In June of 2011, Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird and new coach Frank Vogel had stirred excitement in the local fanbase to the extent that most of us were finally ready to embrace the team that Bird had put together through a long rebuilding process. As the draft approached, the general feeling was that the Pacers were just a shooting guard away from standing toe-to-toe with the best teams in the NBA, and the draft-day deal that brought George Hill home to Indiana seemed to complete the circle. Three years later, though, Kawhi Leonard’s breakout in Game 3 of the 2014 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat reminded me that there was another side to that deal with the San Antonio Spurs, and it may yet turn out that Leonard was the true bargain in the swap.
As I watched the 2011 draft unfold, I was pretty confused when the Pacers chose Leonard with the number 15 pick in the first round. Indiana already had star forwards Danny Granger and Paul George in the fold, so Leonard seemed to be just another swingman to work into an already crowded mix. Before he could even get the Pacers baseball cap settled on his head, though, Leonard was traded to the Spurs and Hill was on his way to Indiana. All across the Hoosier heartland, fans breathed a sigh of relief because George Hill fit the Pacers vision so well. He would be a nearly perfect finishing touch to Bird’s masterpiece.
The problem is, at least in terms of championship aspirations, is that Hill has fit in almost too well in Indiana. He is another in a long line of recent Pacers who are stalwart defenders and imminently reliable, but bring too little in the way of fire or offensive firepower to the floor. In many ways, the Pacers remind me of the Moneyball Oakland A’s teams that Billy Beane built in the early 2000s. Both franchises hit on a milquetoast formula that allowed them to pile up regular-season victories but still fall flat in the playoffs. As Beane famously lamented , this stuff “doesn’t work in the playoffs.”
Meanwhile, Kawhi Leonard has begun to push through the ceiling that many predicted for him. Always a lockdown defender at San Diego State, Leonard has beefed up his offensive chops in the cocoon of San Antonio’s star-studded huddle to the point that he can control a game at both ends of the floor. While Hill and George have stagnated to some extent in Indiana, Leonard continues to improve in Texas, and he brings an excitement level that the Pacers have lacked for years. In fact, Indiana’s blandness is one reason that Lance Stephenson’s antics may be tolerated, even embraced, by locals as he hits free agency this summer.
As it turns out, the answer to the Pacers’ long-term needs on offense, along with the competitive fire to rival Stephenson sans the drama, may have dropped into their laps when Leonard fell to them in that fateful draft three years ago. That they weren’t prepared to grasp that opportunity probably says more about Larry Bird’s commitment to his vision than it does about any deficiencies in the Pacers’ current talent base, and it’s hard to fault that.
Still, as a Pacers fan, I can’t help wonder where the current team would be were Kawhi Leonard in the starting lineup. If recent history is any indication, it seems likely that the Blue and Gold would be riding Leonard’s momentum into the NBA Finals this June rather than hitting the links as yet another draft approaches. As it is, Larry Bird is still looking for that magical finishing touch.