against the Bulls, who throttled the Pacers in 5 games in the playoffs, the Pacers needed an upgrade.  Darren Collison wasn’t going to deliver the Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals.  The Pacers were at the bottom of the league in assists and field goal percentage, though they were a strong rebounding and defensive team. A little more playmaking would do the trick, Larry Bird thought. He had good pieces.  Danny Granger was a small forward who was their leading scorer in the 2010-11 season, a 20 point per game player. The Pacers didn’t need Kawhi Leonard. So they drafted him and traded him to the Spurs for experienced point guard and Indiana native George Hill.

Two years after the Kawhi Leonard draft, the Pacers were in the Eastern Conference Finals.  Three years after the Kawhi Leonard draft, Kawhi Leonard was NBA Finals MVP. Four years after the Kawhi Leonard draft, Danny Granger was out the NBA. Six years after the Kawhi Leonard draft, Gregg Popovich called him the best player in the NBA.


In the 1996 NBA Draft, the Charlotte Hornets didn’t need a high school player who was projected out as a scorer. They needed a center. They were trying to get into the playoffs and so they gladly yanked Vlade Divac out the Lakers hands and gave Jerry West a kid they frankly didn’t think much of named Kobe Bryant. Divac played for the Hornets for two seasons while Bryant played for the Lakers 10 times as long.

By year three, Kobe Bryant was a 20 point scorer. By year four, he was a 21 year old NBA champion and three time All-Star.

By year three, Kawhi Leonard was a 22 year old champion and MVP of the NBA Finals. By year five he was a 21 point scorer and an All-Star. In year six, he averaged 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists.

It is easy to look back all these years later, to be the genius and think what if? What if this had not happened then? it is a very human instinct to second guess after the fact, once we know what we know. But there is a reality here, the sheer difficulty of the job of team building which, as a profession, is heavy on projection and sometimes you just get it wrong. You don’t see what someone else sees. More importantly, there is no secret lens into the future.

In drafting, there are two rules of thought. You build for your needs right now- let’s call that the Doc Rivers rule. Or you have an eye on the future.

Did anything about Kawhi Leonard’s college background and performance in pre-draft workouts lead anyone to think this was possible. This was his scouting report:

The top ranked wing on our Big Board Kawhi Leonard’s stock is based primarily on his physical attributes, defensive abilities and upside so it’s not a huge surprise that he doesn’t fare very well from a purely statistical standpoint. His profile strongly indicates that he’s destined to play a complimentary role in the NBA, at least his first few seasons.  (Draft Express)


Faced with a player who needed to develop and juxtaposing that against a team that could win right now, Larry Bird just like Bob Bass, the Charlotte GM who called the trade of Kobe Bryant to the Lakers for Vlade Divac the greatest steal in NBA history, did the math. It compelled Bird to stay grounded in the moment and focus on a title in 2012. Given the information he had, and the desperate desire to win a title, Larry Bird pulled the trigger on a trade that, at the time, was barely met with a yawn. On draft day the wisdom was the Pacers had set themselves up nicely to battle Derrick Rose and the Bulls. And they were right. That trade got them to the Eastern Conference Finals. But George HIll wasn’t elite enough as a point guard to carry the Pacers to the Finals.

Six years later, we now see Kawhi Leonard is that elite player. Kawhi Leonard is everything.

If Leonard had stayed in Indiana, Bird could have moved Paul George to shooting guard or Kawhi to power forward. So many possibilities. So many dreams. Bird is no longer making decisions for the Pacers and his tenure will be debated in those gray areas of achievement. Paul George: Win. Kawhi Leonard: Fail. But. Every general manager has one move that will haunt the organization and himself, and for the Pacers this was it. The Pacers were the recipients of short term glory at the price of long term exceptionalism.

photo via llananba