Within the next month or so, Daryl Morey will have a decision to make. Both Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas, two cornerstones to the Rockets' 2014 regular season success, are eligible to have their contracts extended. There are many options for Dork Elvis, but this sticky situation must be handled with care.
Economically speaking, the Rockets, along with nearly every other NBA team, will have tons of cap room next summer. The cap will jump from $70 million this year to a projected $89 million in the 2016 summer. After this season (excluding Motiejunas and Jones) Houston will have about a $70 million payroll, which is subject to change depending on how Ty Lawson behaves.
Festus Ezeli, the 25 year old center for the Golden State Warriors, is in a comparable situation contractually as Jones and Motiejunas. Ezeli, who averaged just 4.4 points and 3.4 rebounds last season, is rumored to sign a 4 year, $40 million contract extension with Golden State.
Considering that $10 million per year baseline, which is probably on the higher side, the market for backup big men is much more competitive than previously thought. Jones and Motiejunas are much better players than Ezeli, but if either has a breakout year in Houston, teams around the league could be willing to offer max money, which the Rockets won't be able to compete with.
Nothing is out of the question, but I bet Jones and Motiejunas would be looking for around $15 million per year in a contract extension. If the Rockets want to secure either player down the line, an extension is the right idea, but Morey will likely have to choose one.
Donatas Motiejunas vs. Terrence Jones
In today's league, if you're going to play a 6'9 or below power forward, he must have the ability to shoot from the perimeter. The Dejuan Blair, Brandon Bass-types are becoming extinct and if Terrence Jones can't extend his range out to the arc, he could fall into that tweener species for the duration of his career.
That would be the case for letting Jones, the 6'9 power forward out of Kentucky, test the free agent waters at the end of this season.
Regardless of the negatives, the 23 year old is a highly productive player, as he uses his athleticism to make up for lack of height at his position. He is undoubtedly a stronger player than Motiejunas, whose unfortunate inability to grab rebounds or play anything close to defense despite having excellent size has plagued the early stages of his career.
Motiejunas, the 24 year old from Lithuania, could play a crucial role in the future stages of the Rockets franchise. If Clint Capela and Montrezl Harrell fail to develop, which is very possible, Donuts' size and offensive arsenal could prove to be essential for the team. If D-Mo improves defensively (he can only go up from here), he could serve as a transition plan as Dwight Howard becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2017 (or, probably earlier, since he can opt-out after this year).*
*Howard will likely search for maximum money and if he stays healthy, will most definitely get it. Under the new TV deal, which I mentioned earlier, free agency will be an absolute bloodbath. Keeping Howard will be ideal, but it could be a challenge in an über-competitive market.
Last season, there were only nine games where Dwight Howard, Donatas Motiejunas, and Terrence Jones all stepped on the court. They will surely gain more continuity together this season, but parting ways with one of Jones or Motiejunas would not require any on-court adjustments.
Terrence Jones is currently a better player, but Donatas Motiejunas has a higher ceiling and a more defined role with the Rockets. Could Morey consider selling high on Jones by putting him on the trading block?
So what are the options?
1) Extend one, trade the other
This is the most fiscally aggressive strategy, but it could hurt the Rockets this season. By trading one of the players, presumably for future picks or a young point guard to be named later, the Rockets lose some of their depth. Getting some value for a player that is eventually going to leave for nothing is a big part of this strategy and locking up either D-Mo or Jones earlier rather than later is the way to go. Personally, I would trade Terrence Jones, who probably has more value and sign Motiejunas, who has more potential.
2) Let each of them test free agency
In this scenario, Daryl Morey would watch this season extra closely to decide which one he wants to retain. With more information to make his decision, he will be more comfortable offering either Motiejunas or Jones a huge contract. This plan is also optimal because he can see if the young guys (Dekker and Harrell) can play real NBA minutes in the frontcourt. The downside is the Rockets will lose either Jones or Motiejunas without any return.
3) Trade both of them (Caution: Super Risky)
In by far the riskiest plan, Morey would place all his trust in Clint Capela and Montrezl Harrell as the backup centers. I'm just spitballing here, but the Rockets could trade both Motiejunas and Jones to Pheonix for Markieff Morris, who wants to play in Houston, and some future draft picks. The Rockets would gain Morris, a rising young power forward who just signed a fair contract extension.
Morris is just as good if not better than Jones on a more reasonable, long-term deal. Morris does have some off the court issues that raise a red flag, and adding him to a locker room with Ty Lawson could turn the Rockets into a team of goons. This by far is the most far-fetched plan, fan-generated plan out of the three. Keep in mind I do not run the team and this idea is based off rumors and personal speculation.