Spurs begin the Victor Wembanyama derby by making the trade they should have made with Kawhi Leonard.

It’s difficult not to be underwhelmed by San Antonio’s return of Dejounte Murray at first. Charlotte’s 2023 first-round pick is so heavily protected that it may only ever be traded as a second-round pick. Unprotected control of Atlanta’s first-round picks from 2025 to 2027 appears more appealing until you consider how young their team is. Trae Young will be 26-28 years old during those seasons. Murray will be 30 years old when the final pick is made.

Unless there are injuries or a team-wide split, those picks are unlikely to be particularly valuable. Danillo Gallinari is the only player returning to San Antonio, and he was only included because his partially guaranteed contract was the most palatable salary ballast. Murray, a 25-year-old All-Star, has two years remaining on a contract that is significantly below market value. What are the Spurs really getting if they don’t get comparable value back in terms of players or draught picks?

That’s a 14% chance on French centre Victor Wembanyama. For those of you who don’t obsessively follow European teenagers, Wembanyama will be the first overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. He is widely regarded as the best prospect to enter the draught since at least Zion Williamson in 2019. Some believe we need to go back to 2003, when a 16-year-old kid from Akron was already dubbed the chosen one, to find a better candidate. Consider stretching Anthony Davis out a few inches and giving him a more consistent jumper. Wembanya stated, “The ultimate goal is to acquire Giannis Antetokounmpo’s strength and conditioning, as well as Kevin Durant’s skills.” That is the type of prospect we are discussing here. The Spurs were the first team to openly support the French MonStar. They are not the last.

It’s the unspoken value in almost every superstar trade. The extra ping pong balls on lottery night that the player in question was preventing the team from accumulating are usually the best thing a team gets when it gives away its best player. In 2013, Jrue Holiday was a 23-year-old one-time All-Star with an inconsistent jump shot, much like Murray is now. The picks Philadelphia actually traded for him were insignificant: Nerlens Noel, Dario Saric, and a future first-round pick. Moving away from Holiday, on the other hand, was the catalyst that reduced a 34-win team to 19 a year later. As a result, they received the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft: Joel Embiid.

Such outcomes abound in the era of player empowerment. Remember when New Orleans only managed to turn Chris Paul into a miserable Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, and Al-Farouq Aminu? When the subsequent tank job produced Anthony Davis, the deal looked a lot better. While Davis was not traded until the 2019 offseason, his mid-season trade request helped New Orleans lose enough games to land Zion Williamson a few months later. Jalen Green and Jabari Smith are Rockets right now because Houston did not trade James Harden for the seasoned veteran Ben Simmons.

Of course, this isn’t an exact science. That is something the Orlando Magic can attest to. Lottery balls were the primary return on their Dwight Howard trade in 2012, but they just never bounced Orlando’s way. Over a four-year period, Orlando finished one pick behind Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, and De’Aaron Fox. Instead, they settled on Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja, and Jonathan Isaac and remained in the wilderness until the lottery gods smiled on them and made Paolo Banchero available.

However, no asset in basketball is more valuable than your own first-round picks because they are the only assets in basketball that a team can theoretically control the value of. Own picks that were originally owned by someone else, and you’re at the mercy of the other team’s skill. You might strike gold and sign Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. More often than not, you’ll end up in your teens.

That’s where the Spurs have spent the majority of their draught capital over the last four years. Since 2019, the Spurs have drafted 19th, 12th, 11th, and ninth. Despite Murray’s progress, the team has been unable to find a franchise-altering superstar or win a single playoff series in that time. They were trapped in a purgatory they had created.

When Kawhi Leonard requested a trade, the Spurs had the option of starting a rebuild. Instead, they traded him for a lesser veteran, DeMar DeRozan, and remained in the middle. They might have been more motivated to keep Murray as a supporting piece to some superior cornerstone if they had taken the other route. Even a small step back could have made all the difference. Toronto lost Leonard after winning the championship in 2019, but tanked their way into Scottie Barnes two years later. They only lost six games fewer than the 2021 Spurs, but they managed to go from contender to rebuilder to contender again before the Spurs even committed to a path.

That was the true reason for this transaction. The best-case scenario is Wembanyama, but the 86 percent chance that they don’t get him even if they have the worst record in the NBA doesn’t have to be crippling. There are several potential All-Stars in the 2023 Draft, but even if they don’t get one, there will be opportunities in subsequent draughts. It may not be as quick as Toronto’s reload, but admitting that you don’t have one is the first step toward creating one.

Until today, the Spurs had not. They won five championships because the draught provided them with Tim Duncan. That’s the kind of franchise-altering talent needed to win championships, and it’s the type of player Murray’s presence would never have allowed them to pursue seriously. Perhaps they could have found a player like that later in the draught. They did it once before when they ranked Leonard 15th. Even if their chances of landing Wembanyama are only 14 percent, those odds are a lot better than the odds of finding another megastar where they were previously picking. Even if it is four years late, the Spurs are finally realising how much easier it is to rebuild from the bottom than from the middle.

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