The Spurs and Hawks, opponents on Thursday, are inextricably linked by a risky and franchise-defining transaction. The Dejounte Murray trade sealed Atlanta’s commitment to winning in the short term at the expense of a high upside and affirmed San Antonio’s decision to bottom out and try to build a true contender through the draft.
The move will have ripple effects for years on both teams and will arguably determine how the front offices that made it are judged. Yet, the boring reality is that it was nothing more than the obvious choice for both franchises at the time.
The Spurs traded Murray to the Hawks in the summer of 2022. The rumors leading up to the transaction seemingly came out of nowhere, as San Antonio had refused to bottom out in the past, and Murray had just finished an All-Star season. Atlanta already had a centerpiece point guard in place in Trae Young and didn’t exactly look like it was one piece away from contention. At the time, Brian Wright’s asking price seemed too steep, almost as if he was trying to scare away a suitor. Despite all those signs pointing to a trade being unlikely, it went through. The Hawks went all in, trading three first-round picks and a pick swap for Murray, and the Spurs embraced their rebuild.
Even at the time, most people said the Spurs came out on top. Murray is a great talent but not a franchise player, so the Hawks essentially cashed in their chips for a chance at being a lower seed in the playoffs for the foreseeable future. A return to the perennial mediocrity that characterized the Joe Johnson era seems in the cards. The fact that better players became available for a similar price shortly after the trade was completed doesn’t help the optics for Atlanta, but they at least extended Murray, so they won’t lose him for nothing. Still, unless Quin Snyder somehow gets this roster to overachieve or the front office pulls off a heist and gets another star, the Hawks seem doomed to be judged as shortsighted and unambitious when people look back at the transaction.
The reality is, they were just pragmatic. The Hawks front office probably knew that trading for Murray wouldn’t make them a contender, but Trae Young was getting restless, Dejounte was available, and they probably thought he was the best they could get. Everyone wants to play for a championship, but that just isn’t possible. Not selecting Luka Doncic was the true defining moment the franchise made, and now they have to deal with the reality of their circumstances. Young is good enough to give them the type of success that keeps them out of the top of the lottery, so tanking was not an option as soon as he came into his own, and Atlanta has not been a free agent destination. They had to add talent somehow if they hoped to remain relevant after a fluky but deep playoff run in 2021. Under that lens, it’s hard to judge the decision too harshly.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Spurs seem bold and ambitious for pulling the trigger to build a future contender, but forced pragmatism guided them as well. Remember, bottoming out was their last resort. They experienced self-inflected respectable mediocrity in the DeRozan-Aldridge era and seemed willing to continue on that path. If Marcus Morris had not backed out of his deal, DeMarre Carroll had actually worked out, and the Spurs had kept their playoff streak alive, who knows where they would be right now. It’s understandable to think “the Spurs have done it again” in hindsight when looking at what has immediately come after the Murray trade for Atlanta and San Antonio, but assigning retroactive foresight to a front office that looked aimless for years might be too charitable or too naive.
If things continue to go as they seem like they will, the Spurs, armed with extra picks and cap flexibility and led by one of the most unique talents in basketball history, will be near the top of the standings in the next few years. The Hawks, locked into a great but not transcendent backcourt duo, will probably miss those picks they surrender to get Murray as they struggle to make a leap.
The narrative will paint one franchise as smart and the other as shortsighted for making the move that links them, but in reality both simply made the only decision that made sense at the time in order to amend past mistakes or lessen their adverse results. Nothing more, nothing less. Timing, fortune and circumstances matter more in the NBA than most decision-makers would probably like to admit.