There’s no denying that the San Antonio Spurs built its dynasty through the draft.
Their Hall of Fame players David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili were all products of the Spurs’ success in selecting talent — may it be from the lottery or late rounds.
In hindsight, the Spurs have had more success with their draft picks and free-agent signings rather than their trade acquisitions.
Truth be told, San Antonio has had some blunders in terms of giving away talent in trade deals. Prior to the 2019-20 campaign, they unnecessarily shipped Latvian sniper Davis Bertans to the Washington Wizards in order to clear a spot for Marcus Morris. We all know how that turned out.
Still, the Spurs have completed several deals that greatly benefited them in the long run. Let’s rank three of the best trades in the team’s rich history.
3. Buying/Trading for George Gervin in 1974
Long before “The Admiral” established himself as the Spurs’ star, George Gervin was once considered the main man in Texas. In fact, “The Iceman” was actually considered the Spurs’ first-ever mainstream star in the ‘70s and mid-’80s.
He initially starred for the Virginia Squires in the ABA, before financial issues plagued the franchise. The Spurs pounced quickly, shelling out $228,000 to the bankrupt franchise to obtain his services.
Following his success in the ABA, Gervin was supposed to play for the Phoenix Suns when they drafted him in 1974. However, the 6-foot-7 swingman elected to stay with San Antonio and was still with the team when they joined the NBA following the 1976 merger.
Gervin used his signature “finger-roll” lay-up to perfection on his way to 26,595 career points. He was 9-time All-Star and a four-time scoring champion under the Spurs banner.
Gervin is the second leading scorer in Spurs history (behind Tim Duncan) and retired with the most blocks by any guard in NBA history. He has since been passed by Dwyane Wade and Michael Jordan.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t lead the Spurs past the WCF during his 11-year stint with the team.
2. George Hill to the Indiana Pacers for 15th (Leonard) and 42nd (Bertans) pick of 2011 draft
Given their aging roster at the time, the Spurs brass understandably wanted to get a couple of young players to inject some youth in their system. However, given their status as perennial contenders, the team didn’t have high-enough draft picks who could make an immediate impact right away.
They had to make a sacrifice, offering head coach Gregg Popovich’s favorite steward George Hill to the Pacers for a first and second-rounder.
The Pacers (who were picking for the Spurs) used that 15th pick to draft a then little-known forward from San Diego State, Kawhi Leonard. The Klaw, of course, turned out to be the heir apparent to Tim Duncan’s spot as the franchise player. He led the team to its fifth title in 2014, earning himself a Finals MVP plum in the process.
San Antonio certainly wanted a good young player who will fit in their system, but it’s likely that they weren’t expecting Leonard to blossom into the two-way superstar that he is now.
Bertans, meanwhile, was picked by the Spurs at no. 42. He didn’t play right away but became another productive role player once he got a chance to prove himself. He enjoyed one of the best shooting seasons in league history upon being traded to Washington last year.
1. Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jacob Poeltl (2018)
If the stars only aligned right, the Spurs would have never parted ways with Leonard. But following an ugly discord that was surely headed for a messy divorce, the Spurs knew it was time to squeeze out his value and parade him around the market.
Leonard was bound to walk away in the summer of 2019 anyway, and forcing him to stay would only pose chemistry issues for the team. After offering their two-way star to multiple teams, San Antonio elected to ship him out all the way to Canada. This was the Spurs’ parting shot to their disgruntled star, who wished to be traded to either Los Angeles teams.
They managed to flip him for perennial All-Star DeMar DeRozan as well as promising big Jacob Poeltl. Danny Green was a casualty in the deal, but the Spurs do have plenty of younger wingers to take his place.
DeRozan, of course, will never be the defensive threat Leonard was, but it gave the Spurs another top player who can give them buckets consistently.
Leonard eventually got the last laugh, as he led the Raptors to its first-ever Larry O’Brien trophy last season, before fulfilling his wish to play for his hometown team Los Angeles Clippers.