Every Wednesday, Pick and Popovich will dive down the rabbit hole and explore a different NBA “What if.” The only rule is that the scenario must come from a place that is somewhat realistic and grounded in at least somewhat believable rumor or hearsay. Otherwise, anything goes.
Larry Bird knows the value of depth better than anyone. After all, he did play on a championship team that brought Hall of Famer Bill Walton off of the bench. When it comes right down to it, he doesn’t care how badly his Pacers need a point guard. He just knows that Kawhi Leonard is too valuable a pick at No. 15 to trade for San Antonio’s George Hill. Besides, if the Spurs want him so badly, he must be pretty damn good.
And as a rookie, Leonard is pretty damn good. He can’t shoot at all, but he shows flashes of brilliance when paired with fellow youngster Paul George. The pair is just so athletic, their defensive potential is limitless. The only problem? Indiana already has a star wing in Danny Granger. So Indiana decides to kill two birds with one stone. In the 2012 offseason they reach back out to San Antonio. If they still want to trade George Hill for a small forward, Granger is available in a swap. The Spurs accept, and it turns out to be one of the biggest mistakes in franchise history.
Granger spends most of the 2012-13 season injured. He never returns to his previous form, and neither do the Spurs. Hill, meanwhile, does wonders for Indiana. He completes Indiana’s league-best defense by giving them one of the NBA’s biggest point guards. The Pacers have no holes on that end of the floor, and in Leonard, George and Roy Hibbert, have arguably the three best defensive players in the NBA by the 2013-14 season.
The road block is Miami. The Pacers just can’t score well enough to knock LeBron James off. The Heat win three consecutive championships from 2012-14, and beat Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals in the last two of those seasons.
Bird decides that enough is enough after that second loss. He shockingly trades veteran leader David West to clear the money below the luxury tax line to bring back sixth man Lance Stephenson. This represents a major shift in organizational philosophy for the Pacers, as they move Stephenson into the starting lineup and shift George to power forward. They hope that adding another creator and more shooting will finally give their offense the boost it needs to get past Miami.
The Miami problem eventually solves itself. Chris Bosh develops blood clots that sideline him for the entire second half of the 2014-15 season. Of course, the Heat are replaced by a far newer worry. The rise of Golden State in the West gives Indiana a formidable opponent in the NBA Finals. The series sees the NBA’s top defense play against it’s best offense in what some are calling a battle for basketball’s soul.
Ultimately, it’s defense that prevails. Stephenson gets in Curry’s head with trash talking and somewhat dirty defense, and by the time he’s back to his old self the Pacers have a 2-1 lead in the series and home court advantage. They lose Game 5 on the road, but take Games 4 and 6 at home to win the championship.
The pundits can’t get enough of it. Once and for all, it seems, defense has triumphed over offense. There’s no way those jump-shooting Warriors could ever defeat a gritty group like Indiana, they say. But both teams are young. They have plenty more battles ahead of them. One thing’s for sure: the Pacers made the right decision in keeping Kawhi Leonard.