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The Spurs reset the timeline, in earnest

Trading your franchise point guard isn’t meant to be popular or easy. In their most deliberate move of the post-Kawhi era, the Spurs turned their star guard into a trove of assets and begin moving towards a new future.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

That line about smoke and fire proved true for the Spurs, as percolating reports from different outlets and fan incredulity gave way to a bona fide blockbuster deal on Wednesday, with San Antonio sending All-Star guard Dejounte Murray to Atlanta in exchange for Danilo Gallinari and a bounty of picks and pick swaps.

Thus concludes this chapter of Murray’s inspirational personal journey. In an otherwise forgettable stretch in San Antonio, he developed into the team’s lone star; a resoundingly successful development project who, at 25, may still have another level to hit; the rising talent who, in a post-Kawhi world, embraced the organization and its fanbase. There’s both a basketball and human value that’s hard to parse but will be collectively felt in the fallout.

This begins new stage of team-building in which the Spurs seemingly embrace the long view and plunge, in earnest, deeper into the crevasse. While there was a case for a small market such as San Antonio to build on that kind of piece rather than reset, there are also reasons this particular team still decided to pull the trigger now, between timing Murray’s market value on his current contract, a stacked Western Conference, and the roster’s upside as constructed. It’s worth noting that the front office had previously framed the 2021-22 season as one about evaluation in the same breath as development, and the learnings of that appear to have informed the new direction the organization seems to be headed.

On the court, the Dejounte-less Spurs don’t look like world-beaters — and that’s probably part of the point. Murray inherited a lion’s share of the usage left behind by the veterans who left last summer. While he wasn’t exactly the epitome of efficiency in those reps or a rising tide for team offense, he did his best to steady the ship and provide some kind of logic to possessions, especially in high-leverage situations.

The numbers unsurprisingly point to an offensive drop-off, at least in the short term. Those include what would be left of the team’s “clutch” time usage and overall on-ball reps. Murray was 6th in the league in plays finished as a ball-handler with 711 possessions, followed by now-Celtic Derrick White (2nd on the team) at 226 and Lonnie Walker at 213. Your longest tenured guys on the roster on the roster now? No one goes back further than 2018 when they traded for Jakob Poeltl and selected Walker. The former has one year left on his contract; the latter’s a restirced free agent. If the Spurs continue an aggressive reset, it’s worth wondering what other chips from the existing core may fall, and how that may further position them for the purportedly loaded 2023 Draft.

Some will criticize the timing, or at least the time it took to arrive here. After years of brewing curiosity over what a Murray-White backcourt of the future may look like, both guards end up off the roster in a matter of months — a dramatic reversal from when the team resisted bottoming out through DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge’s tenures. If there was a narrative still to push of an organization simultaneously competing while retooling, of tethering itself to what remains of the Gregg Popovich era, that’s effectively gone.

Team building, however, is non-linear; circumstances and outlooks change, and sometimes the only move worse than reacting late is doing nothing at all. Through these last few seasons of self-evaluation, and in holding out for and then getting a robust return for Murray, the Spurs completed their due diligence with what they have, what pieces they can add, and where they ultimately want to go; with today’s moves, they’re better positioned to get back there.