Houston Rockets: The Donatas Motiejunas Conundrum


For the Houston Rockets, the Donatas Motiejunas dilemma continues to unwind. To date, Motiejunas is an unsigned restricted free agent. The seven-foot Lithuanian holds infamy as one of the longest restricted free agency runs in modern NBA history.

All of this, by the way, is for a player the Houston Rockets traded at the deadline. Ultimately, the Motiejunas issue only emphasizes one fundamental fact; the Rockets aren’t sure of their direction.

On February 22, 2016, the Houston Rockets traded the Lithuanian power forward to Detroit for a protected pick. The Pistons, in turn, voided the deal because Motiejunas failed a physical due to a back injury.

He played in 37 games last year while posting greatly diminished stats from his breakout 2015 campaign. Between 2015 and 2016 Motiejunas saw his accuracy from the field drop by 6% (8% from deep), output decrease by 6 points per game, and pull down three fewer boards per game.

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Motiejunas’s drop in production seems like a perfect gambit for Daryl Morey. Motiejunas’ decrease in value and the Rockets ownership of his rights is the perfect buy low and sell high opportunity. Motiejunas, for his part, should rightfully take the qualifying offer as insurance due to his injury. All of this makes this particular free agency questionable.

The Houston Rockets took a marked turn towards emulating the Golden State Warriors this offseason. The hiring of Mike D’Antoni to coach and the pick-up of Ryan Anderson signal as much. Roster moves this offseason clearly indicate the Rockets are downsizing and seeking mobile players. Motiejunas, for all his qualifications, brings none of that.

So why exercise the restricted free agency rights?

That is the confusing part of this equation. The Houston Rockets very visibly communicated that they felt better without Motiejunas. They traded him for a pick. They already have an upgrade at the stretch four position in Ryan Anderson. In signing Nene Hilario, retaining Michael Beasley and the development of Montrezl Harrel; Motiejunas’ utility is further diminished.

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It seems, then, that the attempt to retain Motiejunas has no real purpose. His utility is essentially duplicated or triplicated by players that add better rebounding and athleticism to the team. These players, by in large, are all healthier as well.

Motiejunas arguably provides depth to a team that intends to play D’Antoni’s high-paced game. The plan may very well be to use Motiejunas in the same mold as a Channing Frye in Phoenix.

Unfortunately, Motiejunas is more Mehmet Okur than Channing Frye. The concerning part of all of this is why exercise these rights for such a questionable fit?

Morey spent the offseason surrounding James Harden with more reliable shooters. He had the stark task of moving on from the Kevin McHale era. Part of that agenda necessarily includes clearing out the player he tried to move.

D’Antoni’s hire placed emphasis on the need for “run and gun” style players and mobile big men. The change in basketball philosophy for the Houston Rockets makes height mean less, so retaining a seven-foot floor spacer is a hindrance, especially given Motiejunas’ relative lack of athleticism.

At the end of the day, the Motiejunas’ conundrum is a confusing one. He’s a less mobile stretch four who doesn’t rebound or block. Donatas is a player who was openly shown the door who was begrudgingly got shipped back.

He’s a player that excels next to defensive centers but won’t see a great deal of playing time next to one. Morey’s decision to exercise the team’s restricted free agent rights seems not to help the team or the player.

If there is no fit for Motiejunas and clearly no desire for him, why go through all of this?