The fate of Marquese Chriss could have been Dejounte Murray’s

The Spurs made one move at the deadline that was so minuscule in the grand scheme of things as to go mostly unnoticed. They traded a former second round pick who will likely never play in the NBA for an injured center that they immediately released, plus some cash.

When expressed like that, there’s nothing interesting about the transaction. But as soon as the names of those involved are included, things get interesting. Marquese Chriss is not just a young center but a former lottery pick who was showing signs of finally putting it all together before going down with a season-ending injury. That he was traded along with cash for the former 55th pick in the 2015 draft shows how quickly things can go wrong in the NBA and how lucky/smart the Spurs have been in their selections.

The mechanics of the trade are simple enough. For the Warriors, the motivation is clear. By moving Chriss and Brad Wanamaker they reduced their luxury tax bill significantly and gave themselves a little more roster flexibility. The Spurs were just one of the few teams that had an open roster spot and room below the tax line after releasing LaMarcus Aldridge, so they made for a reasonable partner. This really was just a bookkeeping move for both teams, which have now moved on. But the story of Chriss and his fate is interesting, at least insofar as it obliquely intersects with the Spurs — or at least a Spur.

Chriss rocketed up draft boards after a single year at the University of Washington because of his explosive athleticism, despite being raw and lacking the strength to play at the pro level. He was initially not even supposed to declare for the draft after his freshman season, but when the opportunity of going in the first round appeared, he jumped on it. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s almost identical to Dejounte Murray’s story. Both Washington products shared that freshman season and a path to the league and, at first, it seemed Chriss was on a better trajectory.

Unfortunately for Chriss, he didn’t land in as good a spot as his Huskie teammate. The Suns selected both him and fellow power forward Dragan Bender in the top 10, and Chriss was forced to be the starter on a terrible team with a crowded frontcourt rotation while not having an NBA body yet. Murray, meanwhile, joined a contending Spurs roster that brought him alone slowly under the leadership of an established developmental team and surrounded by Hall-of-Famers. In his second season Murray became a starter on a good team while Chriss was starting to be considered a bust. The next year the point guard was on his way to an extension while the big man, by that point in Houston, had his fourth-year option declined.

The comparison helps paint a picture of how fortune plays a part in how players develop. It’s lazy to assume that coaches alone are responsible for the development of young players — and reductionist to say that the environment matters exponentially more than the individual skill and resolve of a prospect, but it’s also hard to argue that Chriss’ career wouldn’t have gone differently if he had landed in San Antonio to be developed slowly while learning from LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol. Going eighth overall instead of 29th might have been the worst thing that happened for Chriss. In terms of luck, even their costly injuries have affected them in different ways, as Dejounte’s happened when he still had promise and Chriss’ took place while he was trying to seize an opportunity to finally establish himself.

At this point we know that Chriss won’t join the Spurs despite being described by Gregg Popovich as “a wonderful guy,” since they will waive him to sign Gorgui Dieng. Yet it’s interesting to play the “what if?” game even if it’s with the current version of Murray’s old teammate. A healthy Chriss would be exactly the type of long, explosive backup center the Spurs could use behind Jakob Poeltl. He’d have been a much-needed lob threat (that Drew Eubanks isn’t quite) while in theory serving as a switchable big on the other end. The Silver and Black might have provided the perfect platform for him to reach his potential, just like they did for his former college point guard. Alas, the only way himself connected to San Antonio was on a salary dump after a broken leg.

Every year there are small transactions at the deadline that are essentially meaningless on the court and the cap sheet. The Chriss trade falls in that category, as it was just a salary dump that allowed the Spurs to pocket some cash, the Warriors to save on a tax bill, and nothing more.

From a different perspective, it’s exactly the type of trade that allows for contemplation about how important luck and environment are in the careers of players. There might be a universe not too dissimilar to ours in which Chriss was the one with a good career, answering questions about his injured former college friend’s fit on a team that would waive him the very next day.

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