Here's why the Donatas Motiejunas trade works for Houston Rockets
Perhaps if Motiejunas was not a free agent, then Houston might have been better off letting Motiejunas heal and then evaluating if he could.
The trade deadline was a disappointment for Houston Rockets fans. Rockets fans were prepared to see Dwight Howard or Ty Lawson depart and for Daryl Morey to begin tearing down a team which reached the Western Conference Finals last season.
But absolutely no one thought that Morey would trade Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton to the Detroit Pistons for a first rounder. Thornton had his moments as a Rocket, but Motiejunas is the player who fans and players are sad to see leave. Rookie Sam Dekker expressed his sorrow on Twitter.
But while Motiejunas was a fan favorite, Rockets fans need to step away from the ledge and analyze this trade. Because as great as Motiejunas was, trading him was the right thing to do.
The back injury
The first problem with Motiejunas going forward is the back injury which has kept him almost continuously sidelined for the past 10 months. Motejunas first had back surgery in April and was expected to be ready for the start of the 2015-16 season.
But he was not ready. Motiejunas missed over a month and finally joined the Rockets in early December. And even then, he was not himself. In his breakout 2014-15 season, Motiejunas averaged 12 points per game. In the 14 games he played until he was sidelined with more back pain, he scored 12 points or more just once. While Motiejunas did play a short stint in the NBA D-League in late January, it was clear that this back injury would keep him sidelined for a long time.
Upcoming free agency
Perhaps if Motiejunas was not a free agent, then Houston might have been better off letting Motiejunas heal and then evaluating if he could stay healthy.
But Motiejunas is an upcoming free agent this offseason. Some Rockets fans have suggested that Motiejunas’s injury would allow the Rockets to offer him less. However, this free agent market is going to have a lot of teams with cap space and not that many marquee free agents. All it takes is one stupid, desperate team to convince themselves that Motiejunas can be a franchise piece and throw him a huge contract.
Motiejunas was a very good player when healthy, but he was never the star like Rockets fans view him as. He finished the 2014-15 season with a below-average PER of 14.4. While his array of post moves and countermoves are a dazzle to watch, two points are two points. And at 25 years old with years of basketball experience in Lithuania, it is doubtful that Motiejunas would improve much more from his current level, especially as he will have to work to stay healthy.
All of these are reasons why it’s a good bet Houston might have to let Motiejunas go if a team like Detroit threw a big contract at him during the offseason. And since this season is lost anyways, perhaps it is better for the Rockets to get something for Motiejunas now as opposed to giving him up for nothing in July.
Power forward of the future
But what this trade also means is that the Rockets are placing increased confidence in their other two power forwards – especially rookie Montrezl Harrell. Rockets coach J.B. Bickerstaff noted after the trade that there was an opportunity for Harrell and guard K.J. McDaniels to seize playing time, and Harrell has done nothing but shown he deserves to play over this season.
So while the loss of Motiejunas is saddening, it may be the right move to do given his back injury and upcoming free agency. But it will only be so if Harrell and fellow power forward Terrence Jones show the team that they can be Houston’s power forward of the future.