Spurs kick off Victor Wembanyama derby by making the sort of trade they should’ve with Kawhi Leonard

It’s hard not to be slightly underwhelmed by San Antonio’s return for Dejounte Murray at first. Charlotte’s 2023 first-round pick is so heavily protected it might only ever convey as second-rounders. Unprotected control over Atlanta’s first-round picks from 2025-2027 looks a bit more enticing until you realize how young their team is. Those will be Trae Young’s age 26-28 seasons. Murray will be 30 when the last pick changes hands. 

Barring injuries or a team-wide split, those picks probably aren’t going to be especially valuable. The only player headed back to San Antonio is Danillo Gallinari, who is likely to be waived and was included only because his partially guaranteed contract was the most palatable salary ballast. Murray is a 25-year-old All-Star with two years left on a contract that is well below market-value. If the Spurs aren’t getting commensurate value back in terms of players or picks, what are they really getting?

A 14 percent chance at French center Victor Wembanyama, that’s what. For those of you who don’t obsessively track European teenagers, Wembanyama is going to be the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. He is, by nearly universal consensus, the highest-rated prospect to enter the draft since at least Zion Williamson in 2019. Some believe we must go back as far as 2003, when a 16-year-old kid from Akron had already been dubbed the chosen one, to find a better prospect. Imagine stretching out Anthony Davis by a few inches and giving him a more reliable jumper. “The ultimate goal is to acquire Giannis Antetokounmpo’s strength and conditioning, and Kevin Durant’s skills,” Wembanya has said. That’s the sort of prospect we’re talking about here. The Spurs were the first team to make a transparent play for the French MonStar. They won’t be the last.

It’s the hidden value baked into almost every superstar trade. The best thing a team typically gets when it gives away its best player are the extra ping pong balls on lottery night that the player in question was preventing them from accumulating. In 2013, Jrue Holiday was very similar to what Murray is now: a 23-year-old one-time All-Star with an inconsistent jump shot. The picks Philadelphia actually traded for him didn’t amount to much: Nerlens Noel, Dario Saric and a future first-rounder. But moving off of Holiday was the catalyst that pushed a 34-win team down to only 19 a year later. That gave them the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft: Joel Embiid.

The player empowerment era is littered with such outcomes. Remember the outcry when New Orleans only managed to turn Chris Paul into an unhappy Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman and Al-Farouq Aminu? The deal suddenly looked a lot better when the subsequent tank job also produced Anthony Davis. While Davis himself wasn’t traded until the 2019 offseason, the mid-season trade request that led up to it wound up helping New Orleans lose enough games to land Zion Williamson a few months later. Jalen Green and Jabari Smith are Rockets right now precisely because Houston didn’t trade James Harden for the established veteran in Ben Simmons.

This isn’t an exact science, of course. The Orlando Magic can attest to that. Lottery balls were the primary return on their 2012 trade of Dwight Howard, but they just never bounced Orlando’s way. In a four-year span, Orlando came one pick short of Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis and De’Aaron Fox. They instead settled on Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja and Jonathan Isaac and remained in the wilderness until the lottery gods smiled on them when Paolo Banchero became available.

But no asset in basketball is more valuable than your own first-round picks because they are the only assets in basketball whose value a team can theoretically control. Own picks that originally belong to someone else and you’re at the mercy of the other team’s competence. You might get lucky and land Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. More often, you’re winding up in the teens at best.

That’s where the Spurs have largely spent the past four drafts. The Spurs have picked 19th, 12th, 11th and ninth since 2019. As encouraging as Murray’s development was, they’ve predictably been unable to find a franchise-altering superstar or win a single playoff series in that span. They were trapped in a purgatory of their own making.

The Spurs could have initiated a rebuild when Kawhi Leonard wanted out. Instead, they swapped him for an inferior veteran in DeMar DeRozan and stayed in the middle. Had they taken the alternative path, they might have been more motivated to keep Murray as a supporting piece to some superior cornerstone. Even a minor step back could have changed everything. Toronto lost Leonard after the 2019 title, but tanked their way into Scottie Barnes two years later. They won only six fewer games than the 2021 Spurs, but managed to cycle all the way from contender to rebuilder to contender again before the Spurs even committed to a path.

That was the true motivation behind this trade. The best-case outcome here is Wembanyama, but the 86 percent chance that they don’t get him even if they have the NBA‘s worst record doesn’t need to be crippling, either. The 2023 Draft has a number of possible All-Stars, but even if they don’t get one, there will be chances in subsequent drafts as well. It might not be as quick as Toronto’s reload was, but the first step in building a contender is admitting that you don’t currently have one.

The Spurs hadn’t until today. They won their five championships because the draft gave them Tim Duncan. That’s the sort of franchise-altering talent needed to win titles, and it’s the kind of player Murray’s presence never would have allowed them to pursue in earnest. Maybe they could have found that kind of player later in the draft. They did it once when they picked Leonard 15th in the first place. But even if their chance of landing Wembanyama can’t exceed 14 percent, those odds are a heck of a lot higher than those of finding another mega star where they had been picking before. Even if it came four years too late, the Spurs are finally acknowledging how much easier it is to rebuild from the bottom than the middle.

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