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The Dejounte Murray trade shows the Spurs are finally embracing a full rebuild

The move almost certainly sets the Spurs’ return to relevancy back years, but is probably the right decision nonetheless.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Portland Trail Blazers Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

In a move that no one could have seen coming weeks ago, the Spurs have agreed to trade Dejounte Murray to the Hawks in exchange for Danilo Gallinari, a 2023 first round pick by way of the Hornets, plus Atlanta’s 2025 and 2027 unprotected first round picks, and a future pick swap.

The move comes as a slight surprise, despite reports about the framework of the negotiation going back for days. It simply never felt like the Spurs were going to be motivated to move Murray unless they could get a king’s ransom back, which the good-but-not-contending Hawks would have understandably been hesitant to provide. In the end, Atlanta’s desire to pair Murray with Trae Jones was strong enough to justify putting together a trade package that was too good for San Antonio to pass up.

Considered in isolation, the trade makes a lot of sense. The Spurs failed to make the playoffs last season, despite Murray’s leap, and would have likely been in the race for the play-in again, at best, in 2022/23. The All-Star point guard is entering the second to last year of his very team-friendly contract, so this was arguably the last and certainly the best chance San Antonio had to get a good haul back for him, since it would have been harder to retain leverage as Murray’s free agency got closer. With the three rookies selected in the draft, there are now eight players under 23 years-old in the roster, while Dejounte is already 25 and at the early stages of his prime. Fully embracing a true rebuild is reasonable.

The problem is it’s a few years late, and it would have been more reasonable to do so the second Kawhi Leonard forced his way out in 2018. Four years ago, Murray was coming off his first season as a rotation player, in which he had shown enough promise to take over the starting spot from Tony Parker. Had the Spurs moved Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge for picks and young players then, they would have spent the past years trying to build around Murray with players his age. Instead, they traded for a veteran that kept them competitive but delayed the youth movement that always seemed necessary. At the time, it simply looked like the Spurs were refusing to bottom out, but ultimately they were just delaying the inevitable.

Now, San Antonio will find itself with a very young core and no centerpiece. It would be accurate to say that Murray wasn’t a franchise player, but he at least had legitimate All-Star potential, which he fulfilled. No one else on the roster right now seems particularly close to reaching those heights any time soon. Perhaps that’s what actually motivated the trade, as the front office simply figured that it made no sense to go forward with Murray as the team’s best player, but it sets San Antonio back nonetheless. Those who were excited about a potential return to the playoffs soon should lower their expectations, unless there are a few more big moves coming. It looks like the bottom of the West is a more realistic possibility than a postseason berth right now.

While the trade doesn’t offer a lot of hope for the immediate future, it will likely prove to be the right decision in the long run. The Spurs now have all their future draft picks, plus three extra first rounders with which to build. They could patiently add young players through the draft until they get one or two All-NBA-caliber prospects, or they could make a big move for a true franchise star in the future by using all the assets they have accrued. The move also likely opens up more cap space to use in free agency, since Gallinari is on a partially guaranteed deal. San Antonio could use that room to absorb salary in exchange for even more draft capital or to make a run at several pieces. There are a lot of positive aspects to it.

In the moment, it’s hard to feel too excited about this trade, since it clearly made a Spurs team that had proved to be fun and competitive worse in the short term, but it feels like the type of move that could pay off greatly down the line. While it’s fair to wonder why it took the franchise this long to commit to a rebuilding style, at least now it’s clear what the future has in store.

A fanbase that has already patiently waited for a return to relevancy will likely have to endure a few more lean years, but the eventual payoff could be worth it.