Donatas Motiejunas will be either a Houston Rocket or a Brooklyn Net by 11:59 p.m. tonight.
After a months-long saga, the Nets are the likely destiny for the Lithuanian 7-footer. The story of attempting to trade Motiejunas and then attempting to leverage his restricted free agency, recent back injury and a weak market into a value contract seems to signal the Rockets’ lack of interest.
The deal is a huge relief to Motiejunas, who declined a one-year offer from the Rockets to seek the more lucrative long-term deal he ultimately landed. At four years and $37 million, the deal, with several contingencies, is a fair offer for the continually developing role player in the new NBA marketplace.
Rockets fans will be sad to see the fan favorite go. Motiejunas channels memories of Hakeem Olajuwon with some of the league’s deftest post moves and was absolutely vital as a starting center in relief of Dwight Howard during Houston’s unexpected finish at the top of the Southwest Division in 2015.
Here’s why Donatas Motiejunas will likely be a Brooklyn Net at midnight.
The Rockets Want Flexibility
In the past two seasons, the Rockets have handed out new contracts to James Harden, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Corey Brewer and Patrick Beverley, not to mention their three draftees over that timeframe. The spending spree has left Houston unable to make an outright maximum offer to any pending free agents.
Despite the departure of Dwight Howard and his max contract , the Rockets now have less flexibility in their quest for the perfect superstar partner for Harden. This reality gives the Rockets even less reason to sign Motiejunas at slightly over $9 million a year knowing he’ll be coming off their bench.
Adding to the complications: the offer sheet contains a partial no-trade clause, and the late nature of the deal means the Rockets couldn’t trade their newly reacquired big man until next season.
Motiejunas’ Health Is Uncertain
Doctors have cleared Motiejunas and the Nets required a physical before offering the recent offer sheet. But the Rockets’ decision-making process appears to be have spent months hung up on the back injury that kept Donuts out of the 2015 playoffs, most of the 2016 season and torpedoed a trade to the Detroit Pistons.
The Rockets are notoriously Belichickian about player health and injuries. No potential buyer will know more about the Lithuanian’s health than Daryl Morey and the Rockets, and they spent the last six months doing almost anything but buying.
It’s entirely possible Motiejunas’ injuries are in the past, but it’s clear both the Rockets and Nets are queasy. Houston’s original offer of a two-year deal with only the first season guaranteed signaled a desire to take Motiejunas for a spin before a long-term commitment.
Likewise, the Nets’ offer sheet includes two immediate franchise-friendly rip cords to get them out of the contract in the event Motiejunas is still experiencing back problems. Per ESPN’s Calvin Watkins:
That history of back trouble, however, led the Nets to structure Motiejunas' contract with a number of protections against long-term risk. Sources say he will earn $5 million immediately just by signing the contract, but the team that has him on its roster as of Tuesday must decide by Jan. 10 whether to guarantee an additional $3.5 million for this season or let him go at that point. By March 1, sources said, Motiejunas' full $9 million option for the 2017-18 must then be picked up or declined.
Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela have their starting spots secured
Ryan Anderson has a fancy new $20 million-a-year deal, just had his best game of the season against the Golden State Warriors and is shooting 42.9% from three this year. The desired role for Motiejunas has always been ‘stretch four.’ That’s a difficult role to commit an additional $9 million a season to when there’s already $20 million annually on the books for a guy who is absolutely gunning.
Clint Capela is averaging 12 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks while GASP running the pick and roll with James Harden every time down the floor. His rolls to the basket are rim rattling and good for the third-best field goal percentage in the league.
These performances mean Motiejunas is destined for a bench role if the Rockets match the Nets offer, which gives the Rockets less reason to commit serious money to bench roles traditionally filled with the Daryl Morey carousel of draft picks and rehabilitation projects. Especially considering this year, the carousel has some apparent thoroughbreds in Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell.
Motiejunas is a legitimate NBA player who deserves an opportunity to get 30 minutes a night to prove he’s a legitimate outside shooter, second or third offensive option and a valuable rim protector.
But Daryl Morey’s Rockets have always put risk over reward. It’s extremely difficult to envision the Rockets committing nearly eight figures annually to a player they anticipate to come off the bench, when there’s a universe of rookies and international players to continue taking risks on.
At the end of the day Donatas Motiejunas should be a Houston Rocket. He put in the time, effort and energy to become the player the Rockets wanted and proved himself when we called on him during Dwight Howard’s absence in the franchise’s most successful season of the last 15 years. But all signs point to him holding a new Nets jersey tomorrow in Brooklyn (“new Nets jersey,” get it?).