We recently took a look at some of the worst moves the Spurs have made in recent history. It might have been tough to relive some of those, but they indirectly led to the good spot where the franchise is now, so the suffering wasn’t in vain.
Now it’s time to look at the best moves. First, some rules. No wild predictions for the future. Picking Victor Wembanyama first will possibly be at the top of the list in a few years, but he hasn’t played a single game yet. Second, we do have hindsight. If a move was good at the time but didn’t end up being beneficial in the long run, it won’t make the list.
With that in mind, let’s get into it.
3 - The Spurs select Keldon Johnson with the 29th pick of the 2019 draft
The Spurs made a lot of good selections in the tail end of the first round over the past 10 years, but let’s stick to the one who is still around. Keldon Johnson was a highly touted recruit for Kentucky and had a solid season with the Wildcats but still fell in the draft. He was being projected to go in the lottery at one point, but his stock dropped as teams wondered whether his inconsistent shooting would make him a tough fit at the wing in the modern NBA. Even the Spurs passed on him once, as they selected Luka Samanic with the 19th pick. Then seven other teams also went in a different direction (Boston passed on him twice) before San Antonio pounced with the pick they got from moving Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors.
It took Johnson a while to find his place in the rotation, but once he did in the Orlando bubble, it became clear that he was special. Since then he has become a core member of the team and has shown progress in most facets of his game, earning a multi-year extension. Last season he averaged 22 points, five rebounds and three assists per game and he’s entering his prime. Off the floor, the charismatic Johnson has become a fan favorite and is clearly beloved by his teammates and trusted by the coaching staff. He was one of the biggest bright spots on some mediocre seasons and could be an integral part of the young core going forward, either as a starter or a reserve. Not bad for the second to last pick of the first round on an iffy draft.
2 - The Spurs sign LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency
After winning the title in the 2013/14 season, the Spurs were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in a hard-fought seven-game series by the Clippers. It was clear that the team needed an injection of talent as it transitioned away from the Big Three era, who were all past their prime at that point. Luckily the Spurs could create enough cap space to target a star in free agency and LaMarcus Aldridge was looking for greener pastures that summer. San Antonio had to trade Tiago Splitter to make room for the All-Star, but the sacrifice made sense at the time and looks better in retrospect, as Splitter’s injuries led to his retirement shortly after. The addition was arguably the biggest in a long time and maybe ever for the franchise in free agency and extended the contention window past Tim Duncan’s retirement — or at least it would have had Kawhi Leonard not demanded a trade.
Aldridge’s tenure in San Antonio wasn’t Idilyc. In his first playoff run with the Spurs, he struggled at times against the Thunder in the second round, as the Silver and Black were eliminated. He temporarily wanted out, but was convinced to stay by Gregg Popovich. The next season the team made it to the conference finals but was swept by the Warriors after Leonard got Zaza Pachulia’d. After that, Leonard was out for most of the next year and forced his way out, assuring that Aldridge wouldn’t get the title he was seeking when he originally signed. For the most part, though, Aldridge held up his end of the bargain with San Antonio during the good years and he had a fantastic season carrying the team to the playoffs while Leonard sat out plotting his exit.
1 - The Spurs trade Dejounte Murray to the Hawks for three first-round picks and a pick swap
Murray was the best pick the Spurs made in the bottom of the first round, edging out Johnson and Derrick White, so why was trading him the best move of the last 10 years? Because it finally gave San Antonio a path to follow in terms of roster construction. The process started when White was moved to the Celtics mid-way through the 2021/22 season but it wasn’t until Murray was traded to the Hawks in the summer that it became clear that the days of having veterans around while hoping for some of the good but not great young players to suddenly turn into superstars were over. The Spurs committed to bottoming out just in time to get a real potential centerpiece in Victor Wembanyama instead of settling for mediocrity, which was a welcomed sight.
The specifics of the trade just make the decision even better. At the time it seemed strange that moving Murray was even discussed but we now know that the young point guard wasn’t happy in San Antonio. The fact that the Spurs managed to move him for three first-rounders and a swap without taking any bad long-term contracts is surprising. The front office capitalized on a time in which franchises were happy to throw future assets for immediate help, and they got some good ones. Even if the Hornets’ pick turns into two second-rounders instead of conveying as a first, having Atlanta’s picks in 2025, 2026 (swap) and 2027 is a tremendous return, especially considering the uncertainty that surrounds this Hawks’ core. This move was not only good when it happened as it partially resulted in Wembanyama wearing Silver and Black, but it could pay off greatly in the future as well.
Do you agree with the order, Spurs fans? Is there a move you think should have made the list? Let us know in the comments.