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The top pick of the 2023 draft might be the most valuable asset in the league

The Spurs’ tanking season culminated with the ultimate reward in the form of the chance to draft Victor Wembanyama. But could there be a scenario where trading the pick would make sense?

NBA: Draft Lottery David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

If you were Brian Wright, what would it take for you to trade the top pick?

Marilyn Dubinski: Nothing, because it will never happen. The Spurs chose this exact season to tank for this exact prospect, and to actually get him against all the odds shows fate is on their side. Just the idea of him is already raking in potential new season ticket holders, and there is not a single young or in-his-prime player with higher upside than Wembanyama, except maybe Nikola Jokic. But even then, think of Jokic as peak Tim Duncan in 2003 (nearly the same age and 2x MVP!): the Cavs weren’t going to trade the intrigue of a younger, potentially higher-upside player who was destined to be there in LeBron James for Duncan. Trading the top pick when there’s a generational talent for the taking is something that just doesn’t happen.

Mark Barrington: I’ve tried to imagine a scenario where Brian would make a trade, and my imagination fails me. Short of some sort of blackmail or extreme skullduggery, there’s nothing that could make the Spurs pass up the unique opportunity that they have been given by the magic lottery balls. This is kismet, destiny, and the only way it can be.

Bruno Passos: Realistically, there are creative trades involving superstars that would seem to be fair value. (Yes, sure, whatever godfather scenario you’re picturing is probably one of them.) But professionally, as Brian Wright, the man who’s just hit the GM jackpot after a well-timed, carefully orchestrated and wildly providential tank? There’s too much to risk in any misstep that involves trading Victor and too much to gain on a personal level from taking your time and letting the process play out.

Jesus Gomez: Wemby means hope and you don’t trade away hope. Would the Spurs be better in the next couple of years if they could acquire, say, Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum for the top pick? Sure. Would it be safer to just get any established, durable NBA superstar? Absolutely. But no option seems as appealing as getting a potentially transcendental homegrown player that could not only bring a few good years to San Antonio but another dynasty if he actually lives up to his tremendous potential.

How big of an impact do you think Victor Wembanyama alone could have next year in terms of wins and losses?

Dubinski: If the PATFO releases the Spurs from tanking (which they absolutely should), they should be a play-in team at worst, especially with the West likely staying relatively down. It would be asking a lot for him to pull a Duncan and produce a 35-game turnaround (which at 55 wins would have put the Spurs in the top seed this season) since he doesn’t have the same supporting cast waiting for him, but the Spurs have the pieces on the current squad to be at least a .500-win team with Wemby and the freedom to actually try and win games. The goal should be a postseason appearance next season while growing and learning together, then continue to tweak things around him from there.

Barrington: It’s hard to say how quickly Wembanyama will adjust to the NBA game. I really want to temper expectations and caution people from expecting too much right away, but it’s hard not to get carried away with his unique combination of elite ball skills, great court awareness, and otherworldly length and athleticism. I expect that he will be good this year, but not nearly as good as he will be once his body fills out a bit and he gets more experience in the league. The Spurs should make the playoffs this year, but I don’t expect them to contend for a few years as they build the team around Wembanyama.

Passos: He’s such a unique talent that you almost have to separate the possible impact on defense, where you can almost see the 2K cheat code in your mind’s eye, and offense where he’s still just a big ball of (extremely fun) putty. I think the latter takes more time as he learns his preferred spots and adjusts to the NBA pace and physicality and opponents’ laser focus, but I do believe he can more immediately transform a Spurs defense that was last in the league last season. While rookies usually start out as negatives on that end, most of them don’t have 8-foot wingspans and his level of mobility, and it doesn’t seem out of the question that San Antonio can push the top half or better in defensive rating. Combine that with more upside for last year’s 29th-ranked offense and I’ll conservatively project a 13-win impact from Wemby, with additional improvements on the cards if other players take leaps and if the front office complements his arrival with other upgrades.

Gomez: It will all depend on whether the Spurs remain in tank mode. They weren’t as bad as their record indicated last year when their best players were on the floor together. It just didn’t happen that often because of all the lineup changes and strategic resting. If the plan is to do the same, Wemby alone won’t make much of a difference as a rookie. If the team decides that it’s time to win as much as possible again, however, simply having a long, athletic rim protector who can run the floor will raise their ceiling significantly. If he can be even more than just that right off the bat, the play-in would be realistic.

Would you feel different about the decision to tank had the Spurs not gotten the top pick?

Dubinski: I would still understand it. The Spurs were clearly stuck in mediocrity with no savior coming to pull them back into the upper third of the league anytime soon. As much as we all love Derrick White and would love to have him back, he’s a glorified role player, and despite making an All-Star appearance, Dejounte Murray isn’t the type of player who will lift a team very far on his own. This is a such deep draft with several high-upside players that it was the right year to go for one of them, even if it didn’t end up being Wemby. The difference is, without the top pick, there might have been another round of tanking. (I’m glad the Spurs don’t have to turn into the present-day Rockets.)

Barrington: I wouldn’t feel any differently. The Spurs got lucky this year, but any great success has at least a small element of good fortune. Even if the gamble hadn’t paid off as spectacularly as it did on May 16, the Spurs were in line to get a good player that made them a lot better. And while losing games can be tough on the psyche, I actually enjoyed watching the games this year. Would we have had a chance to see Mamukelashvili in a Spurs uniform this year without the tank? I doubt it. While the bottom line results were tilted toward the negative this season, there were lots of positive stories and inspiring moments, and it was an experience that I both treasure and don’t want to repeat anytime soon.

Passos: I never actually expected them to win the lottery and still understood the reason behind bottoming out. The roster wasn’t good enough and there were too few of pathways back to the top. Still, there’s no question that this adds some sheen to the timing and execution of the tank. What felt like a nebulous, multi-year slog now has structure, timeline and extremely high upside.

Gomez: Not at all. It was just the first year and even if they had not gotten the first pick, they would have been able to add another high-upside young player. Moreover, the best thing about the decision to tank was that the front office actually chose a path. Not knowing what the Spurs were trying to do was the most frustrating thing about the post-Kawhi years. As painful as last season was at times, it at least seemed to be leading to something, which is all I wanted.