The Right and Wrong of George Hill

If this wasn’t such a cruel business, sympathy may have followed George Hill. He could never be what the Pacers lost in the draft of 2011. He could never re-craft his image into a 6-9 power forward. He couldn’t be Kawhi Leonard, if he tried. He could never be an All-Star. He would never be a champion. He was not Defensive Player of the Year (twice). But the Pacers didn’t know that in 2011 when they traded a shy California power forward draftee for guard George Hill. Hill, a San Antonio Spur who thrived in their system, was a tough, gritty and mentally tough combo guard that coaches trusted. The Pacers needed someone with that willful identity and his experience in high pressure games would stabilize the Pacers backcourt.

It seemed simple enough on draft night. Kawhi Leonard was a NBA unknown and though talented, he was a developmental player with a high upside. But no one knew how long it would take Leonard to meet his potential. The draft is a shaky business. Greatness has no predictor, no marker, no sign on the forehead. A lot of variables come into play.

It’s not an original story played back via hindsight. Team X is impatient to get better quickly and so they unload a young player for a veteran. Said young player becomes a phenom and haunts the team that gave him up. Said veteran is burdened by the comparisons. The decision, in the beginning, feels right at the time. But in the end, it is proven to be wrong. That is the George Hill Pacers story.

The Pacers will always be the team that traded Kawhi Leonard away. Arguments and analytical reasoning and a young Paul George and wanting to make the playoffs now and George and Leonard playing the same position are the low hanging fruit. The Pacers did the safe thing and because they wanted a two-way player, a hard-nosed guard, Larry Bird pulled the trigger, unaware he was trading a future Finals MVP.

Since the trade in June of 2011, the Spurs and Kawhi Leonard have been to the NBA Finals twice and the Pacers haven’t been to the Finals once. Leonard has been an All-Star, a Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year.

2011-2016 Minutes Games Played Points FG% 3-Point% PER
George Hill 10,119 319 12.4 44.7% 37.2% 16.0
Kawhi Leonard 9,680 323 14.3 49.9% 39.1% 20.6

The year he was drafted, Kawhi Leonard was a 19 year old from San Diego State, a quiet forward who had solid fundamentals, a defensive motor, a work ethic and a fearlessness around the rim. His athletic gifts were off the chart but in 2011 rarely was there institutional outside of the box thinking, like let’s try Leonard and George together for a nightmarish matchup. The league was still traditional.

George Hill was ecstatic on draft night 2011. Leaving the Spurs was palpable but only because he was coming home to Indiana. The facts were unimpeachable: the Gregg Popovich tutorial served George Hill well for three years; Hill was drafted at the bottom of the first round in 2008. He had been in the playoffs every single year of his career. The  elevation of his basketball I.Q via the Spurs system and Hill’s innate temperament of toughness and persistence, plus being 25 years old, made him a desired asset. He had already played in big moments with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker so his game, West to East, one uncompromising coach for another, would hardly make a ripple in the George Hill pond.

Five years later it has come to a close, this gamble.

In a three way deal, George Hill is going to Utah, the Pacers get a true point in Jeff Teague, and Atlanta gets a lottery pick. George Hill never made it to the NBA Finals but he made it to the Eastern Conference Finals twice. The new style Larry Bird wants to play is not a natural fit for George Hill, a combo guard, a good defender. And so it is the obituary, the final nail in the coffin.

What do we know now, five years later?

Giving up Kawhi Leonard is one of the worst deals in NBA history, a player on a Hall of Fame track given up so early. It’s not as bad as Kobe Bryant being traded on draft night but it comes close.

George Hill gave the Pacers his everything during his five year run, but he’s not quick enough nor skilled enough to make an impact on offense in the same way Steph Curry or Kyle Lowry routinely do by shaking off defenders with the dribble and draining threes, even as he plays hard and has high intangibiles. In a point guard league, Hill is not a scorer. It shrinks the defense, allowing Paul George to have to fight off double teams.  Hill is not a rebounding guard ala Russell Westbrook and his athleticism is above average but not explosive. He doesn’t block shots. The most assists George Hill has ever had in a season has been 5.1, in 2014-15. It hardly stacks up against Jeff Teague’s career high of 7.2.  And he’s 30 years old, beginning the backside of his NBA career.

Utah is desperate for point guard help and George Hill will be an experienced upgrade to their patchwork quilt of point guards. It may be exactly what the Jazz need to crack the playoffs since they have been one of the worst assist teams in the league the past few years but dominant defensively so Hill will fit in. But as much as Utah gains, and as much as the Pacers gain with the competent Teague, and as much as neither team is making a long term commitment (both Teague and Hill are on the last year of their deals), it feels like a loss only because George Hill has been a Pacers staple. There is nostalgia too. There is still imaginary thinking, the what could the Pacers have been had Kawhi Leonard been here, that makes this trade seem as if something failed long before George Hill was traded for Jeff Teague.

The Pacers weren’t aggressively forward thinking in 2011 and now they are continuing to fit in with the new NBA standard of quick pace, rapid ball movement, guard scorers. In the meantime, their five year backcourt presence is gone, the 319 games as a Pacer player, the 10,119 minutes point guard. Replacing him is another native, a homegrown product, a playoff veteran and a true point.

Jeff Teague will fit in nicely. He will bring an off the dribble scoring element the Pacers lacked, an offensive threat. He’s not the defender Hill was but his offense has to be accounted for. He has a nice floater in the lane. He can hit timely threes. He is fast to the rim and can drive and dish. He can hit game winners. Better yet, no one will ever point to Jeff Teague and say, we could have had Kawhi Leonard.


photo via llananba