Bradley Beal has been traded. It’s not a surprise that he got moved, but he did manage to land in Phoenix, his preferred destination, largely because of a no-trade clause. The transaction didn’t provide a great return for Washington, but it should allow them to finally move on. Now all the eyes turn to the Trail Blazers and Damian Lillard, as they become the new protagonists of the trade market.
The Spurs were not really rumored to be interested in Beal and will probably not be involved with whatever the Blazers do, but the news is still relevant to them in a more oblique way. Both the Trail Blazers and the Wizards give us a good look at how things could have gone if San Antonio hadn’t picked the path it did last season and embraced a rebuild.
It’s important to start by acknowledging that both Beal and especially Lillard are much better players than Dejounte Murray. That’s not necessarily a knock on Murray but praise for those other two guards who made the decisions of their front offices harder. They were also drafted by those franchises, so there’s a level of attachment that wasn’t there in San Antonio with DeMar DeRozan when he was the team’s best player. What they all have in common is that they were at one point the only star on teams that decided to stay competitive instead of tanking, which made acquiring the type of running mate they needed difficult. The front offices took some big swings in some trades and nailed a few draft picks, but ultimately fell short of actually putting together a supporting cast good enough to contend. At times, even remaining competitive was a challenge.
After facing that reality, the Spurs decided that moving on sooner rather than later was the way to go. They arguably took longer than they should have to reach that conclusion, but by first letting DeRozan go and then executing two trades in a few months sending out Derrick White and Dejounte Murray they finally picked a direction. DeRozan was probably going to leave no matter what, but the decision to trade Murray before he re-entered free agency looks better in retrospect because even though he wouldn’t have gotten a no-trade clause as Beal did, he could have become a max-level player that would have been harder to move, leaving the Spurs only a few suitors to pick from if they decided to trade him later. As a result of moving fast, they got a great haul and finally kickstarted their rebuilding process.
The Wizards made the mistake of not only holding on for too long but also overcommitting to their homegrown star, and are now paying for it. They were trying to make things work with John Wall at one point, just like the Spurs tried to make the Murray-DeRozan pairing work, and Beal’s injuries didn’t make things easier for them, but there were opportunities to move him sooner. They didn’t take them so they put themselves in a precarious position in which Beal held all the cards. To their credit, they tried to make things work before it became clear that they wouldn’t by pulling off a big move for Kristaps Porzingis and adding some decent pieces around Beal, but seemingly didn't realize that he wasn’t a true franchise player. In the end, they only delayed the inevitable and now Beal is gone for a modest haul.
While the Wizards represent what would have likely happened in San Antonio if the front office had refused to rebuild and instead held on to either DeRozan or Murray as their centerpiece, what’s happening in Portland could end up showing us a glimpse of how things would have gone if the Spurs had gone all in on their past core. Again, Lillard is much better than anyone San Antonio had after Kawhi Leonard but has not been able to win at a high level in Portland as the top dog asides from a surprising trip to the conference finals. Part of that was because he always had a flawed supporting cast, but since Joe Cronin took over as general manager, they added Jerami Grant and are rumored to be shopping the third overall pick in the next draft and Anfernee Simons for more immediate help. They are not committed to a full rebuild, at least yet.
Portland essentially took the hybrid approach of building through the draft while adding veterans that the Spurs had before cleaning house. It’s a valid way to try to put together a good team without tanking, but the margin of error is tiny. If they keep the pick, they need to hope that Shaedon Sharpe and whoever they get at No. 3 turn into stars. If they move the pick and Anfernee Simons like they are rumored to be exploring, they need to get the right two-way star wing to complement Lillard or a center who is a huge upgrade over Jusuf Nurkic. Otherwise, they’ll still be stuck between the play-in area and a low seed until Lillard ages out of his prime or grows impatient. It would probably be good for the league if they succeed and show that tanking is not the only way to build a truly competitive team, but the odds seem stacked against them.
Different franchises operate in different ways and timing is everything in the league. The Spurs' front office was far from perfect over the past few years and their rebuild wouldn’t be looking as good without the help of the ping-pong balls. The comparisons to the Wizards and Trail Blazers make Brian Wright and the other San Antonio decision-makers look good now, but who knows what will happen in the future? Nothing is settled.
It is, however, important to look at how different organizations operate under similar circumstances and how things turn out for them since those instances give us something more tangible than just our imaginations to use when comparing the current state of the Spurs as opposed to what it could have been. And at least for now, it seems San Antonio picked the right path.